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Is product management a job? A career? A discipline? It depends on whom you ask. The landscape is forever changing, yet forever staying the same.
When I started out in product management (quite a few years ago) it was pretty much uncharted territory. Except in consumer packaged goods.
While being a female with an MBA wasn’t exactly rare, it also wasn’t common. I had successfully run a marketing research department. I had customer knowledge. And several direct reports. Presumably that would be a good foundation for product management. But that was true only to a point. As a product manager with no direct reports, I had to attain my goals through influence. I had to work with all levels and types of people. The entire life-cycle was my responsibility. And I learned not all views of the job were the same.
Different companies and industries (and people) see things differently. That’s why the number of consultants and books has exploded. And various membership societies coexist. Like the Product Development & Management Association (PDMA). And the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM). Indeed, a search for product management in the LinkedIn Groups yields over 1,000 results. While most groups are quite small, some have thousands of members.
But product management titles vary
Not surprisingly, titles and their meaning vary. Some product managers handle strategy and innovation related to upfront activities. Relevant titles include:
- new-products manager
- strategic product manager
- upstream product manager
- product development manager
Others are more focused on marketing and sales. They manage positioning and price changes as the product matures and evolves. Titles include:
- tactical product manager
- downstream product manager
- assistant product manager or product coordinator (although these titles are commonly associated with experience)
Still others deal with all or some of these activities. They are likely to be held accountable for the business and commercial success of their products.These product managers—with the full gamut of responsibilities—are common in most mid-sized and small companies. (I refer to them as full-stream product managers.)
The PDMA argues that the main focus should be on new product development. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the focus should be on sustaining customers and profitability. This requires a mix of new products, enhancements, and ongoing management. That’s the essence of full-stream product management.
Product management is generally not an entry-level position (except for some technology jobs). Therefore, when there is a need to bring a less-experienced individual into the role, firms may precede the title with assistant. (Assistant and associate seem to be preferred in the United States. Junior is a familiar prefix in Europe.) To get a general gauge of experience for different prefixes, I analyzed LinkedIn data. As a rough guideline:
- junior product managers typically had 1-5 years of experience
- assistant and associate product managers had an average of 3-10 years of experience
- senior product managers generally had more than 10 years of experience
Product specialists, product coordinators, brand managers and product developers ran the gamut of experience. I found no position where the majority—or even a significant percentage—of the people had less than a year of experience.
With that in mind, I have therefore used the following definition in my writing and training.
Product management is the entrepreneurial leadership and management of a piece of business (product, service, product line, brand, segment, etc.) as a “virtual” company. Product managers are generally accountable for the success of this “company” without having direct authority over the functional specialists who “make it happen.”
In other words, the product manager’s job is:
… to oversee innovation, development, marketing, product support and product rejuvenation.Their goal is to provide concrete value to both customer and company.