Product Management

Evolution of Product Management Roles


What is Product Management, anyway?

Pragmatic Marketing defines PM as a strategic market-facing role.  They state that a PM’s role is to find “an urgent, pervasive problem that people are willing to pay to solve.”  In this model, the PM works with other teams to design a solution for the problem, and while it’s being built, remaining out in the market finding additional market problems.

It’s about sizing up the market, identifying which segment(s) should be targeted, ensuring at the end of the day you have a profitable business to deliver value.

For the sake of argument, today I’m proposing that the Pragmatic model was accurate when PM wrote requirements documents and handed them off to engineering.  Better, more profitable products come from tighter integration of the market representative (PM) into the development process.

Within the last 5 years, another model is evolving.

User Experience (UX) is more important than ever before.  Startups and agile engineering teams are rapidly iterating toward a successful product via lean startup methodologies.  PMs can’t just identify a market problem, they have to play an evangelist role in making sure it’s solved the best way possible.  They have to represent the user, and accept or reject design ideas.  They have to ensure prototypes are user-tested before production code is written.  Martin at MindTheProduct describes the new model as the intersection of three distinct areas:

  • UX: The user
  • Tech: Engineering
  • Business: The market



PM thought is evolving.

The ways we self-organize to learn our craft should evolve as well.

I’ve been involved in ProductCamp for four years, and I think it provides a great service to the PM and product marketing community.  Camps in each city are different because of the people involved, and the people in a city’s camp often change the emphasis from year to year.  Some camps have a strong focus on agile, others on user experience, others on positioning, etc.

I think ProductCamp fails to attract people in other roles who provide value in this new vision of PM.  Most ProductCamps define themselves with language like this:

ProductCamp Atlanta is a collaborative, participant-organized professional unconference, focused on Product Management and Marketing topics.

This language doesn’t make it clear that interaction designers and developers are welcome and valuable.

A couple of events gaining traction this year are helping to defragment PM, bringing in these additional influences.  Martin’s group puts on a monthly event called ProductTank, which he describes as all-encompassing:

…exchange ideas and experiences about PM, Business Modelling, Metrics, Usability and all the other things that get us excited. ProductTank features talks from guest speakers on both technical and business related topics, networking opportunities, and good old-fashioned networking over a beer or two.

Cindy Solomon and Nadia Eghbal are putting on the Startup Product Summit in 2013.  That event is being aimed at the following roles: designers, product marketers, developers, PMs, community managers, and content strategists.

Being More Inclusive

Marty Cagan makes it a point to highlight that in the product discovery process, three people must be present: PM, Lead Designer, and Lead Engineer.  He also repeatedly asserts that “the best innovations usually come from the lead developer.”  Since design requires the engineer to be present, it’s also true that no product event is complete without representation from the engineering side of the house.

The mission of Startup Product Summit is inclusive:

We aim to bring together everyone who touches product to exchange perspectives on creating and sustaining product value.

I recently met with a few local PM leaders to discuss what product events in Atlanta should look like.  We perceive there’s a gap.

ProductCamp fills a proven need with its annual unconference.  IxDA Atlanta and the Atlanta User Experience Meetup put on events for interaction designers.  Numerous technology-specific groups meet on cutting edge technology topics.  The Atlanta startup community (Christmas event this week!)  puts on numerous events focused on lean product development and the search for new business models.  A Web Afternoon puts on a great series of events aimed at website and web application development.  Is it just me, or does this seem like groups are too fragmented?

RELATED:  Selling The Future

How is the role of product management evolving?

Is there something else called “product” that is separate and distinct?  Do we need a more inclusive product-focused event in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of ProductTank and the Startup Product Summit?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

ADDENDUM: Startup Product Summit featured a post on how the role of product management is changing.  Do you agree?

The product role is becoming more generalized
Product is seeping into new areas it had not previously been before. Particularly with the rise of Agile development, teams are focusing more on disseminating the responsibilities of product throughout existing roles: developers, designers, founders, marketers.

New trends like growth hacking are being described, as in Aaron Ginn’s series on the topic, as “at its core, a product-based role”. In tandem with the popularity of Lean Startup and its use of traditional UX methodologies to build products, there is also a growing perception that a design or UX background is useful to product roles over (or in addition to) a CS background.

We need a new vocabulary
With new beliefs come the need for new ways of describing them, and “product manager”, the best-known product role, is no longer adequate to describe a shared team responsibility for and contribution to product.


Brian Piercy recently linked to an interesting post by Marty Cagan on Product Management, Then and Now.  In this post, Cagan argues for a few provocative changes in thinking.  He suggests that writing requirements documents has become product discovery and the pursuit of MVP, which is part of the shift I’m describing in this post.

