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?

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?