Product Management Roles and Responsibilities
Whether they are making mobile devices, apps, or pharmaceutical drugs, many of today’s most successful businesses have something in common: a blockbuster product, defined as one which generates colossal revenues compared to a company’s existing product line. An introduction like the Apple iPhone, Candy Crush Saga, or Lipitor can open up new markets and send a stock price soaring.
Behind the scenes, the success of a new product often depends on a product manager, who guides it from conception to market. The quest for blockbusters is one reason that job openings for product management roles are projected to grow by 11.6% over the next decade, which is about three times faster than that of all occupations, according to the labor data firm Lightcast™.
While the occupation has grown, it has also become more diverse and specialized. Products come in many forms, and product managers can fill a wide variety of roles. Learning about the different product management roles and responsibilities can help aspiring professionals decide what kind of career they want to pursue in the field of product management.
What Does a Product Manager Do?
In many respects, a product manager’s job is similar to that of a project manager for a construction site. Any major construction project, such as an office building, requires coordinating a wide range of groups and details. A project manager ensures that architectural plans are drawn up, materials are ordered, and specialized workers arrive at the right time.
For a product manager, the overall responsibility is also to coordinate multiple groups toward a single goal, but in regards to creating, launching, and maintaining a product instead.
Generalist Product Management Roles
Because many different workers and teams can be involved in new product development, a product manager is typically a generalist. Generalist product managers have knowledge and experience in multiple aspects of business operations that equip them to handle a wide range of responsibilities for a product.
A product manager is often responsible for the entire product life cycle, which can include the following:
Surveying consumer needs
Designing a product to incorporate features that meet those needs
Manufacturing a product efficiently and cost-effectively
Shipping a product to wholesale and retail outlets, as well as directly to consumers
Redesigning a product periodically to add new features and continue driving sales
Even a seemingly simple product can have multiple teams working on various elements. Coordinating their work includes setting timelines for each team to ensure on-time product delivery.
Besides setting timelines, a product manager monitors the teams to ensure that they are keeping to their timelines and to arrange assistance if a team runs into roadblocks.
While overseeing the work of the teams, a product manager manages the interactions among them. In some ways, the role is a specialized version of a CEO’s role—in that they both connect departments that may not regularly work with one another.
For technology products, in particular, supply chains can be complex. For example, the iPhone contains parts from more than 200 suppliers in 43 countries.
A key product management role is to identify sources for each component of a new product based on several criteria:
Ability to meet design specifications
Quality of work
Timely delivery of parts
In some respects, distribution is the opposite of sourcing. It moves a finished product from a central location to many locations across a widespread network.
A product manager oversees distribution planning, ensuring that a product ships on schedule to every location while staying within budget. Those destinations may include physical stores and warehouses. Products may be distributed directly to consumers on e-commerce sites such as Amazon.
The final step in launching a product is creating and executing a marketing plan, which includes tasks including but not limited to:
Identifying potential consumers
Designing ads and collateral that highlight product features and benefits
Implementing traditional ad placement in media and/or nontraditional marketing through social media campaigns
Training a sales force and designing financial incentives to encourage sales
Specialized Product Management Roles
Product managers are typically generalists. However, as the profession has grown, many product managers have taken on roles that are tailored to specific kinds of products.
A look at some of these specialties—such as growth product manager, technical product manager, data product manager, and platform product manager—highlights how different their responsibilities can be. Understanding the differences can help students to decide whether and where to specialize.
What Does a Growth Product Manager Do?
The phenomenon of blockbuster products has stimulated the growth of specialty product management. A growth product manager role has several key differences from that of a generalist:
Instead of overseeing all aspects of a product, a growth product manager focuses on a single aspect: driving rapid growth in users to drive growth in sales.
A growth product manager may work with one product or several.
While a generalist focuses on customer needs and how the product can meet them, a growth product manager focuses on the business, specifically its growth goals.
Growth goals may differ from product to product and quarter to quarter, but the methods of achieving them are largely the same, as explained below.
A growth product manager runs short-term experiments with multiple strategies at the same time. The experiments often involve incremental changes in a product or its marketing. They generate data to indicate which changes produce the most growth.
To achieve rapid growth, a growth product manager designs experiments to quickly determine what succeeds. The manager can then move on to a new set of experiments.
A growth product manager sets various numerical targets for measuring success:
New users acquired
Existing customers retained
New product sales to existing customers
The targets may change over time. In one quarter, the target may be to encourage users of a free app to upgrade to a paid version. In the next quarter, it may be to acquire users from specific demographic groups or geographical regions.
As experiments succeed or fail, a growth product manager prioritizes the initiatives that have the highest impact and should be scaled up. The manager then works with the product team on implementing those initiatives and measuring the results.
What Does a Technical Product Manager Do?
In the world of technology, where new products often have complex designs and precise specifications, the technical product manager has arisen as another specialist. While a generalist works on all aspects of a product, a technical product manager focuses on its technical aspects and its core functionality.
Because technical product managers work principally with engineers and designers, they tend to have professional backgrounds in areas relevant to the product. A manager for app development may have software engineering experience, whereas a manager for an audio product may have experience with hardware.
Whatever the product, technical product managers have the following common responsibilities:
A technical product manager gathers information from market researchers on features that consumers are seeking. However, the manager also gathers information from engineers about features in existing products that need improving, as well as what is technically feasible. The product manager’s job is sometimes to find the middle ground between engineering and marketing.
While a generalist product manager outlines the product vision, a technical product manager fleshes out the vision, such as determining which features are technically possible and which resources will be required for design and manufacturing. Getting the technical details right in the early stages can prevent costly changes later in the product life cycle.