Spends Days:

Old: Writing Requirements Documents
New: Product Discovery / Pursuing Minimum Viable Product

Makes Case For Project Funding Based On:

Old: A Business Case
New: Customer and Product Discovery


I am not convinced of the replacement of the business case. I don’t believe the modern customer development and product discovery methods offer the types of information that are found in a business case in order to support informed decisions: market size, revenue projections, etc.  Larger organizations often aren’t nimble enough to move without those types of plans.  Will that ever really change, despite the ever-increasing pressure from startups?

What do you think?


  1. Great post John.

    Two things I’ve been thinking about lately – both touched on this post.

    1) Business requirements – I seem to be taking a step back to doing more formalized business requirements (which includes user scenarios) – I don’t think of it as spending my days writing requirements, but spending my time with customers and documenting those learnings – the output of our research is the business case and requirements. The document is used to drive discussions with development so that they can come up with a great solution to the problem.

    2) How to be more nimble, get to market faster so that you can fail, learn, improve faster. But so many business drivers in larger organizations seem to make that difficult. I’m not sure of the solution to this – but I think it needs to be improved to be able to solve business needs sooner.

  2. Regarding whether ProductCamps attract too narrow an audience, when we put together the St. Louis ProductCamp last year, we billed it as relevant for anyone involved in the designing, developing, managing, or marketing of products. That allowed us to draw in a wider crowd of relevant people who aren’t “product managers” by title but work in related fields. We had product managers and marketers, for sure, but also pricing consultants, UX designers, project managers, business analysts, management consultants, even at least one investor (plus I’m sure a few others). This exposed these people to some core product management topics, and enriched the experience for product managers by bringing these related perspectives.

    I’m sure this was one of the reasons that we had (what we believe to be) the best-attended first ProductCamp ever.

  3. Titles really are a mess. Among large well-established organizations, I’d expect the roles and responsibilities among product managers to look very similar. But if you look at these requirements for small companies and start-ups, they vary greatly, sometimes expecting domain knowledge of specific tools in addition to years of experience in fledgling industries. I’m sympathetic to the fact roles overlap as a company has fewer staff. At some point though there needs to be a bridge that can represent, interpret, empathize and socialize the interests of UX, business and engineering. What I’m curious about is where does this critical point lie, and when is it hit? X amount of users? Y amount staff required? Z amount of time? Perhaps the title needs to be dispensed of altogether, or qualified by specialization. Thank you for mentioning the Startup Product Summit– conversations need to be made among all of these specialized groups because at the infancy of a company, everyone’s connection to product is so much greater.

  4. Hi John. Nice post. I see your post covering two things.

    First, I like your call for a more inclusive approach to PCamps. While admittedly the marketing copy for PCampDC has been largely product management and product marketing targeted, interestingly our over 330 members is a diverse mix of product managers, marketing professionals, UX designers, consultants, entrepreneurs, government contractor employees, small business owners, and a smattering of product developers. One of the things we did early on was try to broadcast to the #DCTech crowd and that seem to get us some attraction. So your call for cross-pollination is a good one.

    Second, I must say I still see product management’s role as finding an urgent, pervasive problem that people are willing to pay to solve. That’s right in the bullseye of where PM adds the most value. What PM also needs to do is provide the vision and path for how to solve the problem, collaborating with engineering, design and others to make this happen.

    The problem has been that too many product managers have been stuck in tactical jobs. While lack of understanding of PM’s strategic value outside of PM has been part of the challenge, the PM profession has also not done a good enough job communicating its strategic value to the business. I’ve done many waterfall projects, and never once did I simply write requirements and hand them off to engineering. I was always intimately involved in the development and launch process. That need has not changed with agile, only made it more so.

    I think the real challenge has been that at every stage PM has not been at the forefront of driving real change and efficiency in terms of product development and innovation. Agile came from engineering. Stage-Gate came from academia and was institutionalized by consulting firms, project mgmt frameworks and PMOs. Each of these are examples of others trying to solve the problem of getting better, more responsive products to market faster.

    Lean Startup has emerged from the tech entrepreneur community. It’s founding father is a former CIO (not CPO). In a way, it extends the agile model all the way back to customer discovery – exactly what PM was supposed to have been doing! Feels like PM has missed the boat again.

    At the end of the day, someone needs to be responsible for the continued growth and optimization of the product portfolio, and someone needs to be responsible for identifying new market opportunities and finding a systematic way to test and de-risk the pursuit of these. Maybe these are two different people/groups. Both of these should be driven by product management, because that’s the group that’s supposed to be closest to the marketplace. For lack of being able to come up with any other name for the role at the moment, I’m continuing to call it product management.

    But that’s another problem we’ve had – and it’s been acknowledged year after year in Pragmatic’s annual survey – titles are a mess in our field.

Leave a Reply

Theme by Anders Norén


Get the B2B Product Newsletter to Master Your Craft

Join over 300 product managers sharpening the saw.

%d bloggers like this:
Read previous post:
Marty Cagan: Making Products Customers Love

Marty Cagan is one of the product leaders from whom I draw the most inspiration.  He's developed products at Netscape,...