“So, what exactly does a product manager do?”
After years spent as a product manager, I still don’t have a good answer to this question. I’ve accepted that there will never be a “catch-all” definition of the role. A product manager’s job varies greatly across different contexts, and each context requires a unique set of mental models, skills, and strategies to be successful.
To illustrate the fluid nature of product management, I thought it would be interesting to show how the role of a product manager differs across business models, company stages, and seniority levels using analogies.
As a quick note, these analogies are imperfect, so don’t get too caught up in the technicalities. Their goal is to put the wide landscape of product management into perspective, so you can approach the role with more clarity — whether as an aspiring or current PM.
The word “product” in product management can be misleading. What users consider to be your product often extends beyond the software layer, but your direct influence as a PM rarely does. Understanding the anatomy of your business will help you determine how to work with other functions to create value for your users.
To understand this idea, let’s picture product managers as interior designers for offline businesses:
SaaS ≈ Co-working Space
The office space is your product. The layout, décor, and amenities are the product features. You have a direct influence over them, and they are the main reason why customers come to you. In other words, you define what your company sells.
E-commerce ≈ Retail Store
While the shopping experience—in-store navigation, checkout, atmosphere—is essential, the items on the shelves are what customers are ultimately after. You might not get to decide what goes on the shelves, but you can design better infrastructures for the stockroom or merchandising displays to influence how your company sells.
Two-sided Marketplace ≈ Expo
The venue you are in charge of designing is a platform for vendors (supply) and attendees (demand) to transact with each other. However, without an operations team to actively source, vet, and manage the participants, it would just be a building full of chaos, not an organized event. Only when the two pieces come together will you have a complete product.
Companies such as Facebook and Google don’t work like a 10-person startup, neither do their product teams. Many brilliant PMs struggle with the transition from one company stage to another because they underestimate the contrast.
A good way to understand this is by viewing product managers as professional chefs:
Early-stage Startup ≈ New Restaurant with a Big Ambition
The restaurant’s goal is to make a wave in the local culinary scene. Your dishes need to “wow” restaurant-goers with a unique take. Hence, you should constantly run moonshot experiments to figure out what customers will bite (pun intended).
With the limited resources available at this stage, you can only afford to perfect 1-2 signature dishes that’ll get you noticed, and improve the rest one at a time.
The small team size grants you lots of authority to make decisions. However, for the same reason, you will likely need to help with tasks outside the kitchen, such as serving tables, to keep the restaurant running.
Large Corporation ≈ Michelin-starred Restaurant with a Long Tradition
The restaurant’s menu is already defined. Your job is to optimize a specific part of it, such as the pastries, without losing the flavor customers have loved for decades. Innovation can happen, but it will be slow and infrequent since there is a lot to risk.
Due to the reputation this establishment has built, every detail of your work is held to the highest standard, even for something as simple as washing dishes. The scope of your responsibilities might seem trivial compared to chefs at smaller restaurants, but the audience you are impacting is significantly larger, considering the restaurant’s international fame.
As your PM career progresses, you don’t simply perform the same tasks at a better level. Instead, your focuses shift from features to people, projects to processes, and execution to vision. Failing to acquire these new skills is a common reason why senior PMs don’t make the jump to become product leaders.
We can understand this concept by comparing a PM team to a basketball team:
Junior Product Manager ≈ Role Player
The coach has assigned you only a few specific tasks on the court, such as playing defense. Your performance will be graded by how well you can execute them, regardless of whether your team wins or loses. You don’t get to call plays because you haven’t proven yourself. At this level, your primary goal is to earn more playing time within the team.
Senior Product Manager ≈ Star Player
You lead execution on the court. You’ve earned the coach’s trust to call plays and give inputs on game strategy, but this authority also comes with the responsibility of mentoring younger players on the team. As a lead player, your individual excellence is already expected. Whether you can translate it into wins for the team will determine your success.
Product Leader (Group PM, Director, CPO) ≈ Coach
You are beyond your playing days. Your job has advanced to the next level, which involves strategizing, training, allocating playing time, and guiding players in real games. Off the court, you also have to work with the team owner and general manager to deal with recruiting, budgeting, PR, and other tasks you didn’t have to do as a player. Even though you don’t have direct control over actions on the court, you are held responsible for the results more than ever. At this level, team success equals your individual success.
These simplified examples only capture the tip of the iceberg. The real world of product management is immensely more complex. We have not even dived into variables like industry, category maturity, feature vs. growth, B2C vs. B2B, team structure, web vs. mobile, and so on. When you mix them together, it’s almost impossible to find two contexts alike. Perhaps this is exactly what makes building products so much fun.