Guest Piece By SponsorPay’s Jan Ustohal
-“What do you do?”
-“I am a product manager.”
-“What does that mean?”
And there we go…working as a product manager has one disadvantage (just one!). Most people have absolutely no idea what it means. While you can resort to definitions from the almighty Internet (“A product manager investigates, selects, and develops products for an organization, performing the activities of product management.” –Wikipedia), only product managers can really understand what the role is about. And because different product managers have a different view on the topic, consider this a highly opinionated attempt to write it down in 750 words or less. You’ve been warned.
First of all, product management is not project management (d’oh!). Project managers are like an omnipresent whip above the heads of developers, making sure deadlines and budget are met. Product guys, on the other hand, come long before the execution of the project and merely lay down the foundation for it in terms of ideas, business cases, and specifications, rather than directly steering the execution.
Secondly, even though the most visible outcome of product work are specifications (after the product itself), they are not the most important ones. What matters is what was before the specs and, weirdly, also what is not there. “What the hell are you talking about?”, you might be asking yourself now.
Well, forging an idea from its inception into a finalized requirement or specification is a long and twisting road, on which you might have to discard a lot of solutions and ideas, no matter how good they seem to be. What you should be left with is only a clearly delineated problem space and a solution to the problem, which addresses the problem with minimum required resources. Therefore everything you decide to discard is equally important for the final product as what is left there. Strange world, I know.
To use words of one my colleagues, we are like inventors. We take an idea that someone throws at us or that we come across, mold it, shape it, take some bits off, add some magic, talk to some people, throw it away, start over, cry, get angry, have an epiphany, talk to more people, write a spec, drink beer. To reach the desired goal one has to balance all the activities and emphasize the right ones in the right moment of the whole process. And that’s tough.
Before joining SponsorPay I considered product management as a just bridge between engineering and business, but now I know it is so much more. If there was one word that should have been included in every definition of product management, it would definitely be versatility. Even the notions of “sitting on multiple chairs at the same time” or “wearing multiple hats” do not fully express the wide range of activities a product manager has to be capable of doing. It’s like sitting on multiple chairs at the same time while wearing six different hats, juggling running chainsaws and singing and dancing Macarena. I bet your imagination is now going crazy…Hey, Macarena!
As I am slowly approaching the 750 word limit, let me conclude this text with a short, even more opinionated, ehm, opinion. Product management is fast and furious. You have to learn a lot, and really fast. You have to be able to switch context often and quickly refocus on the problem. When you make a mistake, you cannot start crying, but you have to think about it for a bit, and then devise a solution to fix it. Errare humanum est, but it’s also useless when you don’t learn from it. Think a lot, write what’s necessary, evaluate. Rinse and repeat. Succeed.
Looking back at the initial quote, I am not sure I managed to really answer the question, but I can assure you about one thing. Being a product manager is probably one of the best jobs in the world, together with being an astronaut and being a professional billionaire. So live long and prosper, and if you liked what you read, try giving it a shot as well. If it does not work out, I think NASA is still hiring.