The Product Manager Contribution
Recently I was asked by a very smart CTO: “I understand the need for a great product designer, but if we have a strong designer, and that person is paired with a strong technology lead, do we really still need a product manager?”
For many teams, the contribution of the product manager is not at all clear. Either because they simply don’t see the contribution because it’s not happening, or because they don’t understand the significance of what is being done.
In this article I’d like to spell out very clearly what the product manager needs to contribute if they are to carry their weight on a product team.
But first I need to provide a few caveats:
First, this entire discussion assumes an empowered product team. If we’re talking a feature team, the role is very different and is essentially a project management role. So this article is talking about the contribution of the product manager on an empowered product team.
Second, It is absolutely possible that the technology lead or the product designer is sometimes capable of covering the role of the product manager as well, and there are some real advantages to this, but most people, once they understand what’s really required, usually back off of trying to cover two roles themselves because of the volume of work.
Third, in an early stage startup, the product manager role is most appropriately played by the CEO or one of the founders.
Finally, just to be very clear, an empowered product team is a flat structure, and this means the product manager is not the boss of anyone. Each person on the team usually reports to a functional manager there to help them get better at their job – engineering, design, or product management. But despite the unfortunate word “manager” in the title, the product manager is an individual contributor.
That said, most teams know and acknowledge that the product manager is the product owner (another very unfortunate choice of word) in the Agile sense, and as such, the main deliverable they are responsible for is the backlog (what the team will build). However, to some the backlog may appear as a simple list of user stories. It can look like just a few minutes work, where the hard part is determining what to build.
Sadly, in many teams, they are right. The backlog is generated by someone that is ill-equipped to succeed. The result is that it doesn’t matter if there is a strong product designer or strong engineers if the work on the backlog is not what’s necessary to succeed.
So how is it that the product manager can make the many choices necessary to come up with a product worth building?
First, remember the four big risks in product, and that the product manager is explicitly responsible for ensuring both value and viability.
In order to solve for value and viability, the competent product manager must skilled in the following four critical areas:
1. Deep Knowledge of the Users and Customers
The foundation of product is deep knowledge of the actual users and customers – qualitative and quantitative knowledge. The product manager needs to be the acknowledged expert on the customer. This is what informs the many decisions that must be made. Without this deep customer knowledge, the product manager is just guessing. This means both quantitative learning (to understand what they are actually doing), and qualitative learning (to understand why our users and customers behave the way they do).
2. Deep Knowledge of the Data
The product manager needs to be expert on how the product is being used (from the user analytics tools), and also sales (from the sales analytics tools), and how this is changing over time (typically from the data warehousing tools). The product manager may have a data analyst or data scientist to assist, but this knowledge is not something that can be delegated.
3. Deep Knowledge of the Business
The third critical contribution is a deep understanding of your business. This means understanding your go-to-market strategy, the needs of your various stakeholders (how your business works); your business model (how you make money); the dynamics of the ecosystem you operate in; and certainly the economics of your product. This includes how the product is marketed, how it is sold, how it generates revenue, what are the various costs, the privacy and security considerations, and ethical considerations.
4. Deep Knowledge of the Industry
The fourth critical contribution is deep knowledge of the industry you are competing in. This not only includes competitors, but also key trends in terms of technology, customer behaviors and expectations. Your industry is constantly moving, and we must create products for where the market will be tomorrow, not where it used to be yesterday.
These are the four critical contributions that you absolutely need to bring to the team. This knowledge won’t come from the product designer, and it won’t come from the engineers, but the designer and engineers need this knowledge represented on the team if they are to make intelligent and informed decisions.
If you are a designer or a technology lead, and you’ve been asked to cover the product manager role as well, then this is what you would be signing up for.
One final note. In certain companies, there is so much in terms of domain knowledge, the product manager may be supplemented with what are called “domain experts” or “subject matter experts.” Examples of this would be companies building tax software, or creating things like medical devices. In these cases, you can’t expect the product managers to have the necessary level of depth in the domain in addition to everything else. But these cases are fairly rare. The normal case is that the product manager needs to have the necessary domain expertise.