A Few Analogies to Help Demystify What Product Managers Do
Like many of you, I’ve struggled at times to describe to friends and family what I do for a living and what product management really is. It is especially hard to describe to anyone outside of technology. And to kids. Which can be frustrating, especially since I’ve been doing it for over a decade (whoa) and certain folks (hey mom!) still have no idea what I do. But for those of us who’ve been here a while, we should really be better at simplifying what we do.
Some of you may be here to better understand product management in general. Others may want to better describe what it is to friends and family, or to simplify it to start the conversation for other reasons. Or maybe you need to present what you do at career day and need some ideas. Regardless, I hope this helps.
Product Managers Are Builders
For our 6-year-old, a simple example that has seemed to work well has been the example building a home. Especially since he got to see our new home as it was being built from the ground up. I’m simplifying a bit here, but it let’s go with it for a moment:
The builder is a key person in the construction process. He works with the family to understand the kind of home that they want. Where they want the kitchen, where they want the bedrooms, etc. He works on understanding their needs and then helps build a home that is great for them. That’s his job.
Once he understands the family’s needs, he then works with the teams of people who build the home to make it all happen. The cement truck that pours the foundation, the guys who build the walls, the people who put in the kitchen cabinets, the people who put in the carpet to make sure it is just what the family needs.
That’s very much like what a product manager does as well, except rather than with homes, she does it with software — applications on computers or phones. She works with users to understand their problems and then she works with teams of engineers to create features to address those problems or needs. All of the cool games on your phone or tablet have a product manager that works on them. She is the builder who understands what makes them fun to play. Then she works with the engineers (those are the people who know how to write the code to tell the tablet how to make the monkey swing on the branches and how to make the music play) to build the application so you have a game to play.
Product managers, like builders, work with customers to understand their needs and create solutions to problems. There are certainly some nuances to that we miss, but I think the builder analogy gets to the heart of the idea.
Of course, we’re not 6-year-olds, so we can take this a few levels deeper (though hopefully that is helpful in any conversations you may have with your kids). And while the analogies are not perfect, as no analogies are, they illustrative of product management in many ways.
Product Managers Are Architects
Let’s stick with our building analogy for a moment, but take it a step further and make it a bit more technical. Let’s talk about architects.
If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you think of an architect is a big table with drafting paper and rulers where they can sketch out a detailed drawing of their next skyscraper. They’ve got the big vision for a grand building. Maybe the next Empire State Building. And that is certainly part of their job.
But another part of it is all the details. Because that skyscraper or house or school has to have ventilation and plumbing and electrical systems, and all of that has be taken into account in the architectural design. They also have to think about the building codes and fire regulations and zoning laws, etc. So while the architect certainly has to think about the big picture and beautiful end result they want to achieve, they also have to go through all the details of how to get there.
Product managers are architects in the same way. They have a big vision about the software product (or products) they are building. They want their app to be the next Instagram or Fortnite. They have a long-term roadmap that shows the way to get to something big. But they are also focused on all the little details as well. Things like “adding better error handling” to timeout messages. Or speeding up the login page so it shaves a second or two off the time it takes you to log in. All while building out the experience within the building that will eventually lead to the bigger vision.
Product Managers Are Small Business Owners
Many people have written about product managers as CEOs of their products. I even dove into that debate a while back with 6 Ways the Product Manager is the CEO. I like the analogy of a product manager as a CEO, but I like the analogy even more of a small business owner.
A business owner isn’t nearly as lofty as a title, which makes it more apt for a product manager. A business owner often has to be scrappy, especially when you think about a small business owner. If you own the local bakery down the street, there is a good chance you wear a lot of hats. You probably have a team of people working with you in various roles, especially as you’ve grown, but you know the business inside and out. You are ultimately responsible for its success. You’ve delegated responsibilities and trust your team to execute, but you know the buck stops with you.
As the business owner, you are also keenly aware of the financial impact of the decisions you make and how they impact your business. Opening an hour earlier has certain costs and certain benefits, and you analyze both sides. Adding items to the menu as well. Maybe you’d love to expand your bakery and offer a wider array of services to your customers based on their feedback, but you’re always carefully analyzing the feasibility and desirability of doing that, experimenting continuously before committing significant resources.
