It’s one of the more poorly named professions. The product manager. There are plenty of articles out there that try to define it. One article nicely defines the role as the CEO of the product. A handy characterization.
A distinction we like to highlight at Postlight is that a product manager is not a project manager. Don’t get me wrong. Project management is important. But the focus is too often on maintaining a process, not shipping a product. That’s sensible on big projects, but less useful when you need to bring a product into the light. Product managers get in there. Moving things around. Dropping things off. Explaining to the team that the research doesn’t support this tactical move or that. My co-founder Paul Ford says that a good product manager has a crooked index finger from hitting “Command-R” to reload a web app tens of thousands of times. I think that’s right — you’re looking for that person willing to obsessively look at tiny changes until the entire picture of the product comes into view.
I’ve been a product manager for well over a decade now, and have held the role of Chief Product Officer and managed teams of product managers. So I’m going to highlight what I think makes a great product manager. Here goes:
- Stubborn as all hell. One of the things that product managers contend with is an organization or even a product team that yank at the product’s agenda and priorities. A good product manager isn’t that flexible. That sounds horrible but remember, this is the aspirational product in human form. The product’s defender. She represents the product’s integrity. People will peck away at it.
- Slightly delusional. You may be at that final stretch and the team is anxious to cross the finish line. Every so often the product manager will begin sweating. It doesn’t feel done yet. A good product manager keeps reaching if it feels incomplete or just seems to fall short. Sometimes their asks are unrealistic or even ridiculous. A product team is made up of professionals focused on staying within their boundaries. They know the rules of the road. A strong product manager is mildly ignorant of those boundaries. It sounds kind of awful. It can be demoralizing. But remember, compelling product is hard and that blueprint from nine months ago can’t anticipate everything.
- A touch of class. Steve Jobs was keeping a very different score back in 1995. Microsoft was eating Apple’s lunch but he wasn’t impressed and it wasn’t just bitter envy. He summarized his displeasure with them in one sentence: “they have no taste.” It’s a brutal takedown. Here’s a technology juggernaut changing how the world works — and yet it’s sort of true. A great product manager — no matter how technical or marketing-driven — has an eye for what’s going to look and feel good. This applies across the different layers of design from branding to aesthetic to interaction. A good product manager cares deeply about how the product looks and feels.
Now, you’d think you need to be kind of a jerk to pull off the above. That’s a lot of friction. “I need more.” “Sorry, I can’t pass on that feature and yes we need to hit the date.” “We can do better with the design here.” I have to admit I’m envious of the product manager that can move these levers without unloading stress on the team. I deeply respect the person that can do all this and still make the team feel good, even inspired by change. There is a certain product manager that can pull that off. That’s a special and rare breed.
I’m not that kind of project manager — I’m a little bit of a dictator. I warn the people I work with that I can be tough, and they are also free to tell me when I’m asking for the moon (and I listen!). But it’s good to have goals, and that’s one of them: To communicate with our teams here about the kinds of decisions that I’m making, when I lead product, and to bring them into the process more and more. I’m going to continue to make irrational demands; I just want to share the irrationality.