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What is Product Management
Episode 220th July 2022 • Trying to Product • Parv Sondhi and Alex Cox
00:00:00 00:28:29

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What is Product Management

Depending on who you ask, a product manager is either a wonderfully fuzzy job title that means many things to many people. No one can seem to agree on what product management is (or should be) and if you're just starting out in your career, take our advice: defining product management might be a frustrating exercise, but perhaps it is best to accept that the term is ambiguous by design. 

In this episode, Alex and Parv will jump into what product management is. Tune in and learn more!

Key Highlights

 [00:52] Misnomers used for Product Management

 [01:22] The CEO of a product

 [05:20] The Venn diagram’s semi-accurate Description of Product Management

[12:01] Product managers—are they similar to project managers? 

 [14:42] how does Alex define a product manager? 

[21:58] how are product managers' daily tasks so varied?

[22:44] how product managers break walls and barriers for their teams/Unblocking

[23:27] PM as a champion of the team

[26:40] Three main lines that encompass what a product manager does

Notable Quotes

  • “As a product manager, one of the most valuable skills you gain is the ability to lead and influence. But the one thing you also have to make sure as a product manager is that you are leading and influencing, but you don't hold any real authority.” [02:38]
  • “So you don't sit at the center. But I feel like you kind of hover and browse through those circles simultaneously, depending on the time of the day and the meeting and the context and what you need to be thinking about.” [07:13]
  • “One of the biggest misnomers is that product managers are like project managers.” [12:01]
  • “The smaller the company, the more hats the pm wears, and then it doesn't really stop it product or project or marketing or design, it just you do everything as needed to be done. But as you get bigger, you have more teams that you can help leverage.”[13:04]
  • “PMs are often kind of jack of all trades are genuinely curious people who always are interested in learning.” [13:46]
  • “PM is one who takes the blame but passes on the praise.” [25:04]


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product, product manager, pm, team, ceo, user, b2c, pms, marketing, management, design, big, necessarily, trades, line, sales, circles, definition, champion, working


Okay, so today I'm trying to product we're gonna jump into what is product management, probably one of the most ambiguous, but also most asked questions about product management and to any product manager. That is very true. By the way,


that is so true. As


soon as we tell people what we do. First question is, what is that? For the most part outside of the Bay Area, at least? So yeah, why don't we hop into some of the misnomers? So I think the typical answer to what is product management, it's probably the two initial ones that come to mind. First is you're the CEO of a product. So that one is probably the one that I hear the most, and kind of captured my attention with product management and kind of captures the imagination makes it seem like a really great kind of position to be in something that you're in charge, but you don't have all the stress necessarily, but Parv, what do you think of that kind of statement as a good descriptor or bad descriptor or just any type of descriptor?


Honestly, the first time I heard that, CEO of a product, and I was in a product management position, I was pretty happy. I was like, that's pretty cool. I am the CEO of a product, I felt nice, kind of validated by that statement, weirdly. But the more I sort of dug deep into it, I started to realize like CEO of a product. I don't kind of agree with that. I don't think I'm a huge proponent of that statement. They are two different functions, don't you think? So? Product Management CEO, kind of similar, but still pretty different? Oh, yeah,


I think it's a really good marketing phrase, it is a fair like product school, and all these different

organizations that are trying to teach product. But yeah, it's completely different. I think product manager is taking orders from the CEO, the product that you're making, as a product manager is not the product that you necessarily want to be making. It's a product that the probably the CEO tells you to make. And now you're working on and trying to figure it out.


Or even sometimes it's a product, that's a function of the environment, the context, the technology, all of that, not necessarily something that you want to do, maybe not necessarily something the CEO also wants to do, but it is something that you're doing as part of a necessity. And as a product manager, one of the most valuable skills that you do gain is the ability to lead and influence, right. But the one thing you also have to make sure as a product manager is that you are leading and influencing, but you don't hold any real authority. And I think that's where it gets quite different from a CEO.


Oh, yeah, yeah, for sure. I think the CEO is essentially walking around with an X in his hand and invisible X whenever you ask someone. But as a product manager, you're just asking politely and trying to convince your engineers and design team, that what they're working on is really important, and that they should be working a little bit harder, so we can meet the deadlines.


