Product Manager has become a popular short-term career goal for MBA graduates to write about in their essays. I have recommended it to a few folks who are struggling with their career goals and they all seemed to like it. However, when you are struggling with the MBA career goal essays, if someone suggests being Colonel Mustard in the library with a candle stick, you consider it.
Digressions aside, product manager is a more savvy way of saying that you want to work in general management. Another option to the general management career track (which does not involve actually managing generals or even colonels) is management consulting. However, unless something in your background indicates that you can tolerate the rigor and demands of the lifestyle associated with a consulting career, it's not likely to make your essay look believable. In this example, managing even private first classes would be a rigorous enough background.
In the last five to ten years, product management departments have been created at companies, like health insurance, that did not previous have this functional area. Tech companies have used product managements since the industry was first created way back in 1991. Geek MBA 360 covers product management at tech companies very well while my knowledge is product management in health insurance. The product management position has become popular since it provides a clear accountable person or "one throat to choke" for a line of business. The fact that it's becoming a more common post-MBA destination shows how widespread it's become and how it may have peaked.
I hope that it won't go the direction of project management which is often confused with product management not only because the names sound very similar especially if you say them quickly. The demise of project management is the endless certificate options like PMP or PgMP. These certificates or license have proven to be very good predictors of tolerance for standardized tests and adult education classes and a very poor predictor of the level of quality of a project manager. They are also very good at creating an easy way for recruiters to screen out applications for positions that could attract a lot of candidates with every diverse backgrounds and many applicable skills. This type of certificate program is a significant risk for the demise of the product management position.
My tirade against project management served as an opportunity for me to both vent and juxtapose it with product management. At some companies, a product manager is very similar to a project manager as they tend to focus on implementation. These implementation product managers are more internally focused and implement new strategies, products, or decisions that someone else, usually the Sales department, made. In the case, they don't usually conduct market analysis except to validate specific decisions or build business cases since that work was already done.
What an implementation product manager will do is:
- Use bullet points because product managers know that their implementation teams won't read anything they write unless they use bullet points
- Work closely with IT or IS or Computer people Product Managers to define requirements and get sign off from business owners
- Develop and maintain documentation on decisions
- Resolve interpretations of different decisions or different documentations that may vary across departments or systems
- Product training
- Ensure that any annual processes are completed
- Work closely with internal departments on new process development
- Lots of project management
A strategy product manager is definitely sexier. However, to put that in perspective, that's like saying one member of the Hell's Angels has better flossing habits than another one. The strategy product manager can generally get project managers to do the implementation work and is the one involved in the decisions for new products, geographies, or other strategies. The work includes:
- Still has to use bullet points but communications are shorter and more like "We decided to do launch a new product that will appear to niche X. The project manager will actually implement it and I will pretend that I am the project manager's boss."
- More external facing with lots of market assessment, developing market segments, forecasting market growth, and talking with customers
- Presenting to customers. The Sales folks will generally trust you in front of clients to not talk about the difficulties that the latest request will create with the billing department's invoice batch process
- Develop 3 year product plans called road maps
- Assess new business opportunities.
- Be the product expert and know how it should work but you will get to buy a vowel or use a lifeline with another functional area that knows the actual answer. The strategy product manager just has to know who to ask
- Develop very good judgment on what projects really require the strategy product manager to manage in order to be successful but won't absolutely suck away too much time
The main difference with strategy product managers is that budget product managers don't have to beg other functional areas to free up FTE time or hours to support their products. They already have an allocated FTE time that they can spend how they choose. In the corporate world, control of budget trumps all. Whenever someone tries to assign me a new responsibility, I demand the budget and resources to cover it. No one has called my bluff and given me both which shows how much people value their budget. Therefore, I am still a strategy product manager.