Product Road Map
The product vision leads to a product road map: a detailed plan for how to design and build the product. A road map includes tasks for each team and timelines for completing each task, as well as descriptions of how each task fits into the overall process of product development.
In creating a road map, a technical product manager consults closely with designers and engineers, integrating their suggestions on how to make the process more efficient.
Developing any product comes with various risks and obstacles that can cause delays, change direction of the product, or add costs. A technical product manager tries to anticipate the risks and come up with solutions or work-arounds to keep the process on schedule and budget.
What Does a Data Product Manager Do?
With the rise of big data and data analytics, actionable information has become a crucial element of developing, testing, and marketing new products. The importance of data has created another kind of specialized product management role: the data product manager.
For a data product manager, data is the core product, and product teams are its consumers. With a background in data analytics and product management, such a manager can help generalists get the data and insights they need in developing successful products. Below are some of the responsibilities of a data product manager.
Designing Data Systems
A data product manager frequently works as a go-between, communicating the needs of other product managers to a company’s data department and helping create data systems to meet those needs.
Designing those systems can include breaking down large data needs into discrete projects, which the data department can deliver faster and more efficiently.
A data product manager helps to determine the kinds of data that are needed to measure success, such as objectives and key results (OKRs) or key performance indicators (KPIs). The manager then sets up systems to collect data on those metrics and extract insights from them.
An A/B test compares two variations of a feature to determine which one performs better. For example, a test may offer two different user interfaces and measure which one gets more engagement.
A data product manager helps to design A/B tests, determine the data to capture from them, and interpret the results.
Most product professionals are not data specialists. However, because of the central role of data in product development, the job often requires basic to intermediate data literacy. Part of a data product manager’s job is to educate team members about data and how to use it.
What Does a Platform Product Manager Do?
Not every software product is an app or a program. Sometimes it is a platform: a product that provides a foundation for other programs to run on top of it. Examples are:
The Android and iOS operating systems, which together enable 5.4 million apps to run
Facebook and Twitter offer their own features for social media users but also integrate apps from third-party developers
Developing a platform is a very different process from developing an app because its users include other app developers. That is why the platform product manager has evolved as a specialty. Below are some of the common tasks for a platform product manager.
Communicating With Developers
Just as any product manager keeps in touch with users about their needs, a platform product manager communicates with app developers—also called platform partners—to find out:
How well existing features are working
What new features they might desire
What new features competing platforms are offering
Creating and Extending Features
As a platform product manager learns about the needs of external developers, the manager works internally with engineers to write prototype code for new features, test them out, and gather user feedback.
Besides creating features, the manager may work to extend existing ones. The Facebook “like” button, for example, originally applied only to posts and status updates. Over time, it has expanded in both application and scope–now including reactions such as “love” and “wow.” Facebook has also created a version of the like button that web developers can link to their websites to collect likes on Facebook without requiring users to open the app.
Marketing to Developers
Competition among platforms can be intense as they seek to attract and retain the most popular apps. One task of a platform product manager is to market the platform to developers, explaining its advantages for their apps and ways it can enable new functions.
Product Manager Career Path
A product manager’s career path typically begins with education. A bachelor’s degree in business or technology provides the foundation for becoming either a generalist or a specialist.
In their next educational steps, students learn concepts and skills specific to the field of product management:
Product development life cycles
Software management tools
Product road map
User interface (UI) / user experience (UX)
Some students learn these skills in graduate degree programs. An alternative is an intensive program such as a six-month bootcamp, which can lead more quickly to an entry-level job.
Once in the profession, the product manager career path generally progresses through three stages, with increasing responsibilities and salaries.
Associate Product Manager
At the entry-level, associate product managers earn a median annual salary of $81,900, according to Lightcast™.
An associate product manager works with the nuts and bolts of product management, usually on a single product:
Conducting customer and market research
Implementing data systems
Proposing new product ideas
Coordinating teams from various departments
Setting up timelines and road maps
Senior Product Manager
According to Lightcast™, the average senior product manager earns between $100,500 and $112,200 a year, depending on experience.
A senior product manager often supervises associate product managers. While an associate manager handles the details of a product, a senior manager takes on higher-level duties:
Defining and following best practices
Ensuring that goals are met
Coordinating production, sales, and marketing
Serving as a liaison among teams, departments, and other stakeholders
Monitoring markets for new customer needs and opportunities to boost profitability
Principal Product Manager
A principal product manager is a senior-level position overseeing all of a company’s product management activities. A typical principal product manager has at least nine years of experience in the field and earns a median annual salary of $114,500, according to Lightcast™.
Unlike a senior product manager, a principal product manager does not directly supervise personnel. Rather, they work from a big-picture perspective, tracking all product development activities and intervening as needed. The role’s duties include the following:
Defining and communicating the overall product strategy
Setting companywide metrics and analyzing data for insights
Tracking individual products and counseling other product managers
Leading internal discussions and coordinating stakeholders
Representing customer viewpoints in discussions
Learn More About Careers in Product Management
Product management is a fast-growing profession that calls for a wide variety of skills and offers a broad range of roles, both general and specialized. An intensive program such as Fullstack Academy’s online Product Management Bootcamp can prepare a student of any professional background or experience level with the basic skills needed to qualify for an entry-level product management role in as little as 25 weeks.
The program combines concepts, such as design thinking and product strategy with practical tools for making road maps, designing prototypes, and analyzing user experiences. Explore how the program can equip you for a rewarding career in product management.