That is so true. For me, you know, CEOs have the ultimate authority. It's not the same at product management, you do have some levers that you can pull, but it's always in service of a direction or offer decision. Whereas CEOs, as you said before, they can come in with that invisible axe of theirs and just chop off anything if needed. That just makes me hearing that CEO of a product thrown around so often in the community. It just always now, kind of weirds me out because it is so easy to get mesmerized by that statement. And then anyone who has just joined product management can easily just conflate that with being a CEO, and just throw that statement around somewhere saying like, Yeah, I'm just a CEO of a product, or I'm a CEO of the future. I am a CEO of this vertical. But that is not always the case. Or Product Manager usually is working to unite teams on the same goals. They're bringing the vision, they are bringing the VI to the ward, but actually they aren't someone who can tell the team what to do. Calling a pm as a CEO is kind of misleading in that case.


And I think also like CEOs are most people think that the CEO doesn't really have to answer to anybody, maybe investors, depending on the CEO, but as a product manager, you're always answering to the CEO, any major decision on your product is going to have to be decided by your superiors, whether it's CEO or someone, some middle manager, but yeah, you're not necessarily going to be the one making the big decisions on a product, especially if anything has to change on the scope. That's pretty drastic. That's gonna be made by someone above you.


Yeah, that's, I mean, you do have influence and you do have oversight. And you do have some of the power to make decisions here and there. And of course, you are the one who's driving the product, right. So it is important, but calling us or product managers, a CEO, that insinuates a level of authority, which I don't think PMS have. What about the second one? I don't know if you've seen this, Alex, but I see this across almost every blog post that starts with what does a product manager do? And the first thing you see is this three circles of Venn diagram and at the intersection of these three sort of spaces, you have this The center that It says Product Management. And three dots are usually business design and engineering. Or sometimes you would see business design and technology and the person who sits at the center, boom, that's a PM. Have you seen that one?


Oh, yeah, always see it, when you Google it, or somebody talks that was lead with that kind of Venn or tried diagram. I don't know, I think it simplifies things quite a bit. I think, as a PM, you're typically working with design and engineering, and then you kind of represent business to a large degree. But there's also so many other circles, you could add in there. There's like the marketing team, there's a legal team, there's so many other teams that you have to work with, I think on any product. So you're not really at the intersection, you're kind of just the almost a liaison between the design engineering who are really implementing the product. And then you're like the liaison with the rest of the company trying to have like a broader picture, kind of get above the canopy, if you will, to take a look around and make sure that what you're doing is still relevant, and that what you're implementing is going to be helpful to other teams and other folks around. So really simplification


actually a really good way to put it, I think the word liaison that is a fantastic term here for a PM. And even in certain situations, you would be representing one of those circles at times, right? For example, you're in a meeting with business and technology, then you aren't a PM. But sometimes at that point, you do represent design, like advocate for design advocate for user research at some point, and then, example, you're sitting in a meeting with design and business, then at that point, you have to sort of act as a representative of technology. What is possible, what's not possible? Is there something that we can do, we can't do based on our technical stack, things like that. So you don't sit at the center. But I feel like you kind of hover and browse through those circles simultaneously, depending on the time of the day and the meeting and the context and what you need to be thinking about.


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, hovering, I think is the right term. Because you don't want to bring all your engineers, your designers off of actually doing stuff and bring them into all these meetings that PMS have to do. But being able to talk to what they're working on. And some of

the challenges that they're facing, and communicating that upwards and outwards is a critical job of the PM.


That is so true. This one is it is a good definition. In some sense. I do think it is semi accurate in a way that it does talk about big facets of product managers day to day job. But as we spoke, I do think that it's still lacking the granularity that each of these circles could represent. And as you said before, right, like, there's marketing, sales, legal compliance. Within design, there's research, there's interface, aesthetics, there is creative services, all of that. And then technology, you have back end front end data. Like there's so many different things that this just kind of abstracts all of that out. So sometimes I feel like it might be lacking a little bit detail. But one of the good definitions out there, I do still think so. Yeah,


I think it definitely simplifies. But I guess, when you're trying to market, the role of a product manager, you're gonna get to simplify a little bit, because we showed like 12 different circles and they just get a little bit scared. Yeah, that's true.


