Developing, manufacturing, promoting, selling and supporting a product involve multiple departments within a company. A typical division of responsibilities may look as follows: The engineering department designs and develops the product – be it a hardware device, a piece of software, or a service. Manufacturing is responsible for building products in quantities to meet demand. The marketing department promotes the product using vehicles such as public relations, advertising, tradeshows, etc. The sales department is responsible for selling the product to potential customers. And finally the technical support department resolves any problems customers encounter while using the product.

With multiple departments involved in each product life cycle, coordination and alignment become critical to product success. Orchestrating the activities of all the departments involved is the primary responsibility of a product manager. In many respects, the product manager is the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (CEO) of the product.

The challenge that every product manager faces, is that unlike a CEO, the various departments involved in the product lifecycle do not report to him. A product manager is rarely in a position to “order” a manufacturing manager, or an engineering manager to do the right thing for the product. The secret to a product manager success is the ability to convince the various departments to march in the same direction and effectively collaborate to ensure product success.

The product manager primary job, and a key to his /her success, is to build a leadership position; a status that will grant them authority over the various departments. The process of building product leadership requires the use of political skills – in a positive sense. It certainly helps if upper management provides the right backing for the product management team. But at the end of the day, it is the product manager who must handle the daily challenge of maintaining his/her product leadership status.

Assuming job #1 has been accomplished and the product manager has leadership/influence over the other departments, his responsibilities should include the following:

  • Product requirements: identify the key customer requirements engineering should implement in a new product, or subsequent releases of an existing product.
  • Feature prioritization: reach agreement with engineering on the priority and implementation order of features, and the actual content of a product release.
  • Release planning: plan a schedule of future releases that introduce new features and necessary fixes.
  • Pricing: of the various product offerings, options and related services.
  • Messaging: define the key messages and the product positioning. Work with the marketing department to deliver those to customers and partners.
  • Competitive positioning: analyze competing products/services in the market and define key advantages to be highlighted during the sales process.
  • Sales enablement: create educational materials and train the sales force on how to best position and sell the product/service.
  • Deal support: provide any required assistance to sales people; personally engage to help win strategic deals.
  • Crisis intervention: become involved with, and help resolve major breakdowns that occur at strategic customer deployments.

Product management is one of the most complex and challenging positions within the organization. As the saying goes – “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan”. When a product succeeds in the market place, engineering takes credit for building a great product, and sales will pride themselves on their ability to drum-up customers. But when a product fails, the product manager may find himself carrying the blame: feature requirements weren’t clear, or incorrectly prioritized; messaging was murky; sales were never properly trained; etc. So why should anyone wish to hold such a position?

If you love to drive a team, build consensus and watch it succeed in creating something new. If you like to deal with multiple disciplines, and interact with all parts of the organization. If you love engaging with customers and keeping your fingers on the industry pulse. If you want to exercise your analytical skills, communication skills, and people skills – then you will find the role of a product manager ideal for you. And if you dream of becoming a CEO of a company, there is no better training than a product manager job.

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