Can technical product managers become technical managers?
The product manager: tasks, requirements and challenges
What does a product manager actually do and what requirements does he have to meet?
Even after more than 20 years in product management, I still find these questions exciting. The answer to this is not easy, and it is unlikely that it will ever be conclusive.
In a survey, 35% of the product managers surveyed said that they do not clearly understand their own role in the company.
Isn't that terrifying?
In short, the job of the product manager is: "Develop successful products”.
However, this statement does not begin to describe the range of tasks and daily challenges.
The job of the product manager is so varied and it is laid out differently in every industry and every company.
It has to do with all areas of a company, as you can see on this graphic:
That is exactly what makes the job so interesting!
In this article I will explain to you what the tasks of the product manager are and what requirements are placed on him.
I will also tell you what the biggest challenges of the job are. Spoiler alert: It has to do with your soft skills!
By the way, if you want a nice graphical overview of all activities of a product manager, download the nachtrab.io Product Management Map for free.
Now let's get into the topic:
I'll start with the tasks, but you can also jump straight to the requirements.
Where do product managers work?
Every company that develops and sells or trades products employs product managers: from fashion labels to computer companies, from banks to automotive groups.
Since the 1990s, the job of product manager has grown in importance. There are still companies that do not recognize its value - I do not predict it will have a particularly successful future.
Having a background as a product manager for IT products, I mainly refer to companies that manufacture technical products.
These include, for example:
- IT and telecommunications
- Mechanical and plant engineering
- Electrical engineering
Apart from the product-specific knowledge, you can apply my explanations to product managers in all industries.
In some companies, product management is part of marketing. In e-commerce and software companies, it is (unfortunately) often found in the area of technology and development.
Specialist departments, for example sales, have their own, rather short-term goals, while the product manager has to think long-term and pursue his overarching product strategy.
Ideally, product management is therefore located in a separate area and the head of product management reports directly to the management or even part of the management.
The role of the product manager
As a product manager, you are responsible for a product or an entire range, from A to Z, from the idea to the sale of the finished product.
Is this realistic?
Of course, you cannot take care of everything on your own.
Therefore, your main task is to work out a strategy for your products and to coordinate all the departments involved so that your idea becomes a success.
Which areas of responsibility do they include?
- Market and competition analysis
- Marketing and Product Strategy
- Development / production
- Project management and project planning
- Communication and advertising
- Sales and customer service
- finances and controlling
This long list of tasks makes it clear how large the area of responsibility of the product manager is.
Let's go into a bit of detail and see what the product manager does specifically:
Market and competition analysis
The product manager has to continuously develop new product ideas and innovations. To do this, he has to find out which hitherto unsolved problems and unmet needs his target groups have in order to offer suitable solutions.
He continuously analyzes the market, observes trends and the activities of competitors.
To do this, he does not have to conduct market research studies with thousands of participants - that is a matter of marketing.
He speaks directly to customers and those who are not yet customers, asks questions and listens carefully. He evaluates the complaints about the current products. Product managers conduct internet research and use data from analysts.
The product manager analyzes the solutions available from competitors in order to find areas in which there is potential for further products.
The art of market analysis is asking the right questions and drawing the right conclusions from the answers.
Marketing and Product Strategy
Based on the data and findings from the market analysis, the product manager develops new product concepts or improvements for current products.
He analyzes and tests which products promise the greatest success and how the products have to be designed in order to be well received by the target group.
Before applying for a million dollar budget for a new product, he has to be sure that the product will find enough buyers!
He does not only concentrate on the functions of the product itself. He works out pricing strategies, works on the design, defines channels for sales and thinks about how his products can best be advertised.
The product manager cannot take on the multitude of tasks alone. The threads come together with him and he monitors that everything fits in with the overall strategy.
An important part of the strategy is the product vision that the product manager needs to develop.
In practice, it has to answer the question: What is the greater goal or the greater sense that we are pursuing with the product?
On the one hand, this vision serves to convince colleagues internally of the product and to motivate everyone to cooperate.
Outwardly, the product vision should appeal to customers and make a product unmistakable in order to stand out from the crowd.
Development / production
The product manager provides the project developers - for example programmers or engineers - with the information they need for production.
He works closely with the developers and ensures that the end product meets the requirements and is tailored to the selected target group.
These tasks are often carried out separately by a technical product manager or product owner.
