A day in a life of a product manager

A day in a life of a product manager

Mike Fishbein does content marketing at Alpha UX. You can connect with him @mfishbein or via his personal site, mfishbein.com.

An article ion The Next Web captured the essence of product management so well that it left one commenter exclaiming, “Finally I can point people to an article when they ask me what exactly I do!”

I know how that reader feels. Product managers have evolved to the point where they are truly the lifeblood of modern organizations, but their roles are necessarily ‘open-ended’ and unfortunately often misunderstood.

So we thought ‘what better way to explain the importance of product managers than by asking them to take us through a day in their lives?’

We sourced 106 product managers from SMBs to Fortune 500 companies across various industries to participate in an online survey. Below are some of our findings.

Planning and execution

First, we asked product managers what their roles are and responses expectedly varied. Here are a few examples of the diverse responses we received:

  • “I am an external-facing product manager. I interact with our customer base as well as own a few products. I also collaborate with marketing and provide content…”
  • “I lead the product strategy through to development and deployment, working with leaders in business from sales, marketing, operations, and development…”
  • “I write and prioritize requirements and manage and facilitate the product development lifecycle, from inception to release to review.”

In terms of day-to-day tasks, product managers reported engaging in both strategic and tactical work. While likely few product managers write code, they often possess technical skills and need to get their hands dirty. Here’s a look at the percentage of product managers that report participating in the following activities on a daily basis:

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Unsurprisingly, meetings were the most common daily activity for product managers, reflecting how critical communication is to their jobs.

Focus on the user

Product management requires understanding users and marketing processes, discovering problems and opportunities, and creating new product ideas. Just over 60 percent of our respondents spend time talking to customers.

To gain user insights and feedback, product managers primarily practice in-person customer development interviews, online survey, focus groups, and in the case of digital products, tracking usage metrics.

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Often product managers think they know what their users and potential users want, only to find out they don’t, sometimes after spending lots precious time and money. To avoid wasting time and money by simply guessing what users want, building and launching, product managers gain insights throughout the entire product development lifecycle.

Organization and communication

There are numerous organizational structures for coordinating product management efforts. Through our surveys, the vast majority of product managers said they report to a Vice President or Director of their group. Anecdotally, we’ve seen a growing number of our clients moving to or becoming interested in innovation lab structures.

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Daily challenges

By far, the most cited problem product managers report is with internal politics, processes, and bureaucracy. Other internal challenges product managers face on the job include a lack of resources and working alongside R&D to iterate on product concepts.

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Tension between product managers and developers is all-too-common and there are actually guides floating around to help the departments work peacefully together. Much of the tension seems to come from R&D’s desire for specs and product management’s newfound need and passion for experimenting and iterating.

Product managers also have their hands full! Most are working on more than one product at a time with a heavy skew within the 3-10 products range.

Tools and resources

Product management professionals use an incredibly diverse range of tools and services, which is no surprise given the many hats they wear on a daily basis.

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Some of the most common tools that product managers reported using are Microsoft Office, Google Apps, JIRA, Wufoo, Balsamiq, SAP, GoToMeeting and Trello.

With regard to services, hundreds of alternatives were mentioned. Some of the recurring names were firms like KPMG and Forrester, but the overwhelming majority were smaller consulting firms.

Key conclusions

The management and development strategies and tactics used by product managers have evolved considerably over the last couple decades. Within a large company and on an innovative product team, product managers need to do… well, a lot of things every day.

Product managers practice empathy and curiosity to gain market and customer insights. They utilize products and services to in turn manage the execution of projects and products of their own. And, perhaps most importantly, they use strategic thinking for product roadmapping and identifying new opportunities. No doubt that for the best product managers lean methodologies dominate every facet of their roles.

The full survey results and a detailed report can be found here. For a visual perspective into the life of a product manager, check out our infographic.

Read next: 12 things product managers should do in their first 30 days at a new company

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