Learn what a product manager is (and isn’t), as well as when you need a product manager on your team (and when you don’t).
If you’re a leader at a company that has a product–for example, an app or a SaaS (software as a service) platform –you’ve likely questioned whether or not you need to hire a product manager for your team.
Maybe that’s what you’re wondering right now. If so, you’re not alone. According to a report on the future of product management, 43% of companies are hiring more product managers. Glassdoor also ranks product management in the top 10 of the 50 best jobs in America in 2022.
But is hiring a product manager the right move for your company? While the answer to that question depends on your unique challenges, goals, and needs as an organization, we’ll give you the expert insights you need to answer that question yourself.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand what a product manager is and isn’t and how to know when you need a product manager on your team (and when you don’t).
What does a product manager do?
You’d think there would be a straightforward answer to this question, but the reality is your answer to this question will depend on whom you ask.
This is due, in part, to the fact that the product manager role isn’t one steeped in generations of tradition, like the lawyer or even the sales representative; it’s only been around for a handful of decades. And since its inception, those within the product management community have worked tirelessly to define it.
One of the most popular definitions, however, comes from Martin Eriksson:
While joking that “only a product manager would define themselves in a Venn diagram,” Eriksson says that the job of a great manager is to live at the intersection of business, UX, and technology.
More specifically, their goal is to make smart trade-off decisions between:
- Maximizing business value from the product and achieving business goals.
- Understanding the effort and technology requirements to build what is needed.
- Advocating for the customer inside the business to improve their experience.
Some refer to a product manager as the “CEO of a product,” tasked with setting the product’s mission and vision (and rallying their team around it) and defining what success for the product looks like.
As time has marched on, however, the field of product management has diversified significantly, creating more nuance around the conversation of what a product manager is and can be.
As WhoCo VP of Product Deirdre Norris shared recently:
“One of the most exciting developments in product management is how nuanced it’s become with sub-specialties.
For instance, growth product management is not something that even existed ten years ago, and it’s a type of product management that demands a different skill set than one might associate with the traditional product manager. Technical product management is another example …
As more and more organizations across almost every single industry transform into technology companies – either for the sake of efficiency or their products (or both) – the demand for product managers will only increase. As a result, we anticipate that there will be a continued shift toward more niche and specialty areas of product management.”
What a product manager isn’t
Although the definition of product management as a role is continuing to evolve, it’s important to understand what a product manager isn’t before you hire one of your own. For example, product managers are commonly confused with project managers.
The best product managers not only know how to lead and understand how to collaborate effectively with engineers by being fluent in the technology environment in which they’re operating. But they are not (and usually do not need to be) engineers or coders themselves.
Additionally, they’re not product owners, which is an important distinction if you operate in a scrum or agile environment for product development. In such cases, product managers develop the strategy, whereas product owners are traditionally responsible for setting and managing the backlogs of activities required to execute that strategy.
What’s interesting about product managers is that they’re not many things.
They aren’t engineers or product owners (in theory). They’re also not marketers, sales reps, data analysts, or researchers. In younger startups, you may see product managers taking on some of these responsibilities. But their real purpose is the “glue” or “grease” (depending on which metaphor you prefer) that helps all of those different groups work together.
Note that as your company grows, the roles of your product manager will evolve too. You may break up into more focused product teams, meaning a PM may niche down, etc.
Do you need to hire a full-time product manager?
If this is the question you’re asking yourself currently, it’s likely that someone at your company (or maybe even a group of employees) are doing the product management work you have, albeit in a decentralized fashion.
But have you reached a point where you need someone whose expertise and full-time role would be product management? And, whoever is doing the work currently, are they ready to delegate or share that product management workload?
Those are only questions you can answer, but there are benefits to having a dedicated, full-time product manager:
- You have someone dedicated to balancing the needs of three unique stakeholders (leadership, engineering, and your customers) with wildly different perspectives.
- You have someone focused on making smart moves based on the market, meaning you’ll spend less time building things that aren’t worth it and more time building things that work.
- A recent report surveying 5,000 product professionals noted the top three benefits of a product-led approach: meeting long-term goals, market competitiveness, and attracting talent.
- That same report also highlighted that many of the surveyed companies rely on product-focused metrics (e.g., NPS scores) more, in addition to traditional metrics such as revenue. The reason? Many are seeing a correlation between “retention and expansion” and product adoption, even at the B2B enterprise level.
Again, whether or not hiring a product manager is the right move for you is something only you can decide. But if your company is product-focused, recruiting a product manager now or in the future, as your growth plans evolve, is a move you should seriously consider.