These characteristics tie in nicely to product management. Product managers own their products just like a small business owner owns their business. Product managers generally aren’t the boss or manager of the people on the team, but they own the experience of the product.
If customers are having issues or requesting features, the product manager analyzes why that is and what the solutions might be, never stopping at simply “adding something to the menu” because someone wanted it. They work to understand why they wanted it to address the underlying issue. And like a true owner, they have to understand the cost associated with adding features. Because everything they do has a costs and benefits associated with it, and they understand that.
Finally, product managers wear a lot of hats in their roles, just like small business owners. They are scrappy, often moving from talking with customers one minute to checking on their teams the next minute to making sure that their application is functioning fine the next minute. They are truly small business owners, entrepreneurs within their own worlds.
Product Managers Are Guides
If you’ve ever booked a trip somewhere with a guide, you likely know of some benefits you get. First, they are experts in areas you are not. Second, they allow you to maximize your efficiency. They put in a lot of work for you, so you can focus on the areas you’re more concerned about, like seeing the sites. Finally, they create the plan and can adjust as needed based on the needs of the group, the conditions at hand, and changes that arise.
A good tour guide is an expert in the area they are taking people. They can communicate the map and itinerary so that everyone is clear what the plan is. They also understand the group they are working with. Each group is different. A tour group of 30-year-olds differs immensely from a group of 70-year-olds and a good tour guide will adjust accordingly.
My mom has worked as a tour guide in southern Utah for several years now, and I can attest that anyone who is fortunate enough to go on a tour with her is getting all the above-mentioned benefits. Few people are as avid about the outdoors as she is, and she knows all the national parks like the back of her hand. That includes all the hiking trails, which ones are easiest, which ones are hardest, where the crowds are most likely to be at what times, etc. So whenever one plan doesn’t work, she can adjust to another without missing a beat.
We were recently on a family vacation to one of the national parks and availed ourselves of her expertise. We had young kids in our group, so we wanted some easy hikes to see some things. She pulled out the map and laid out a plan for us, showing us a couple things we could see along the way and then what we could do if it parking was a problem. It was great. We could do a couple easy hikes that everyone enjoyed and quickly move from one area to the next without trying to figure out what we should do next. My mom knew what we wanted to do and got us to it so we could get to enjoying the park.
Like a good tour guide, a good product manager is an expert guide for their product.
A good product manager is an expert in their product area. Like a tour guide, a product manager has to know the terrain to guide others through it. So product managers have to become deeply familiar with the software they work on, whether that is applications for phones or software for computers, etc. While that doesn’t mean product managers have to be as technical as software engineers, it means they often have to be technically fluent depending on the product and area they work in.
A good product manager minimizes the time to value. Like a good tour guide, good product managers bring efficiency to software development. Yes, you can travel to a foreign country and find your way around on your own without a guide. And yes, you can build software without a product manager or someone in that role. But chances are you may end up wandering around quite a bit more than you need to. If you’re on vacation, that may be fine. If you’re building software on a budget in a business, that may not be the route you want to take. A product manager reduces the time to learn what is the right thing to build for your customers and your business.
A good product manager can create a plan and adjust that plan as necessary based on the needs of the product and the needs of customers, stakeholders and the business. Just like a guide builds an itinerary and adjusts it based on the group and what happens with the weather and the crowds, a product manager builds a roadmap and a strategy for their product based on their outlook for the business and customer needs. Then, as the product evolves, along with the business and customers, the product manager also evolves the roadmap to account for those changes. It is an ever-evolving and ever-changing strategy. The plan we put in place will never be the plan that we fully execute.
Product managers, like architects, business owners, and guides, wear many hats in their roles in software development. They help create the vision of a product, they own it from start to finish and the have responsibility for the team that is delivering it, and they help guide customers, users and the business all along the way.
Product manager is not an easy role to describe because it is always evolving and changing. But that is largely what draws so many people into product management — the fact that is always moving and changing.
Ultimately, a product manager coordinates the many moving pieces, ensuring that the overall experience remains cohesive and ultimately solves the right problem for the user in a way that makes sense for their business.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.