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What is Product Management in startups and technology companies?
by
Sydney Maxwell
, 25th February 2021
7 min read
Insights
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We spoke with three Product Managers from various technology companies and backgrounds, ex-consultant Anant Kapoor from gaming and entertainment company Improbable, David Zuo from online gaming company Zynga and Chitra Laras from the UK’s leading rail and coach company Trainline. The team at Hiperpool published this original article in 2018, now three years later, we’ve brought in some significant updates.

For more details about our interviewees see here.

In this article you’ll learn:

“The product manager of today is increasingly the mini-CEO of the product.”  - Mckinsey & Company

Product Managers set the product vision & strategy while leading a diverse team (engineers, designers, marketers, etc) in delivering the right product to the market. They define the product roadmap, including features and requirements, and articulate the business rationale behind it. They are responsible for articulating the ‘what’ and working with the relevant teams to build and maintain a successful product. As the figure below suggests, their expertise lies in the intersection between business, technology and user experience.

The key responsibilities of a Product Manager 

As the illustration above demonstrates, Product Managers sit in a very interesting position within an organisation. “The Product Manager is responsible for the end-to-end product.” Anant from Improbable shares, “Therefore, a lot of my time is spent on focusing on building the right product. This is a combination of working with engineers, designers, the customer, the users, marketers and the internal business stakeholders. You want to be sure everyone is going in the right direction.” 

The role of a Product Manager is to manage the relevant teams and whatever product or asset they are responsible for. They need to keep business objectives in mind, developers time in mind, designers, their audience and users, etc. They are the key component that keeps everything in check. 

Below, you’ll find the cycle of responsibilities for Product Managers, when launching and improving products.
 


 

What does Product Management look like at different types of companies?

A key point to highlight here is how this role might vary across organisations. Our focus is on technology companies and not those with physical products, as there are other variables to consider. 

McKinsey & Co. isolated three popular archetypes for Product Managers at tech companies in Silicon Valley, demonstrated in the visual below. Most technology companies today have a mix of technologists and generalists, but for less technology-specific companies, generalists are most popular.

 

 

Chitra from Trainline says: “The role can vary a lot across companies, however, it’s mostly impacted by company type rather than size. All of the product books that talk about how product should be done and executed only really apply to fairly mature companies. This was the reality at Booking.com where they have a really strong product culture, similar to Facebook, Google, etc. But I don’t think it happens at most companies because you just don’t have the luxury of having everyone in a product mindset. So it’s less about company size, but more about company maturity and the staff's understanding of product within that company.”

You can also often find two types of product people. First, someone who is very hands-on on the day to day and works closely with Quality Assurance (QA), the technical side, etc. Second, someone who is more informed on the business's strategic bill and then passes it on to a business analyst (BA). These types of people aren't informed by company size, but again by the culture and how the teams are structured.

What you need to be a successful Product Manager

A few necessary traits for Product Managers are leadership, prioritisation, organisation skills, analytical skills, stakeholder management, and technological awareness. As your career changes and you master certain skills, you will develop others and so forth. 

Anant from Improbable shares “There is no secret skill that defines product management, no book that you can pick up, read and just master the subject. Instead, it is about identifying your product’s biggest priority and doing whatever you can to move the needle. Sometimes, this will be focusing on the development, working with engineers and designers to get the next feature shipped. At other times, you may have to hit the road with the sales team or work with customer support to improve SLAs or work with marketing to refine the message. The list goes on. In the end, the skill you need is usually whatever it takes to make your product successful."

Chitra from Trainline said “I would say it depends on seniority. Across all levels, the most important skill is prioritisation, you need to be able to prioritise what you think is best for the business and sacrifice what you think is less impactful. That’s essentially why you got hired as a product manager.

As you develop in your career, you will develop soft skills more, for example stakeholder management. These skills become way more important because once you’ve mastered the basics like prioritization, it will be strategic thinking and leadership skills that will bring you to the next step.

It’s important to understand that as a Product Manager you don’t build anything yourself, but you’re asking others to build for you. However, if something goes wrong, you get in trouble for it and if something goes right, you don’t get the praise for it because you didn’t build it. Persuasion is key because you rely on others to build what you want to build. If you want to get buy-in from developers and the business, you need to tell them why it’s important to prioritise a feature from a business perspective. So those soft skills are very important.”

David from Zynga said “Product Management requires a really broad set of skills. You need to have an intimate knowledge of both your own product and your competitors’. You also need to have the analytical skillset to be able to identify and understand what metrics you need to improve for the product to be going in the right direction. Moreover, once you have an idea, you need to be able to convince stakeholders and collaborate with all the other departments to make it a reality. Ultimately, you need to be good at persuasion, stakeholder management and analysis in order to implement the vision that you want to deliver to people.”

How essential is coding for a Product Manager?

Anant from Improbable said “This depends on both the company and product. For very technical products or software targeted at developers, it helps to have a background in computer science. However, it is definitely not mandatory for others. 
  