It is. Semi accurate description, I guess, is a good word, but definitely not. Fairly holistic definition of PM.


Yeah, I think for sure, especially because like sales and marketing are super critical to any product, just about any company. And not including that is, I guess, businesses kind of a broad term doesn't necessarily mean anything. But sales and marketing are super specific. And every single product, and every single product manager, unless you're working on internal tools is going to be working on some aspect of that, how to actually get this product into the hands of the users.


That's what to me, I think, even depending on the organizational structure, you could be representing or hovering between certain circles versus other ones, sales and marketing in some organizations. It's not under any purview of a product manager, you don't have to think about it at all. That's also possibility. Whereas sometimes at a startup, like that's one of your biggest things as well, because I remember Alex, even when you were at one of your previous startups, weren't you also the lead person on sales and marketing? Like, even you were a product manager, but that's almost everything that you are also doing, right?


Yeah. So I was in charge of product design and marketing at that role, a relatively small company, I think it was like, well over 13 people at its peak, and then we had like 15 freelancers. But yeah, I think one of the biggest things I learned in that case, especially because it's a b2c company, was that every single product we made had to have some marketing component. So when we shipped out a physical product, because there's a air quality and air purification, when we ship out that box, that box needs to have a little flyer that says, oh, you should try your other products, or Oh, rate us on Amazon. And then like when we ship a little app, the app should have even if it's a little web app, just as like a lead generator, it should have Google Analytics at the very bare minimum. If not more advanced analytics built into it, so that you're always able to feed back into that system, you're able to gather emails for the newsletter, because I think that was one of the nice things about b2c And just realizing that every single time you even touch a customer, even customer support, any product you build for that team who's touching a customer needs to have some type of marketing component built in. So for customer support, they're also letting people know about new products that are coming out. So like, Thank you for your time, let us know if there's anything else we can help with. Also, don't forget to check out our Kickstarter, don't forget to check out this new app that we put out, like there's always some way to push the sales and marketing angle, which I think is really interesting from a product standpoint, because you're building a product for a customer, but you have to get the product into the customers hands and having referrals and building out all these features with marketing and sales in mind is super critical. And I think something that a lot of b2c PMS don't necessarily think about.


Yeah. And in all that work that you were doing around sales and marketing, just putting it out there, your title was still Product Manager yet, I don't think any of those things that you mentioned, clearly fit within a product managers general description, but it's, again, depending on the organization, and in a startup, you are doing a lot of those things. And so when you think about that intersection of business design and technology, as we said, like even though it is kind of semi accurate, it is still so lacking in the breadth and scope of things that you could be doing as a PM. And I think your example is such a big testament to that.


Yeah, I think one of the biggest misnomers is that product managers are like project managers. But at least in my experience, it's only a big company is that you have a project manager and a product manager. Again, a start up a product manager is the project manager for the most part, just because you're managing the Monday board, or you're writing all the user stories, and those user stories, and you have to track it, make sure they get done. So you ended up being a project manager to which is actually


a great thing that you bring up. And I think we should talk about this in one or two episodes, as well as I think a lot of people, and this was me as well. For the longest time I kept mixing up project management with product management. I wasn't sure what the delineation is between

the duties and the skill sets and some of the responsibilities, but they are different. And depending on where you are, sometimes you have to be doing both. I feel like ideally a pm wouldn't want to be doing all of that. But I think depending on the role and the context, sometimes it is part of your roles and responsibilities. So I think we should definitely jump into that one sometime in the near future and sort of demystify that space as well.


Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think the smaller the company, the more hats the pm wears, and then it doesn't really stop it product or project or marketing or design, it just you do everything as needed to be done. But as you get bigger, you have more teams that you can help leverage


that is a quotable line, right, the smaller the company, the more hats a pm wears, I really liked that one. Alex, I'm gonna steal that and just kind of put it up somewhere on my board in front of me.


