1d. What a PM is not

What doesn’t a PM do?

In previous chapters, we discussed all the multitude of roles that a PM has to take. The job’s variety is a key attraction for many people. However, it’s also useful to know the anti-definitions of a PM – the things a PM is not.

The PM is not a CEO

A CEO of a company has managerial authority over a company and its people. She can make hiring, firing and staffing decisions, set the strategy of a company, and make tough prioritization decisions across all functions and projects within the company.

The PM role has many trappings of a CEO role, and a PM is often referred to colloquially as the “CEO of a product”. This has some truth to it, because the PM is supposed to guide that product’s roadmap and make prioritization decisions about what to pursue.

However, there are some very key differences between a PM and a CEO. First, a PM generally does not have managerial or direct authority over any of the other people he needs to work with. This means that the PM needs to either rely on set processes that turn his roadmap priorities into tasks for others, or influence other teams to prioritize the work that needs to get done. In other words, it’s rare that a PM can force others to work on something in the same way a CEO can – a PM needs to build consensus among the team and does not have much power to declare things by fiat.

The CEO is kept in check through a few different ways, e.g. supervision of the Board and regulations around accounting practices. In contrast, the PM works in an environment that has many more checks against her power. Depending on the organization, almost any other function could have its own check against a PM’s influence. For example, engineers have the ability to set eng estimates, which are incorporated into prioritization decisions – this often has a major influence on the PM’s decisions.

In spite of all this, the PM usually does have responsibility for her product’s performance. In other words, the PM is held responsible for the product hitting its goals, but does not have the direct authority over others working on the product! This can be a challenging situation to be in if the PM does not have good support from the team or from management.

The PM is not the salesperson

(Note: Sales teams are probably more prevalent for B2B products. B2C products may not have Sales, but might have bigger Marketing teams, and the below advice generally holds in those cases too, but substituting Marketing for Sales.)

The PM is a salesperson for the product, mostly within the company. This means that others look to the PM to be the product expert and to represent the product’s goals and obstacles in discussions. PMs should expect to evangelize their product within the company – it is useful for others to know the current state of a product, its priorities, and what its constituent teams are working on.

However, a PM is not the external salesperson for the product. There should be a real salesperson doing that! If the PM oversees a product that is in some way sold by itself and which can have financial impact attached to it, then the PM probably very much cares about the money the product is generating. However, the goals of the PM should be around evolving the feature in the right way to increase sales, not actually pounding the pavement and pushing the product.

That being said, PMs are often looped into sales conversations by the actual sales team. Not only do customers like speaking to people working on the product, but the PM can also help answer more specific or technical questions about how the product works. These conversations are almost always useful for PMs as well, since they are a valuable source of customer or user feedback. During these customer sales meetings, one note of caution is that the PM should avoid overpromising anything to the customer, even though it will be tempting.

The PM is not (just) a project manager

As a PM, you’ll often hear others confuse your role for that of a project manager. And who can blame them! Not only do the titles sound very similar, but there is in fact a decent amount of overlap in the roles.

Broadly speaking, a project manager is concerned about the company’s internal processes to get something built (how the product gets built), while the product manager is concerned about what gets built. However, especially at larger companies, it’s not tenable for every project to have a project manager, so project management is often concerned with setting up scalable systems across the org to track projects and improve efficiency. For example, they may create internal tools for tracking, or they might run major quarterly prioritization meetings to help facilitate the process.

This means that for individual projects, the product manager often assumes some of the duties of project management for that given project. This could mean anything ranging from setting up team meetings to keeping meeting minutes to sending out email updates to updating the tracking of the projects in the company’s tracking system.

Some companies will explicitly bundle some project management duties into a product management role. But even if that isn’t true, it’s hard to imagine a product management role that’s completely absent of project management tasks. The important thing here is to find the right balance – spend enough time on process to make sure things keep moving efficiently, but not so much that it takes all your attention away from doing the necessary product thinking.

The PM is not the center of the world, or even the company

A lot of things about the PM job can go to somebody’s head. The PM has “ownership” over one or multiple product areas. The PM represents and evangelizes a product. The PM is generally the first point of contact for any questions or requests for a given feature. The PM is a main participant in prioritization meetings that determine what gets built.

But, as a PM, it’s vital to remember to have humility. The PM is far from being the most important person on the team. There’s a half-joke, half-truth among PMs that if all PMs in a company were to disappear one day, nobody would notice for at least a few months. Remember that the PM is not the one actually building, designing, or selling the product, but rather, she provides glue to hold everyone together.

The reminder about humility comes with all the other related pieces of advice that one would expect. It’s important to listen to others and to earnestly address their concerns. It’s important to give credit to others when credit is due. It’s important to work well as a team.

As a friendly note of caution, it’s sometimes the case that the PM accrues the blame for outcomes of a product that weren’t fully within his control. That’s perhaps inevitable as the “owner” of a product area. But, on the bright side, as a PM, the team’s success will be (partially) your success as well.