When I graduate, I want to work in Product Management. Becoming a Product Manager (PM) is a career path that is not very popular among iSchool students. Every time I broach the subject, my classmates either confuse it with Project Management, or simply stare at me.

To save myself from any further awkward situations, and gain a better understanding of what PM actually is, I interviewed professionals in the field. I was surprised by what I learned from them, and share my findings below.

The People

Jim Cook is a veteran of the banking industry. Starting out as a developer, he is now a VP in Project/Product management. He emphasizes having thorough knowledge of the field, as well as the technology.

Shawn Pons is a Senior Product Manager in Southern California. Starting out in management and marketing, his work now deals with technology as well. While technical knowledge is necessary to work in this role, Shawn proves that a concrete technical background is not required.

Jason Skowronski is a Product Manager (PM) in a fast-growing San Francisco Bay-area startup. With a Computer Engineering background and entrepreneurial experience, he believes that outstanding customer service is the most important aspect of PM.

The “Management” Aspect

The first question in my mind: who or what does a product manager manage? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on the organization and the field. Jason explains how the role is loosely defined. Some PMs have financial responsibility, while others may perform the function of a business analyst, while in another organization he or she may have to perform marketing/sales.

Regardless of the organization, all product managers will likely have to deal with the project management aspects. Jim utilizes a variation of the Scrum methodology to mange multiple teams, including development, marketing, and advertising. In his organization, resources and staff are shared across teams, and the product follows a monthly release cycle.

With various people involved across the organization, communication is a huge responsibility of the PM. Stakeholders come in various shapes and sizes – they may be customers, developers, designers, salespeople, and management. Shawn considers the product roadmap (which tracks backlog and prioritization of product features) as a starting point, to ensure that both internal and external stakeholders are kept informed on prioritizing  new features and bug fixes.

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A Typical Day

There is never a “typical day.” Shawn spends some of his workdays at the office, working with developers to create new features, while on other days he might be out in the field, interacting with customers, understanding their pain points to improve the product and beat the competition.

Jason’s workday starts even before he reaches the office. He spends his morning train commute checking emails, looking up bugs and feature requests. He also participates in several meetings for sales, one-on-one customer interactions and coordinating with developers.

The Organization

Like the role of a PM, the organization hierarchy in Product Management also varies by organization. However, one feature that remains similar across the board is the matrix-style of management. The PM reports to higher management, while liaising between teams of various functions. For instance, Jim manages mobile as well as online product teams that cut across developers, UX designers, copyrighters, etc. Additionally, as a VP, he has product managers reporting to him, who in turn manage their own product teams. Shawn on the other hand, does not have any product managers reporting directly to him, but deals with the different functional teams and assists other PMs when the need arises.


Considering the problems that a PM faces, Jason places customer support as the most trying. He recollects a troubled customer calling in at 9pm, and how they continued to talk until 1am to resolve the issue. Customer relations can make or break an organization, and the PM plays a huge role in that area.

Jim faces issues with prioritizing new features and enhancements, as well as compliance and improvement requests from within the organization. The key is to figure out “the important things that need to be done, and always within an acceptable timeframe.”


For a product manager, Shawn feels that most conflict arises from a lack of unity of vision and differences in opinion. For example, various internal groups believing that their requests or action items receive the highest priority. He tackles this head on by asking the relevant questions: how much revenue would this particular item bring in? Do the customers even need this new feature? He quotes the training program Pragmatic Marketing: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the solution is to ask the right questions, collecting relevant data and using that to make decisions.

Jason faces challenges with people, especially new hires, who are not in sync with the rest of the organization. He recommends that there be more focus on the on-boarding process. However, as a PM, his biggest dilemmas have been with developers, whose work sometimes does not align with the product strategy. Making them understand this discrepancy while not belittling their talent is a delicate balancing act.


To manage change (internal change such as change in the organization or management, or external change in market forces), Jason, like Shawn, insists on asking the right questions to the right people. For instance, he often meets with customers to discover what additional features they need in the product.

He warns against relying on the opinions of friends, or others committed to your cause who can bias your outcome. In some cases, there is insufficient data, and you’ll have to rely on your intuition.

To illustrate, he quotes Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” The product manager sometimes needs to take an educated guess at discovering customer’s needs, for the customers themselves do not know what they need.


When quizzed about some popular misconceptions on the product management field, Shawn quickly refutes them:

PMs have the final say in decisions and “free reign”

The product manager’s job is to collect requirements from both internal and external stakeholders, prioritize them and ensure that a suitable compromise is reached. The job is in no way autocratic.

You don’t need field or technical knowledge work in PM

It depends on the organization and the role. For instance, technical knowledge is of less value in the retail industry than in a software company. However, having the specialized domain know-how will help you understand your industry and the market better. Technical skills help you understand developers, be aware of their limitations and work closely with them.

PM is an easy job

It isn’t easy at all. The coordination between teams and managing projects takes a lot of effort. Everyone wants their features or requirements to be built first, but its up to the product manager to push back and understand what is urgent and what isn’t.

Degrees and Qualifications

When asked whether the job required advanced degrees, such as an MBA, everyone responded with a big NO.

Jim explains that the passion for the field and the desire to learn is most important. He advises starting from your area of expertise, then moving out. For example, an engineer moving to PM can start dealing with the technical aspects and slowly work on the other areas like marketing, financials, customer support, or strategy.

Jason mentions that an MBA is not a necessary qualification in Bay-area startups. What’s most important is that you show your love for the job, especially spending time with customers, as well as organizing and delegating work among employees.

Advice for Aspiring PMs

Product managers come from various backgrounds, but in software and digital product firms, they are highly likely to be from a technical or engineering background. In such cases, Jim highly recommends a change in perspective. Instead of chasing the “latest and greatest” in technology, do what is best in the interests of the customer.

Jason’s advice is to start making a difference right now. If you plan to transition into a PM role, interact with customers and understand their pain-points. If you are a student, get involved in projects that you are passionate about. Employers love to see those. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and make mistakes; nobody’s perfect.

Shawn provides some suggestions, based on his experiences in the digital industry. First of all, it is recommended  to have some knowledge of software development, to improve communication with developers and earn their respect. Always listen to all the stakeholders in identifying what needs to go into the product, but the burden of the decision lies on the PM. In this regard, learn to “filter out the noise”. Consequently, it goes without saying that a PM requires excellent communication skills.


There is a clichéd saying among Product Managers: that the job gives you all the responsibility without the authority. While that is true to an extent, each PM is provided with a unique set of challenges and opportunities, as is evident from the experience of these professionals.

Shawn summed it up succinctly, by describing what he loves most about his job: “Being the CEO of your product. You truly get ownership in your product and what comes along with it.”

Are you an aspiring or experienced Product Manager? What questions do you still have? What do you wish you knew when you were starting out? Share your thoughts in the comments below.