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The Many, Many Names of Product Managers

By: Therese Padilla

Just about every company has someone that matches the job description of product manager. In terms of a product that is currently in the process of being developed, this person tends to have their hands in just about everything. They're present at every strategy meeting. They've had a huge amount of input on the roadmap (or have created it themselves). Whenever you can't find those product managers, look harder. They're usually hard at work on feature definition either for the product in question, or for the entire product line.

Marketing. Forecasting. P&L. It doesn't matter - this person is there every step of the way, putting their organizational skills to excellent use and lending a helping hand wherever possible.

Many businesses would call someone who performs these duties a "product manager" - yet at the same time, a lot of them don't. The issue comes from a general failure to separate product management (the process) from product manager (the role). Understanding more about the many names of product managers requires you to keep a few key things in mind.

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover

One of the most important things to understand about all of this is that title doesn't necessarily distinguish the role a person is playing. Product manager positions can vary wildly from the next, based on a host of different criteria. Company size is an important factor, for example. If you compared product managers from a small company of fewer than fifty employees to an enterprise with over 250 employees, they might have significantly different responsibilities - but they're still both called product managers. The same is true of product managers for mid-size companies of between 50 and 250 employees.

The business stage will also play an important role in determining the exact definition of what a product manager is, what they do and how they help on a day-to-day basis. Business stages like startup, growth, expansion/rapid growth and maturity will all demand different things of someone in this important position - to the point where they may not actually fit the textbook definition of a "product manager" any longer. However, they'll still be doing their part, the same as they always were.

Revamping the Product Manager Again and Again

In a situation of a small company, a product manager's day may actually include things like doing wireframes and UX design. In a larger business, there would be dedicated people to handle these tasks. In a larger company, however, a product manager is responsible for shepherding the product from development to delivery to customers. Their job becomes less tactical and more strategic in nature. Interestingly, this diversity of roles can actually be problematic for many product managers, as transferring skills becomes harder as the next company defines their entire role in a dramatically different way.

As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the company, the more duties cross over. Product managers at startups with less than 50 employees essentially have to be "jacks of all trades" - they've got a great deal of input in a large number of areas.

In the end, it's important to remember that product managers may have different names but the actual process - the meat of their day - remains the same. Regardless of what you happen to call them, they're still hardworking men and women who show up with a vision and who know how to guide a potentially disparate group of people towards the reality of that vision in the most effective way possible.

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