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What is a Product Manager and What It Gets Out of Being One

Wikipedia says, A product manager communicates product vision from the highest levels of executive leadership to development and implementation teams. The product manager is often called the product CEO. The product manager investigates, selects, and drives the development of products for an organization, performing the activities of product management.

Aha! explains: The product manager is the person responsible for defining the ‘why’, ‘what,’ and ‘when’ of the product that the engineering team will build. They are the CEO of their product -- which means they lead cross-functional teams from a product's conception through to its launch.

Marty Cagan, in his book Inspired, describes the job of the product manager as “to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible”.

I will say we are people that manage the interception, between business, user experience and technology and marketing and consumer service and all the other stakeholders that has a relationship with the product I work on. 

Knowledge Extraction: the foundation of a good product manager is the ability to extract knowledge in the short timeframe, to be able to find patterns, understand commonalities and differences and to summarize.  Take product research for example, I was looking at the price comparison solutions on the market, and I found:

Commonalities of existing solutions:
  • Most of the browser plug-in works only on the product detail page (PDP)
  • None of them are doing checkout, it is fragmented experience
  • Only part of the solution that has to do with interacting with the merchant webpage is accessible via the plug-in
  • Top-banner as a solution seems to be problematic technically
Key Problems of existing solutions:
  • The product found is not the product I want to look for
  • Using the same Plug-in on Same Product, each search comes back different list
  • The Cheapest option considers only the product unit price and the scope of search seems to be rather limited (only US sites)
  • Fail to capture the correct product information
  • Fail to track back to the correct original URL, 
  • Inconsistent behavior: mostly seen on the plug-in with top-banner design, sometimes it shows sometime it does not
  • Unable to Relaunch the Plug-in: mostly seen on the plug-in with top-banner design, if I dismiss the banner, I can't bring it back unless I refresh the page

The ability to extract is the basis of identifying needs and resolve problems.

Problem Solving: in a good day, I am solving problems for users; on a bad day, I am solving internal problems between UX and Tech, business and Tech etc etc. The eagerness to solve a problem is a key characteristics of a product manager. What differentiate the product managers’s problem solving from, say, a developers’ problem solving concept, is that we are doing problem solving cross-functional, say we find a certain interaction is causing confusion to users, we need to work with UX team to design possible solutions, with tech to access feasibilities and then test on the users to see which one of the new designs comes out as a winner. 

Empathythe need to work with every stakeholder in the product ecosystem means product managers should quickly figure out:
  • What kind of relationship/interaction this stakeholder has with the product
  • What this stakeholder cares about
  • How is what I am trying to find out/convince/assign relevant to what s/he cares about

Time Management: with Agile development methodology, time management becomes less of an issue; while as product manager, I work out of my skin to define minimum viable product (MVP), not only what is commonly known as the hardware and software components, but also meetings, research, interviews etc. Time-boxing is a useful technique.

Presentation: here I refer to the ability to articulate the knowledge and put them on Powerpoint slides in an executive way; it is pure technical skills on diagrams, business language etc. I was fortunately to be trained under several E&Y and McKinsey partners for 2 years, nevertheless, the takeaways are mostly on alignment, punchy titles and balances between text and graphics. For all the sales presentation tips, Dustin Max gives a goods summary in his "10 Tips for More Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Functional Requirement: pay attention as product managers only define what but not how, say for example, the product needs a registration form, then I only say I need to collect email, password and date of birth, the password is at least 8 digit and contains letters and numbers, date of birth is a date between 1860/01/01 to 2008/01/01. I don’t go and tell the tech team what kind of architecture they should do. 

Wireframing: Creative Bloq Staff has a good article on the popular wireframe tools out there, The only comment I want to add is that I will put “ Paper and Pen" on the top of the list. Nothing is more efficient than it, don’t start using any tool if you don’t know how things should work. The complexity of the software tools just makes your thinking more cluttered. 

Among the 18 tools suggested: Gliffy (integrated with JIRA but usually used to draw flowchart, swimlanes, sitemap etc); Axure (one of the most common wireframing tool); Balsamiq Mockup (a good tool for low fidelity mockups); UXPin (both low and high fidelity) will be what I suggest you should know. They are all similar, in the end it depends on what the company is already using and the skill set of the team.

Graphic Design: As product manager you don’t have to know any of them, well, depending on how do you work for. I did icon design and style guide when working for startups while big companies see my time more valuable on managing the team and conduce user tests. I found a good article for reference for anyone who wants to be a “one man shop”, I personally find Adobe Creative Suite is a good choice in terms of community and functionality. Now they have also launched a Experience Design CC, it is a well worth of money spent.

Writing: product managers write for everyone for different purpose
  • Business Cases: draft a proposal on a problem, contains plans, financial benefits, potential risks etc 
  • Epics, Stories, Requirements: align teams on deliverables;
  • Case Studies: demonstrate the benefit of a product or a feature;
  • Research Findings: help make decisions and inspire creative thinking;
  • Test Scripts: usability test, user acceptance test etc;
  • Interview Recruitment Screening Questionnaire and Briefing: recruit potential users to conduct various tests;
  • Training Materials: demonstrate how the solution work, how to answer various questions;
There are plenty templates around, I usually just customize them based on the specific need. The ability to write in a clear and executive manner is an important skill for any product manager.

Interview and Test: user interviews, usability test, user acceptance test etc, everything that is related to validating the idea with stakeholders, these are th essential needs of a product and thus the skills related to it are also critical:
  • Scenario Writing; scripts that test the objectives without giving out too much;
  • Note Taking: write down what it is not what I think it is, actually, don’t even think because it distract you from observation and react;
  • Facilitation: as a facilitator there are not so much clue I can give to a participant, no matter how frustrated they are, I am basically just help them distant their failure of an activity from failure of their intelligence, encourage not to give up and find alternative ways and understand the underlaying reasons for an act; 
  • Knowledge Transfer; the skills to pass knowledge on is especially key for interview and test because the involvement of the whole team is critical to the success of the product, clear instruction, constructive comments, a standard response test etc

It sounds tough. And it is tough. While on the other hand, it is also "just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on - certainly the most fun you are going to be paid for”. From career path wise, product managers are not going to be paid that much comparing to a top sales or to a high executive, but you get to touch every essence of a product and if your dream is one day to start your own business, product manager is a good option.


Product Manager

What is the Role of Product Manager?

What, exactly, is a Product Manager?

Interview on time-boxing for Havard Business Review

10 Tips for More Effective Powerpoint Presentation

The 18 Best Wireframing Tools

37 of the Best Tools, Resources & Apps for Graphic Designers

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