Okay. I guess I kind of see the at least more companies, I see the PM, almost as like a swing player, because you have the broader viewpoint. So like when shit hits the fan, then I the Pm is the one who's helping with the designs, doing the marketing, finding the ads, learning as much as they can, because I feel like PMS are often kind of jack of all trades are genuinely curious people who always are interested in learning. And so being able to hop in and watch some YouTube videos and become like entry level at almost any job, and then help dive in, I think is something that I see a lot in product management that I don't necessarily see in any other role like your developers, typically, your developer or your designers, maybe going to branch out in other areas of design, but it's still mostly going to be designed product tends to be the one that just kind of ends up being a swing player and helping fill in any gaps, especially when projects are on fire.


That's a great point jack of all trades, master of none. I'm good at nothing, but I'm decent at a lot of different things. Or I would say great at nothing but decent at a lot of different things. Do you have a definition that you sort of stick to when someone asks you like, Hey, Alex, what is a product manager or like, what do you do as a person in product management? Do you have a definition? Or do you have a line that you go to?


Yeah, I like champion of the user. And I think that's one of those kind of marketing ones that people use a lot. But I'm mostly focused on b2c, and the b2c case, any product I'm making is going to be put in the hands of a user than being the champion of the user kind of works.

Essentially, I'm talking to customers, I'm doing a ton of research on the market, I essentially have like maybe a higher level view than the rest of the team on the users. Because I'm looking at I'm getting more data, I'm getting customer support information. I'm actually sitting on the usability tests, when they let me or I'm watching the recordings. So I'm always consuming user information that the rest of the team isn't necessarily seeing. So I'm able to then convey that to the rest of the team and also give additional reasoning for why we're implementing specific features the way that we're implementing them. So that's my favorite definition.


That's a really good one because The term user I think that's really key here. And I know you said that you'd like to say this in the context of b2c. But I think this is something that actually translates well, even in a b2b context, even if you're a product manager on an internal team, even with a technical product that's not serving an end user. But still, I think this could be a really good way of putting that because let's look at an example where I'm building a pipeline or a dashboard for someone internally, to be able to get them to do their duty much quicker, then in that case, that's the user for me as a PM, the internal team, which, again, me being the champion of their requirements and their needs, internally can be a great thing. So I think this definition actually really helps and works across not just b2c, but other scopes as well.


Yeah, I think also, you kind of can assign it to anything, even on the b2b like sitting in on customer calls. And working with the sales team and the sales ops team to actually see what it's like to close a lead to actually sell the software and what could be useful. That's all part of being a PM, your whole goal is to make a product that's genuinely useful to the user. Regardless of what the user says, a lot of times users will tell you what they want, but be able to watch them use the software, sit on the call, see what raises their eyebrows when they hear about a specific feature, and then how you can make that feature more robust. I think all of this is stuff that a lot of the team members aren't necessarily doing. I think design is often focusing on the usability of the software, but not necessarily at the product level. And on the product level, you actually like talking to users is super critical. Like at the startup I worked at, actually I had a bunch of the users just message me on Facebook Messenger, because I was always answering support queries on Messenger, and then I was answered with my personal account. So then they would start reaching out to me with any questions. And then anytime we were doing new products, I just asked them, so then I have a direct pipeline to like 10 different users who are typically pretty vocal, also answering customer support, I think at small companies, I have answered a few 100 Customer Support emails over the years, just because it's a really good way to see what the problems are, especially when it's related to your area and get additional ideas,


