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Student Experience

What is a Product Manager?

Breaking down the product management role within a technology company

By Paul Smirl

January 24, 2022

Person with laptop

In popular culture, the tech workplace is often lampooned as a dark room full of sleep-deprived developers feverishly writing code. In reality there’s more to developing a tech product, and the business side of a tech company plays a major role. So, who are the people who help turn technological inventions into real-world products? 

The answer is product managers. They are the overseers of a company’s products and the technological innovation behind them, and the stewards of that innovation’s role in meeting the customers’ needs in the marketplace.  

“Product managers in tech are the shepherds of the product management lifecycle process,” says Peter Commons, senior lecturer in the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Program and former business leader at Zendesk, Amazon, and Groupon. “They will generally lead a product all the way from the ‘what the heck do you want to build?’ through to the product launch.”

The lifecycle of product management 

The key steps product managers take from idea to launch:

  1. Identify a problem. Product managers assess the market and suggest ways to leverage their company’s resources to create a product that will solve a problem for customers. 
  2. Interview prospective customers. This enables product managers to get a feel for how the potential software or hardware product could be used and how much of a market exists for the product.
  3. Develop a proposal for the product. Product managers work closely with technologists to scope the technical parameters and determine what products and features will best align with the company’s business strategy. A great product that customers will love (and buy!) is said to have great product-market fit.
  4. Let the technical people build the tech. Product managers at this stage help things move along smoothly and check in to ensure the process stays on track. 
  5. Ask thoughtful questions throughout. Keep the business strategy top of mind for the company. 
  6. Make sure the product works. Product managers constantly measure, test, and validate their product with their customers—to make sure that what the team has built meets customer needs as well as they had hoped. 
  7. Launch the product. Product managers work closely with the company’s marketing team to reach the right customers. 

The skills you need to succeed as a product manager

To succeed as a product manager, you need to have a broad vision of how you can help your company achieve its product goals while fostering an empathetic understanding of each role that your teammates play in product development. Knowing enough about your company’s technological capabilities is key, and having keen insight into your product category will help you invent and roll out the right software or hardware.  

As director of the Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management at the Wisconsin School of Business, Steve Boeder helps develop tech business leaders. He says having a balanced skill set in soft and hard skills sets you up for success as a product manager.

“Product managers have to have this curiosity component. They also have to be really good at communication, organization, be able to do research and analytics, and understand the customer piece and execution,” says Boeder. 

To excel in the business of tech, you will most likely work within an Agile project management style. To do so successfully, product managers have to be small-‘A’ agile and be willing to shift priorities at a moment’s notice to best serve the team and the development of the product. 

“Product managers have to have this curiosity component. They also have to be really good at communication, organization, be able to do research and analytics, and understand the customer.”

—Steve Boeder, Director, Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management

As a product manager, you’ll also need to be aware of your technical team’s technical debt. Similar to credit card debt, technical debt is the time and workload that your engineering team needs to keep software systems reliable and maintainable. You may have extra work you didn’t originally account for, and you’ll have this debt on your record as you try to juggle the many responsibilities of managing the stages of a product build. 

In the end, remaining imaginative and having a sense of wonder about what your product can do for people is what drives great product management. “Finding cool tech that solves customer needs in a new creative way—that’s the panacea to me of great product building,” says Commons. “Leveraging the power of technology is hard, yet your products can grow to be very valuable and have a dramatic effect on your customers.”

This story is Part 2 in our three-part series on the business of tech.

Read Part 1: The Vision, Skills, and Mindset You Need for a Career in Tech 

Read Part 3: The Keys to Tech Product Marketing

Interested in changing your career and becoming a product manager?

Learn more about earning your Wisconsin Full-Time MBA in technology strategy and product management.