The product owner describes the requirements for a product in such a way that they can be implemented by development. He ensures that important requirements are given priority and that development resources are used efficiently.
Together with development, the product manager plans and tests prototypes, pre-series and pilot series.
In the case of production goods, the technical product manager also takes on the selection and technical support of the supplier companies.
In the entire product management process, development usually takes the most time.
Project management and project planning
The product manager is often responsible for ensuring that the product can be produced and sold on time and that the budget is not exceeded.
He plans the entire product management process, determines when which product should appear and continuously checks that delivery dates are met.
In large projects, project managers or so-called program managers take on this part. (If these roles are abbreviated to “PM” like the product manager, the confusion is perfect.)
Communication and advertising
Together with the marketing department (or an external advertising agency), the product manager creates communication strategies in order to address his target groups and to position his product correctly in the market.
He advises on the selection of marketing measures and channels and monitors compliance with the marketing budget.
The product manager also allows new findings from the market analysis to flow into the optimization of the marketing measures.
Sales and customer service
The product manager defines goals for the sale of his products and supports sales in achieving them. He selects suitable sales channels and provides the salespeople with information.
He regularly collects feedback from sales and customer service, which he can use to optimize his product and all processes.
finances and controlling
As mentioned, the product manager is responsible for the product's success and therefore also for the product budget. Therefore, he has to calculate the costs and possible income of his product in advance.
During the development and when the product is on the market, he regularly checks the numbers. It measures whether the goals have been achieved or whether improvements and further measures are necessary.
The findings from controlling help the product manager to plan future products even better and to take measures to counteract negative developments.
No matter how large the area of responsibility of the product manager is, in the end it is often the division or management that makes the decision. The product manager must obtain approval from management for new products and, above all, the budgets for them.
To do this, he creates business plans in which he prepares all the facts and data for a product. He has to present his plans to the management, negotiate skilfully and solicit support, including support from the other departments.
To do this, he must know the needs, concerns, expectations and goals of all those involved and take them into account in everything he does - in technical jargon there is the term “stakeholder management”.
The product manager has to think and act like a boss who has his entire company in view. Even if he's not a boss himself.
He has to understand how management works and how decisions are made in management.
The product manager's priorities
To repeat: Of course, you will not be equally concerned with all of these areas in detail.
Your job is to develop a strategy and plan, coordinate and monitor all related activities.
As a product manager, you have some focal points in your work, while others are only marginally concerned with.
The Product Management Festival asked 1,011 product managers from 59 countries what their three most important responsibilities are.
You can see the results on this graph:
By far the most frequently mentioned responsibilities are:
- Product vision and strategy
- Management of product requirements
- Roadmapping and management of releases
For better understanding:
Management of product requirements means that the product manager has to decide how and in which order new functions are developed for a product (and which not at all).
Roadmapping and management of releases means planning and controlling when new products or updates appear and with what range of functions.
Market research, budget and price calculations and obtaining feedback from customers are also named as the main tasks of the product manager with some distance.
So these are the product manager's priorities.
Or rather: it should be.
Because unfortunately the theoretical responsibilities have little to do with practice.
If you ask the same product managers what they mainly spend their working day with, it looks very different.
Instead of strategic tasks, other things eat up a large part of the working time, as you can see on this graphic:
Daily business, urgent inquiries, problem solutions and meetings, meetings, meetings dominate everyday life.
Product managers state that they only spend 10% of their time on product vision and product strategy.
(Many product managers also include roadmapping as a strategic task. There is hardly any time left for the vision and the derivation of the strategy: only 5%, that's just 2 hours a week!)
This is exactly the feedback I get from product managers I work with.
As you can see, the everyday life of the product manager is far from ideal.
That, together with the incredibly wide range of tasks, make the job of product manager very varied and challenging at the same time.
No wonder that the demands placed on product managers are very high, which brings us to the second part of this article.
Requirements for the product manager
If you're interested in the job of product manager, your most pressing questions are probably:
Am i qualified for it? What do I have to be able to do? Will i be successful?
The list of requirements that the product manager should fulfill is no less long than that of his duties.
Let's divide the requirements into four areas for a better overview:
- Education and experience
- Product knowledge
- Soft skills
Education and experience
There are hardly any regulated training courses for product managers, especially none with relevant practical relevance.
Most product managers have a technical or business degree. In principle, this path is also open to you after an apprenticeship.