I'm trying to think of a good answer to the definition of Product Management. And I think there is for me, it's been so hard to define that, which is funny because I am a product manager. And I should be able to define this very clearly. But I just get so lost in trying to find a one liner or a definition of what a pm is or who a pm is, and what product management is, for me, it gets

really tough. I really do like the LINE jack of all trades, even though it's not technical in nature, and it can be applied to almost anything, anyone and anywhere, but it kind of really hits close to what you're doing as a PM. And then I think what I would do is that I would say Jack of all trades, and then the trades can be defined based on the organization. And that's how kind of I think a product manager needs to function. So if I am at a startup, like you were, and I would say a pm is the one who is a jack of all trades, and is doing almost everything that needs to be done to make sure that the product is getting built and moving forward. Then in your case, it's taking customer rep calls, it's sitting in on sales chats, it's having users message you on Facebook, taking that feedback, it's working with engineers to figure out how to get stuff build, helping out with design, if needed at certain points of time. But if you scale that up to a bigger organization, then you take away some of those traits, but you keep others like figuring out what the user needs sitting in on usability studies, setting the roadmap for your q3 q4 q one strategies, and things like that. So I feel like the day to day tasks can differ based on organization. But as a PM, you have to be someone who is agile enough to pick up all those different tasks here and there. And make sure that the product is moving forward. And it's getting built the way it needs to be built for the user. So it's kind I'm going to steal the champion of the user part from you, I kind of really like that line. So I'm going to steal that and kind of add in jack of all trades, so that I can mix it up and hopefully find a good definition. I don't know if you have a good one that combines both of those jack of all trades champion. Yeah. But no,


I think the jack of all trades is such a critical thing. Depending on what you're doing. Like every job is so different. Every role is so different, because you have all these different trades. It's like you're saying, so I think that's a really good point. Especially because even on a recent project, so I like took programming in high school. I was never very good at programming. I did it enough that I could lead programmers, that was always my goal with programming. So then it's like, I don't know why but it always happens that something goes really wrong on a project and then I have to start looking at the code and start trying to copy paste from Stack Overflow to get something work. That's a you know, that's really bad. But I had to do that on a project and like, but yeah, essentially, it comes up fairly often where you have to be a jack of all trades. You don't have to necessarily be good but you have to be good enough that you can actually get it done so that you can take the work load off your programmers associate they're working on higher priority things. And that happens at least once a year. And my experience?


No, that's a great point. I remember this from my internship, I was working on a very small feature, of course, you know, as an intern, we didn't have a huge scope. But I was working with the design and engineering team and sort of shipping out a quick small feature on Android. And I think the designer was overloaded with a bunch of different tasks for a lot of different projects. And I was like, Hey, do you mind if I can just step into sketch and help you out and sort of pick up any of the tasks that are left? And that was such a good way for me to get my hands dirty into design, picked up very, very menial tasks on sketch just cleaned up some marks here and there and showed that a designer and like, hey, is this looking okay, do you think I can ship this to the engineering team? And can they use this and she was fine with it. And I think that also speaks to what we've been talking about is you have to be willing to get

your hands dirty, sometimes, again, depending on the organization and the way it functions. But it is possible. And as you said, smaller the company, the more hats you have to put on. I fortunately, given the lack of design skills there have had to do not too much. But you know, sometimes, you might just have to jump in and do a lot more.


Yeah, it's not just design or engineering, like there's so many different aspects that you have to have some kind of context for, it's always just a matter of learning and trying to help


the day to day tasks. They are so varied. I mean, you know, it's like tactical or strategic, anything, not just design and engineer, you're so right, I think we should definitely pick that up. It's not just those three big circles that we call out. It could be even small things as if you do have a project manager helping them out and sort of cleaning up the JIRA board, making sure everything is prioritized and laid out in the right manner for the teams to pick up in terms of their sprints, working with the strategy team to figure out what could be a good way of identifying possible revenue growth, and estimates for potential profit with respect to a future rollout. Again, those things that aren't necessarily a job of a product manager, but they are things that you might have to dip your toes in sometimes to get the stuff done.


Yeah, I think one of the biggest things is just breaking down walls and barriers for your team. If that's like, you have to figure out how to estimate how many products to buy, so that the team in China is manufacturing notice some money to purchase for q4, because you're also in charge of marketing. And so you're also trying to do forecasting, and you've never done it before. But you can look at some articles and figure it out. Like there's just so many instances where you have to just learn something and Google something quickly, to help out the team to move something forward to unblock them. And normally, the unblocking is just like, it's sometimes as easy as talking to someone. And sometimes it's complicated as trying to hire a consultant to help unblock the team.


