If you were in a kindergarten classroom on career day, how would you explain the role of a product manager to a bunch of five-year-olds?
“I help make computers work better for people?”
“I make sure a whole group of people work together?”
“When a lot of people ask for a computer to do new things, I decide what’s most important?”
Or maybe all of the above?
“Explain Like I’m Five” is a whole concept around taking a complex topic and breaking it down so that anyone—even a five-year-old—can understand. (There’s an entertaining original video series around ELI5 from Reddit, if you’re looking for a laugh.) In all seriousness, though, the product manager role is complicated. Hard to sum up in simple terms for a five-year-old, let alone the rest of the general population.
If you’re looking to break into the world of product management, you might be wondering, “What does a product manager do all day?” While the day-to-day product manager’s responsibilities may vary across organizations, this role always sits at the intersection of three distinct functions: the business, the customer, and the technology team.
We’re going to break down what a product manager can expect from the job and what a job description tells you about the organization’s relationship with its product manager. All to help you—future PM—determine if the role is a right fit for you.
What are the key product manager responsibilities?
At a high level, the product manager guides a cross-functional team through the entire strategic and tactical product lifecycle. In other words, the product manager is the go-to person for any product-related decisions. A PM decides both “where are we going?” and “how do we get there?”
Because the product manager’s role straddles multiple functions, a lot of their time is spent juggling priorities and communicating between departments. They have to collect and assess input from customers, key stakeholders, business leaders, and functional team leaders. AND they also have to translate those concerns from group to group, so everyone is speaking the same language. At the same time, the PM needs to articulate and champion their own vision for the product.
Oh, one more thing: The product manager needs to accomplish all of this on time and on budget.
Sounds easy, right? 🤔
Determine the product vision and roadmap
The product vision is the overall strategic goal for the product. It should be an alignment of company objectives and end-user needs. You know that interview question often asked, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” Apply that question to your product, and you have the product vision. It is the Big Picture.
The product roadmap contains the steps along the way. To draw in more new customers, you need to add features x and y. Or to remain competitive in the marketplace, you need to add feature z. Along the way, you also need to address bugs, changes in technology that may crop up, and feature requests.
On a daily basis, product managers often run meetings between engineering, customers, and stakeholders to communicate product information, pitch ideas, collect and prioritize feedback, or discuss product issues. The product manager becomes the subject matter expert and knows the product needs better than anyone.
Outline project requirements
While the product roadmap often addresses timing, specific project requirements dig into the details. Features will be organized into different product releases, and the product manager determines which features go into each release. These decisions are based on the amount of time, resources, and desired outcome for the release.
The requirements doc (or scope) incorporates end-user feedback, market research, and the business objectives. The PM conducts research based on data (such as product analytics or surveys) and looks at competitor offerings. Included in this research are specific end-user requests for product changes. Basically, a lot of information is compiled into a single document that outlines the project.
Product managers also drive the outcome. PMs run beta tests or experiments within the product to ensure it meets customer expectations. They also identify the KPIs or other metrics to measure success.
Every project tied to enhancing the product—from idea through delivery—falls to the product manager to deliver.
Collaborate across departments
The product manager is the “voice” of the customer, often acting as a translator between end-user needs and the engineering team. It requires a strong pulse check on customer needs and their product expectations—including prospective customers.
To keep the line of communication flowing, the product manager works across multiple departments, including sales, marketing, engineering, and executive. The flow might look something like this:
- Collect feedback from sales about prospective customer pain points and communicate new product features.
- Help marketing department with product positioning statements for new products or features.
- Pitch ideas and communicate the product roadmap to the executive team.
- Provide product requirements for and get input from the engineering team, and monitor project progress.
- Enable customer service with resources for new products, including release notes.
The product manager keeps everyone on the same page, at all times, regarding where the product is at today and where it is headed.
What does a product manager job description look like?
We’ve established that the PM role involves working across departments and deliverables, but what does this look like on a day-to-day basis? To give you a little flavor, here’s a short-form hypothetical job description aggregated from real-life listings on SaaS job boards.
You can look for clues in a PM job description that will tell you what the company expects from its PM. Some companies with large departments have supporting roles (like data analysts), while others expect the PM to fulfill all responsibilities. We’ve emphasized some insights of a typical product manager job description in each section and explained what you can glean from the text.
(As a side note: There is also a new kind of product manager role emerging at product-led organizations. The “growth product manager” is a slightly different role that includes direct accountability for commercial business outcomes, like the free to paid conversion rate and upgrade/expansion revenue. You can read more about the growth product manager role here.)
Sample product manager job description
The product manager is a pivotal member of our team who is ultimately responsible for making business decisions and creating product strategies that solve user challenges and drive revenue. Our goal is to build products users love. Your job is to use your unique blend of business- and technical-savvy combined with a big picture vision and killer leadership and management skills to get us over that finish line on time and on budget.
In this role, you will be a champion for the customer and the product while working closely with internal teams and key stakeholders, including company leadership. You will craft a roadmap informed by market fit, product requirements, customer needs, and the go-to-market strategy. You will own the entire product lifecycle, from strategic planning and tactical implementation to measurement and ongoing optimization, all the while focusing on driving growth.
The key responsibilities:
- Engaging with customers on a regular basis via multiple channels
- Specifying and prioritizing market and product requirements, feature sets, and key positioning and messaging elements
- Collaborating with designers and engineers to solve problems
- Curating, communicating, and managing a long-term product roadmap
- Analyzing external and internal data to identify gaps and opportunities
- Defining KPIs and setting targets that move the team toward success
- Conducting relevant research studies
- Developing internal and external product training plans
- Exemplary interpersonal, communication, and project management skills
- Excellent team- and relationship-building abilities, with both internal and external parties (engineers, business stakeholders, partners, etc.)
- Ability to work well under pressure, multitask, and maintain a keen attention to detail
- Natural tendency to be positive, creative, and curious
- Team player who enjoys collaborating with others
- Genuine empathy toward customers and commitment to diving into the weeds on their challenges
- Strong leadership skills, including the ability to influence cross-functional teams via diplomacy and tact
- Passionate dedication to your craft and a desire to work with people who inspire you on a daily basis
Decoding this product manager job description
You can tell a lot about the size of the team based on the job description, or you can ask the hiring manager during the interview process.
- Technical-savvy: You need some technical skills, such as coding basics, which isn’t uncommon for a PM.
- Craft a roadmap: The company will be counting on you to outline the product direction.
- Own the entire product lifecycle: You’ll need to understand software development—how a product gets from idea to delivery.
- Key positioning and messaging elements: You’ll need a little marketing pizzazz to communicate real-world value.
- Analyze internal and external data: The company may not have a data analyst to help you—the data to back up decisions will be in your hands.
- Work well under pressure, multitask, keen attention to detail: If you can’t keep track of sh*t, this job isn’t for you.
If you were to land this job, you would need to be prepared to completely own the product and process from start to finish.
How great product managers juggle everything
Product managers have a lot of plates spinning at all times, and they need to remain calm and collected through it all. Those that excel are typically masterfully organized and innately skilled at the whole “what comes next” thing. While the job is demanding, good product managers don’t seem to struggle with the many people and priorities constantly demanding their attention. Instead, they’re able to keep their focus on the end goal of creating great products.
If you’ve got the unique blend of skills needed to be a product manager, go for it. There’s no shortage of companies looking for that amazing PM who can guide their products to the next level.