ProductFTW #1: What is a Product Manager?

A product manager leads a product from idea to market and beyond, balancing user needs with business goals.

Product management has been a buzzword and a hot career path for nearly two decades. Product managers are the new rockstars made famous by software juggernauts like Google and Facebook, wielding more influence than ever and commanding eye-popping paychecks on par with elite software engineers. 

But where it’s easy to see the output of an engineer (the code), a designer (the UI), a marketer (the ads), or just about any other role, it’s not as easy to see what the output of a product manager is, leading to an oft-asked question: 

What the hell is a product manager in the first place?

Let’s start with some definitions.

Meme photo from Office Space the movie, "What would you say you do here...."
This scene is about a product manager-type, for real.

What’s a product?

There are plenty of lengthy essays and countless attempts across the web to define what a product is philosophically, and all of those are mostly bullshit, so we can keep this part short. 

A product is something that’s created to provide value to someone. 

That’s it.

More discretely, a product can be something physical (like a laptop or a muffin), a service (tax preparation), an experience (a heavy metal concert), and more. The value people derive from a product is also far-reaching and can include saving time, having fun, reducing risks, improving performance, and beyond.

Table with Product on left, Value on right. Three examples: muffin>nutrition, laptop>productivity, concert>fun!
The value of products

From here on, we’ll mainly talk about software-based products. Software products are typically a collection of individual features that, as a whole, form a product that is offered to users through a website or app. 

As an oversimplified example, let’s look at a product I helped build a few years back called the TPG App. The value we aimed to create was to help people maximize all their bank, airline, and hotel points to travel the world for free. We had three features:

  • Feature 1: Learn–Read TPG content in a streamlined, mobile format to learn about airline, hotel, and bank loyalty programs 
  • Feature 2: Earn–Connect your credit card and loyalty accounts to learn how to maximize your spending to earn the most points
  • Feature 3: Burn–Search for flights and hotels that you can redeem with your points
Three screenshots of the TPG App in Beta, home screen, cards screen, points screen.
Some screenshots of the TPG App in Beta

By combining these three features, we created a product that helped people learn how to travel the world using lucrative loyalty programs, track all their points in one place, and then determine how to maximize them.

What’s product management?

Just as defining a product is straightforward, the concept of product management, often shrouded in jargon and complex theories, is fundamentally simple, too.

Product management is identifying a need, creating a solution to meet that need (e.g., the product), and continuously refining it based on feedback.

The act of product management has been around just about forever and applies to nearly everything we interact with every day. From the ancient potter who crafted vessels for their village to the hat maker of the 1920s designing stylish headwear to the modern-day SaaS shop building accounting software, product management is, and always will be, about creating solutions to problems. It’s both the art and science of guiding a product from the initial idea sparked in someone’s mind through the maze of development and user feedback to its final form as a tool or service that people rely on.

Cycle with Problem > Solution > Feedback > back to Problem
It's a never-ending cycle

Product management’s most critical and challenging aspect involves understanding what users need (even when they might not know it). Putting yourself in the user’s shoes, envisioning a product that solves their problem, and then meticulously refining it based on their feedback is how truly meaningful products are created. It’s a continuous dance of feedback and iteration, ensuring each feature works well and contributes to the product’s overall value.

To illustrate this a bit, early in testing the TPG App, we learned that many people had anxiety when booking a flight since pricing can change by the minute. “When do I use my points vs paying out of pocket with cash? I want to get the biggest bang for my buck!” was a common refrain. With this feedback, we introduced a simple but intuitive feature that assigned an actual dollar value to a user’s reward points, making it easy to understand the tradeoff of cash vs points. We made our users happy, increased engagement, and ultimately made our product more valuable.

Cash or points? A simple feature with a lot of value.

This is the essence of product management–it’s not just about building a product; it’s about evolving it to remain relevant and valuable in an ever-changing world.

What’s a product manager?

Building on our understanding of what a product is and the fundamentals of product management, we can come full circle and finally answer our initial question— what exactly is a product manager (PM)? This role isn’t just another cog in the machine; it’s the operation’s critical, pulsing heart. The product manager embodies the principles we’ve laid out: creating value through products and refining them based on feedback.

A product manager leads a product from idea to market and beyond, balancing user needs with business goals.

In principle, the product manager’s goal hasn’t changed since antiquity. In reality, the modern-day product manager has much more on their plate than the potter or hat maker. Talking to users, understanding their needs, and finding ways to solve their problems are just one part of the puzzle. PMs must also prioritize the most crucial products or features, validate it’s possible to build them within a given timeframe or budget, ensure the product aligns with the overarching business goals, and have the buy-in from internal stakeholders. They are then responsible for actually driving the product through development to launch. In future posts, we’ll dig into the Product Development Lifecycle and discuss how products go from idea to market. 

A simple feature, like the points vs. cash comparison in the TPG App, can be complex to build and launch.

Comic of the TPG app.
A day in the life as PM of the TPG App

Think of a PM as an orchestra conductor; PMs aren’t directly playing an instrument but are responsible for getting everyone in tune, playing the same song at the right tempo, to create beautiful music. Put another way, product managers ensure that stakeholders (marketing, sales, legal, etc), engineering, design, and all other relevant parties are aligned and working on the same customer problem with the same intensity to deliver the most value to users.

So when we talk about the product manager’s output, it’s in the name itself: the product. A product manager is a catalyst in product development – turning ideas into reality and ensuring that reality evolves with the ever-changing needs of users and the business. They don’t just manage products; they lead them through their lifecycle, ensuring they grow, adapt, and thrive in a competitive landscape. The job is hard, the hours are long, and when done right, rewarding as hell.

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