Most Product Managers I know have either come from a quantitative background or have somehow gained experience in building something. I studied mechanical engineering and learnt some coding but never became proficient. What helps is knowing enough to be credible in front of a team of engineers. I’ll never be trusted to look into the codebase, but understanding the context helps me in defining the product."

David from Zynga said "Coding is not necessarily essential for a product manager and it depends heavily on the firm and the team. Data analysis with SQL is often one the most essential skills, allowing PMs to query data and make data-driven decisions."

Chitra from Trainline shared “You don’t have to be able to code, but you better understand how code works. You need to understand the concept of it, how higher-level things work that’s really important. It will not only allow you to explain things more clearly from a business perspective but will also gain respect from the developers. As a product person you can’t only prioritise business needs, you need to have an understanding of scalability, timeline, etc. If you don’t have an understanding of it, or even try to, you will shoot yourself in the foot.

You don’t need to know how to code, but understand what backend is, frontend, API, etc. Understanding how things work.

Tip: There are some topics that are very technical that you might not understand, but if you know who to ask on the tech side, and you trust that person and they have the patience to explain it to you so you can explain it to other people, you will be successful.”

What advice would you give to people looking to make a move from consulting into Product Management?

Anant from Improbable said “Product Management is very different to consulting but leverages many of the same skills. It is similar because you tend to be a generalist, trying to break down many unstructured problems. However, it is a lot less about the strategy and far more about the journey. You are making lots of small decisions every single day and these compound to something big over time. Whereas in consulting, you might spend eight weeks researching whether or not to enter France as a market. In Product Management, you continue dealing with uncertainty and allow the answer to be far more emergent."

Chitra from Trainline shared “The biggest difference, especially for someone coming from consulting, is that they want to have the view of the project from start to finish before they do anything about it. However, in product management, there are often many different variables and you have to have the principle that it’s ok to build a part of it first, get feedback, and continue to improve it. I work with a number of consultants at Trainline and because they’re used to presenting to clients, they need to have a clear ROI at the beginning of the process. As a product person that’s often just not feasible given the level of uncertainty. The principle of “creating then improving” is not often present in consulting, so it’s something to be aware of.

As a consultant, you present a strategy. As a product person, you execute a strategy but you can’t determine wholeheartedly if people will like it or not before you put it in front of them. And you just need to live in peace with that uncertainty.

I think the most important thing to look for when interviewing with a company is to understand how they do product. Every company is different and you want to look out for how they decide what to build. In my case, I don’t want to only execute what I’m told. I’d like to be a part of the conversation and be able to choose what I believe has the biggest business value. I like to ask “How do you decide what to build next?” and “How do you assign and split the team?” because this will give you a lot of information. 

One way is when the company splits the team based on the outcome they want, so they are goal-aligned. Because then hopefully, you’ll choose what to build and which initiatives to pursue to reach that outcome. Another way of organising the teams is by projects. If the teams are split by projects, it often means the project is decided somewhere else and then put in front of you to execute.”

David from Zynga said “I think it’s really important for people who want to go into Product Management to be passionate about a product that they want to work on. This comes across not only in interviews but also in work. When you’re passionate about improving a product, the job is much more fun and I think this is true for every Product Management role. It is something that I’ve personally experienced, so it really helped me choose from my offers and I’m glad I made the choice that I did - I don’t regret it.”

What advice would you give to someone who has just started their career in Product Management to help them excel and grow in their role?

Anant from Improbable said “The first thing you should do is spend time with your customers and users. The faster you can internalise the voice of your customer, the faster you can start adding value. 

There are some best practices out there on how to do good user research that are worth learning. My two favourite frameworks are ‘Jobs-to-be-Done’ and ‘The Mom Test’. The better you get at spending time with users and instilling their feedback into insight, the better for your product."

Chitra from Trainline shared “Honestly, just be 1% better every day. Sometimes you’ve been doing the role for so long you forget there are different ways to do things. I’m always reading articles, following blogs that share their story, or go to a conference even if there isn’t anything particularly new. It’s a really helpful refresher that there are different ways to think about stuff.”

Recommended readings and resources

More about our interviewees:

  • Anant Kapoor graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2015 with a B.A. and MEng in Mechanical Engineering. He joined top consultancy Strategy& where he worked as a management consultant for over two years. After he joined technology firm Masternaut in their Product Strategy and Operations team and has since joined Improbable as a Product Manager. Check out his blog Hack the Planet here!
  • David Zuo completed his undergraduate degree in MSc Information Science at University College London and his Master's degree, MSc in Management at the Imperial College London. After graduating David joined gaming technology firm Zynga, and has been working as a Rotational Product Manager.
  • Chitra Laras completed her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering and later completed her Masters of Science in Human Technology Interaction at Eindhoven University of Technology. After graduating Chitra joined renowned travel company Booking.com as a Product Owner and later joined healthcare technology firm Zava as a Senior Product Manager. Finally, Chitra joined the UK's leading rail and coach company Trainline in 2019 as a Senior Product Owner.

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