What is a Product Manager?

Carlin Yuen
4 min readJan 5, 2021

tl;dr — the ultimate purpose of a PM is to help teams focus on WHAT to do and WHY.

Today’s goal is to remind myself what being a PM is really about.

I want to create products that make lives better. I’m listening to My Future by Billie Eilish today.

I’m not talking about the specifics of how to do backlog triage or roadmapping, but rather, “what is the scope and purpose of a PM?”

What a Product Manager isn’t

First, some common misconceptions about the Product Manager role:

Some people characterize Product Managers as “mini-CEOs.” While PMs are often leaders, I think “mini-CEO” is largely untrue. Any CEO can tell you that the authority and scope of responsibilities are significantly different. PMs are responsible for the success of a portfolio of products, but often have to influence without authority; whereas a CEO is ultimately responsible for the entire company/business and have the authority to hire, fire, and veto most anything, any time. PMs may act like CEOs or take on responsibilities that overlap, but it’s not conventional.

Others have described the PM job as “doing whatever else needs doing.” Yes, we’ve ended up ordering pizza or mailing out swag, but only because they were important to the team or product functioning well (food for a late night crunch, rewards to incentivize champions and scale community). We may end up picking up slack in various areas — because at that moment, it is an important factor to our team’s success and no one else was better suited to do it — but it’s not the best use of a PM’s time or expertise.

Sandwich by xkcd

What a Product Manager is really about

PMs end up doing incredibly diverse tasks: understanding users, defining requirements, product design & strategy, identifying market opportunities, bug triage, roadmap definition, backlog grooming, stakeholder management, and more (depending on industry, domain, and product lifecycle)! But when it comes down to it — if I look at all those responsibilities and think about the unique value proposition PMs offer to teams that no other job role covers —

The ultimate purpose of a Product Manager is to help teams focus on what to do and why.

There’s a lot of product work bundled into that (strategy, research, design, execution, growth… for a future post :), but I think it captures the end goal for what PMs are uniquely positioned to do and responsible for. As PMs, it’s often said that we are judged by the success of the product, but that’s not always true, especially if what is right is to shut down a product. Ultimately, we are responsible for helping teams make smart decisions about what to invest time into, and bring clarity to why they’re the right decisions.

How do we help teams focus?

So what should we do to “help teams focus on what to do and why”? I love the below illustration on how projects can go wrong — it’s an exaggeration, but there’s truth in its potential failure modes.

A tree swing project gone wrong (origin)

If my project or product flops, there can be many factors that contribute to the result, but the ones that I would consider a PM primarily responsible for are the two bottom corner panels:

  • Understanding what the customer really needed. If I don’t know what our customers really need, then there’s no way to focus the team on building the right thing. Did we ask the right questions, gather the right information, and validate the right solutions? This helps us figure out “what to do and why.”
  • “Making sure the project was documented.” Don’t take this one literally. Documentation is a means to an end — the important question is: am I clearly communicating and aligning my team on“what to do and why?” It doesn’t matter if I know what product to create, if my team and stakeholders don’t understand, aren’t bought-in, or are misaligned on it.

If I forget everything I’ve learned about being a PM, this will be the first thing to re-learn: at the most basic level, as a PM, I should have a deep understanding and bring clarity to WHAT we should be doing and WHY. I’ll do a future post on what I’ve found to be effective for doing this (pitches, PRDs, prototyping, testing, experiments), but that’s out of scope for today.

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Carlin Yuen

A geek on a journey to create impactful products.