The results of the 2017 product manager study show this:
Most product manager job advertisements like this one mention a few years of work experience as a minimum:
Work experience is a must for product managers. As a young professional, you don't have the experience to take care of such a large area of responsibility.
Nevertheless, there are positions for graduates with initial practical experience, as this job advertisement shows:
In such a position, you will start as a junior product manager. You will then (probably) not be responsible for a product yourself, but will work for a product manager and learn “on the job”.
Product managers are often lateral entrants who switch to product management after a few years in their profession.
For example, you worked in product development or project management. Employees from sales or marketing are increasingly finding their way into product management.
Depending on which area product managers come from, they bring their strengths and weaknesses with them.
I was responsible for product management in a company with more than 60 employees. In comparison, I have had very good experiences with career changers and less experienced employees.
Passion for a product, a task or a goal is much, much more important than a university degree or many years of experience.
Would you like to switch to product management or start there as a young professional?
My tip for you:
Find a product that interests you and that you can develop passion for.
Product managers should receive regular training in order to keep up to date and master the many challenges.
If you have been working as a product manager for a few years and want to develop yourself further, take a look at the nachtrab.io training for product managers. There you will learn to work strategically and develop the mindset of a successful product manager.
Product and market knowledge
As a product manager, you need in-depth knowledge of the products, the technology behind them, the purchasing or sales processes and your company.
Even if you don't make the products yourself, you have to know what works and what doesn't, what certain technologies cost or what requirements have to be met.
You don't need to be a technologist. However, you have to be able to speak to colleagues and external service providers on an equal footing, some of whom are very technically oriented.
After all, the products you come up with must be doable and affordable.
Market knowledge is at least as important as product knowledge.
If you know your markets well, you can better tailor your products to them.
Your company has many product experts, but there are only a few market experts. Your job is to bring the market knowledge into your company so that the product experts can find economically sound solutions.
You also need specialist knowledge in purchasing, marketing, sales and controlling. You have to be able to use common methods. You have to develop plans together with other departments, answer their questions and provide information.
As the person responsible for the budget, you have to be equally skilled in dealing with figures and calculations and you must not be afraid of extensive Excel spreadsheets. Margin shouldn't be a foreign word for you.
Of course, you don't need to be a specialist in any of these areas, that wouldn't work either. But you should know the basics and at least understand what the others are talking about.
Most importantly, your expertise in the core areas of product management: market analysis and product strategy.
You have to know how to analyze your markets and target groups, evaluate the data and develop product concepts from it.
You have to deal with tools like buyer persona, be able to create appropriate value propositions for different buyer persona and understand the life cycle of your products.(To give just one example.)
How good you are at it determines your success and failure of your products.
In order to keep your process under control, you have to be fit in project management and be able to use the appropriate tools or software. So-called agile project management methods are becoming more and more popular.
I only mention soft skills in fourth place, but that doesn't mean that they are less important.
In fact, they are most important!
Because you can acquire specialist knowledge much more easily than soft skills, i.e. personal and social skills.
In the aforementioned study of the Product Management Festival, over a thousand product managers were asked which three management soft skills were most important to them.
Here you can see which they mentioned:
If you go through the mentioned skills, you can identify four main areas:
- Communication and collaboration
- Time management and efficiency
- Innovative thinking
- Leadership skills
Why are precisely these skills required? Let's take a closer look:
Communication and collaboration
Do you remember the graphic of the tasks that product managers are primarily concerned with?
Since the product manager has to do with almost all departments, he sits in numerous meetings and constantly has to consult with others, resolve conflicts or check that deadlines are met.
Communication - whether personal or digital - makes up a predominant part of the product manager's job.
He needs a sure instinct and has to know how to deal with everyone. He has to find compromises, as each department has its own interests and has to meet requirements.
He must present well and be able to inspire others with his products.
He needs assertiveness when, for example, fighting with other departments over tight budgets.
The product manager has to be able to motivate teams again and again.
Time management and efficiency
As a product manager, you will receive inquiries and tasks from all sides. You have to work on different tasks at the same time, be available, and still work creatively and develop product ideas.
How do you get it all under one roof?
Only through good time management and efficient work. Product managers need to plan their working day well and prioritize important tasks.
Otherwise, there is no time left between appointments and day-to-day business for important tasks such as market analysis and strategy development.
Product managers must also be able to delegate tasks to others.