Yeah, I'm going to throw out another line that I'm going to, again, borrow some from your definition. But I think a pm is also in some ways champion of the team. Given what we're talking about right now, not only the user, but you're the one who is making sure that the team is running smoothly, setting the goal, the vision sometimes to make sure that you can unite the team and get stuff done. And as he said, I think unblocking is such a big part of being a product manager is how do I get the team where they need to get to like how can I ask can not input set, bring the donuts every morning for the team? I think that's such a good line. When I remember reading that and I was like, it sounds so funny. And juvenile or the Pm is the one

who brings the doughnuts, but it has such more depth and meaning to it. And I think it's very similar to saying like, you're not just the champion of the user, but you're the champion of the team as well.


Yeah, that's such a good point. Because like, you're essentially trying to take care of the team. Because if the team starts losing morale, or they've been stuck on something for a long time, if anything goes wrong, it's it's on you as the PM. And so you have to keep the team's morale up, you got to make sure that everyone's happy. You have to kind of be the HR person to solve any team conflicts so that everyone can keep moving forward effectively. There's this movie called Oblivion that I really like the supervisors always asking if they're an effective team. I always think about that. Whenever I see like some conflicts in my team, like, are we an effective team? Are we still able to like complete this project? So champion, the team is so spot on, because the team is everything. If the team falters at all, the project the product might not ever see the light of day. So yeah, it's super critical.


And this reminds me of another line that I heard a while back in association to a product manager was a good Pm is one who takes the blame, but passes on the praise. And that is so true. The success of the product that is always on the team. I think design engineering business, all stakeholders the entire team. I think they are mostly responsible for the success. But if there is something that is failing, PMS are usually the one who you could blame for a lot of that So that's a line that I keep close to my heart when I think about my day to day is enable the team to make sure that they can do the best job that they're doing.


Yeah, it's so true that if anything goes wrong, no matter whose fault it is, it's the pm fault. Yeah,


so if anyone listening wants to be a PM, just get ready to get blamed all the time. Everybody knows that it's the PMs fault.


So as soon as something looks like it's not working, everyone kind of looks at you. It's not like a joke. We were joking about it. But it's pretty serious. Because I've had a couple of projects fail. And yeah, everyone blames you. So you have to go apologize for the team.



I do have to say the team is always very supportive. I mean, it's not the blame whenever it comes, I think it's our job to make sure that we can identify the reasoning behind the failure. And I think that's where the main skill set of a pm comes in is, okay, something's failed. How do we pick that up? How do we investigate? And who do we coordinate with to make sure that we can understand the failure?


Yeah, but all those discussions are with upper management behind closed doors, not with the team by?


No, but I mean, given what we've talked about, I really do think we have three main lines that I think can really encompass what a product manager does. And what is product management, I think, a we have a champion of the user B, which is jack of all trades, and I think C which is champion of the team. I know, do you think there's anything missing? I think those are good three bullets for what is product management?


Yeah, no, I agree. I really like championing the team. I think that is such a critical part that is often overlooked. He just had to get rid of the leader. I guess that's kind of what maybe where the CEO part comes from, but you really are making sure that everyone on your team is doing well is able to do their job and unblocking everything, handling any HR issues. All that is on the PM. So the team is absolutely critical and making sure that they're functioning. And in fact, your team is Yeah, really good point.


Awesome. I think we talked a lot about what is product management and who is a product manager. Hopefully everyone got a good sense of the type of stuff that you're doing as a pm and sort of your day to day. But of course, we've just scratched the surface here with what is the role of a pm and in different teams in different organizations. Depending on what type of product you're working on. You could be a different PM, you would need to bring on different skill sets. And I think those are things that we would love to bring to everyone in future conversations as well.


Yeah, I think it's also one of the things that were just talking just as to on our experience, but I think if you talk to more PMS, you also get a lot of different varied kind of takes on it. It's one of those things that's not really universal, but is so flexible, depending on your role, and experience. That is so true. Awesome. Good talk. Thanks,


Alex. Till next time, yeah, till next time.