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3 Types of a Product Manager

Aktualisiert: 28. Apr. 2021

After switching from an Analytics role into the Product Manager position, I was wondering what different tasks and expectations I was confronted with. At first and additionally as a woman, I was assuming it was my fault of not understanding the Product Manager role correctly. In result, I found myself reading a lot of books, articles and receiving mentoring on how to be a good Product Manager.

After some reflection and experiences in different roles and companies, I can surely say that each company is in fact expecting something different from the Product Manager. Of course, you can now state that these companies are not doing it right. But open speaking, each company is different — so why not adjusting the role to the companies needs?

Of course, there is no right or wrong, but for us Product People (or if you want to become one), it is important to know this fact in advance:

Don’t expect the Product Manager role to be the same everywhere.

And even: Accept the differences. A Product Manager is not an one-size-fits-it-all solution. But in order to create more happiness across Product People :-), let us share our experiences of the differences and be aware of them before starting the next position.

Here are the three types of Product Manager position I experienced which I also observe in the roles of my friends and in job advertisements.

1. The Technical Product Manager or Product Owner

The Technical Product Manager task is mainly to support the development team with the operational work. This kind of Product Manager is more connected to tech-related topics and often handle products in a company which either have no direct effect to the customer, e.g. data-teams, algorithms, developer platforms, often with no user interface, or where you find yourself next to another person which is the (real?) Product Manager supporting him or her with technical topics.

In this technical position you should be very keen on discussing with the developers on how to do things —  in best case, you understand them and the differences between the programming languages, maybe parts of the code and you are able to login into GitHub to comprehend the made changes.

As you only have indirect effect to the user, your product discovery effort is very low. So, in result you will be not working much on tasks about user research or their main problems, not describing personas, not applying design thinking methods for finding solutions and not running analytics to understand customer behavior.

How do you recognize the Technical Product Manager?

Some even search for Technical Product Managers and name the position like that. Otherwise you can recognize it by these statements:

  • Technical product managers are owning certain technical aspects of the product like an algorithm, an API, machine-learning platforms etc.

  • The responsibility of the backlog is mentioned and it seems to be the core task to create epics and user stories for the team.

  • In this position you will spend more time on how things get implemented (not so much on what to do or other results of Product Discovery work).

  • You need to “translate” business requirements into technical requirements.

  • In the nice-to-have area, you can eventually find the statement that basic coding skills or experiences with SQL or other data-science tools are a plus.

2. The Project Manager

The second type is the Project Manager. The Project Manager has differences in itself:

In some roles you will jump from project to project, driving different stages of a project and doing a lot of various stuff, like desk research, creating business plans, moderating and setting up meetings etc. But, as you have actually no ownership of any product and as you will not follow the development of anything like a product, I would hardly argue to call this a Product role at all.

Another type of Project Manager will do a lot of coordination work within the engineering team: coordinating the resources, creating timelines, ensuring the delivery, setting up the team ceremonies and monitoring whether the work will be delivered with the expected value.

In some companies the interpretation of the Product Manager role developed from the past in which they were used to work with the IT as a some people accepting a completed book of requirements from the stakeholders without questioning and deliver whatever they have been told.

How do you recognize the Project Manager?

  • The first sign is the lack of a specific product in the title or description. Product Manager roles are often specified like PM for Search, for Payment, for Business Intelligence or for any Service etc.

  • A Project Manager jumping from project to project is very often responsible for an overarching goal, e.g. Business Model Change or Digital Transformation. In these cases, you often miss the point of the engineering team in the job description because there is actually none for your specific role.

  • If you read a lot of “coordination and management of xyz” and a product as well as an engineering team is mentioned, then you will be very likely a Project Manager within a software development team supporting them with your organizational effort.

  • Is the job from a longer established company which worked in the past with the IT in a non agile way? Then the likelihood of interpreting Product Management as Project Management is very high.

3. The Strategic Product Manager

The third type is the Strategic Product Manager. At a high level, these product managers focus on business strategy and development, worrying much more about what the product should do and what the customer and market is expecting. Pricing, packaging, sales enablement would for example fall on their shoulders.

  • Last signal: there is no development team involved

So, before you are applying to this super cool sounding new job opportunity, there are two things I would advise beforehand:

  1. Be sure about yourself and which type of Product Manager you want to be.

  2. Make sure you that the advertised job is really matching this type.

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