Wtf is a product manager

David Smyth · 4 min read

A universally misunderstood title.

Slight variation on Martin Eriksson’s: [](

Yeah, so what is a Product Manager?

The Product Manager role is a relatively new and generally misunderstood role. So what is a Product Manager’s job? I think Josh Elman captured it best when he wrote:

The job of a product manager is to:

I’ll come back to why that’s an accurate description, but first lets look at why the role is so misunderstood (sometimes even misunderstood by those with the title). To understand where some of the confusion comes from, we need to step back in time a few years (or into a bank)…

You’ve probably heard many of the buzzwords when it comes to “process” for software development. In software development over the last few years, and in most large organizations, you’ll typically have heard about:

  • Scrum (agile!)

  • XP (agile?)

  • Waterfall (slow?)

And some of the prescribed roles and titles associated with each of those:

  • Project Manager

  • Scrum Master

  • Product Owner

  • Business Analyst

  • XP Coach / Customer / Tracker

Confusing? Yes, but they do have well defined responsibilities and work together across the spectrum of developing tech products.

But in an “agile” organization of any kind, wouldn’t you want to be able to change methodologies to best fit your team and the maturity of your product? Growing or larger companies will typically have multiple teams and multiple products at different stages of maturity, so wouldn’t you want to be able to choose the best way of working together for each case?

Your job title shouldn’t be tied to a particular development methodology

Scope of responsibilities

The entire scope of responsibilities required to build a new product looks something like this:

And if we take a look at the typical scope of some SCRUM roles for example, we’d find something like this:

So what’s the Product Management scope?

All of it…

But, not usually at the same time. It depends on the product but a single PM doesn’t usually have to cover it all.

Early in the lifecycle of a product they’ll need to be concerned with getting the right product-market fit. They’ll be spending most of their time assessing the market, figuring out how to differentiate from the competition and establish a scalable business model.

Once these basics are in place, although they’ll constantly still check back on the competition and product-market fit, they’ll probably spend most of their time in the detail of improving the features of the product, and consistently releasing updates of the product to users.

So, which responsibilities should a Product Manager cover?

The answer here is… it depends. It depends on the team, type of product, and product maturity. However a good Product Manager should understand where they are needed and be flexible to fill the responsibilities needed of them in this scope.

Great Product Managers fill (amorphously) the gaps that exist in the team,

in order to…

Help their team (and company) ship the right product/features to users

The key here is flexibility. In a constantly changing environment, ideas will become products, some will die and some will grow, existing products will go through a series of stages of maturity, team sizes will change and technologies, tools and processes will change.

If you work in a bank and your engineering team works with COBOL, this article probably doesn’t apply to you. But when it comes to building products in a changing environment, you’ll need a good Product Manager(s) to help with that scope of product development responsibilities. The best Product Managers will know where to apply their skills given any stage of product maturity and any scale or limitation of the team around them, to ensure they are filling whatever gaps necessary to help their team (and company ship the right products and features to their users.

David Smyth avatar

David Smyth

Former VP of Product

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