It is important to regularly check and optimize the processes you are accustomed to and your own way of working in order to eliminate “time wasters” and concentrate on the core tasks.
When is a product manager successful?
When his products are successful. Sounds very simple, but that's how it is.
Successful products solve a real problem of a target group in a new way or at least better than other products. We call such products innovative.
A product manager must be able to “discover” such innovations.
However, innovation is often misunderstood.
Innovations are rarely the product of innate creativity or brainstorming in a meeting room. They arise from intensive observation and analysis of user and customer groups and trends.
Product managers need to get out of their office and talk to the people they want to sell products to. Then they have to evaluate the results and data and use them to identify problems that they can solve with a new product.
This last step is what we generally understand by innovative thinking and what defines a successful product manager.
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." - said Henry Ford, founder of the automobile company of the same name.
The quote makes it clear how important it is to ask the right questions and not be satisfied with superficial insights.
As Ford recognized, the “what customers want” question was wrong. Nevertheless, a good, innovatively thinking product manager would have easily recognized the underlying desire: to get from A to B faster.
Back then, the car was the answer to the problem. In the vicinity of Munich, where I live, I would be faster on some stretches today with a horse than with the car.
New problems are always waiting for solutions and old problems have to be solved anew.
Innovative thinking includes not settling for the status quo or small improvements.
An innovative product manager is constantly looking for problems and challenges and questions current solutions - including his own products - again and again.
This skill is mentioned almost casually in the survey under “Leadership”, but it is extremely important for product managers.
Leadership means thinking, talking and acting like a leader. It cannot be defined as a “single” skill, it encompasses all areas.
- Time management: A leader only cares about the strategy and delegates the execution to others.
- communication: A leader can motivate his people.
- Innovative thinking: A leader thinks big and in the future.
Leadership is a great skill for product managers!
Companies that understand this even call their product managers Product Lead or Product Leader. For good reason!
People do not follow a (real) leader because they have to or otherwise would have to suffer disadvantages. But because they want to.
A product manager has to be able to convince and inspire others because
- he does not lead the teams involved in a disciplinary manner.
- those involved have other tasks and goals besides the product.
- he can never make final, especially expensive, decisions alone.
- everyone involved must work independently and with vigor.
- He is expected to provide direction and a product vision.
I like to use two quotes to illustrate the difference between a manager and a leader:
Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. (Peter Drucker)
Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. (Stephen Covey)
Unless you enjoy living “leadership” and prefer to work in the quiet office, you will only be partially successful as a product manager.
And unless you have a passion for your product, you probably won't become a good leader either.
Good leaders believe in what, what they do and why they do it.
How else can you motivate others?
Granted, there are really boring products! Fortunately, tastes are different and even the most boring product solves a fundamental problem for many people. (Otherwise the product would hardly exist.)
The greatest challenges as a product manager
Now you know the tasks of a product manager and the requirements for him.
Where are the greatest challenges in everyday life?
Again, this question is relatively easy to answer. Whenever I talk to product managers, I hear the same complaints over and over again.
The results of the survey of product managers, where they should identify their greatest challenges, paint a clear picture:
What worries product managers the most are:
- Conflicts with and lack of support from other departments and management
- Time problems
- The role of the product manager and the associated processes are not clearly defined.
These problems arise from the special “position” of product management in the company, which I already mentioned.
The product manager sits at the interface between countless departments and is involved everywhere. He may make a lot of decisions, but he always needs others (over whom he is not authorized to issue instructions) in order to implement his decisions.
On the other hand, product managers have to ask themselves what they can do better.
Precisely because they are often lateral entrants, many have not been “properly” trained for this job.
They care too much about details and try to do everything themselves. Or they develop their own ideas for products without considering the market. Or they don't understand how to convince others of their concepts.
In other words, you are not a leader.
I regularly hear this opinion from executives and management, i.e. the bosses of product managers.
They say: product manager ...
- do not take into account the various interests.
- do not provide the facts and figures that we need to make decisions.
- know the product but not the market.
- do not act strategically.
- do not take holistic responsibility.
- don't keep appointments.
So whether you become a successful product manager depends less on your résumé and your expertise.
It's about how well you can master the challenges mentioned. Whether you develop the necessary soft skills over time and become a product leader.
I address these challenges in the nachtrab.io training courses for product managers.
If you want to learn more, I recommend these three articles. They explain how you can achieve three fundamentally important goals as a product manager:
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