So, What Is It That You Do Again?

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One of my favorite shows of all time is Friends. There's a particular episode where the characters get into a high stakes betting war. It’s the guys versus the girls, and they’re locked neck and neck in an intense trivia battle. Finally, it all comes down to the game-winning question for the girls: “What is Chandler Bing’s job?” Both girls are shocked as they realize they have no clue what their friend does for a living.

Rachel: Oh, gosh! Does it have something to do with numbers?

Monica: And processing!

Rachel: And he carries a briefcase!

Ross: Ten seconds. You need this or you lose the game.

Monica: It has something to do with transponding!

Rachel: Oh, oh! He's a transponds . . . transponster!

Monica: That's not even a word! I can get this! I can get this . . . [Ross clicks time—they’ve lost.] NO!

It's a great scene. If you don't believe me, click here to watch it. (Seriously, you won’t regret it.)

The moment is so ridiculous and funny, but it got me thinking, Why does this resonate so much with me? Then it clicked. If you're a product manager reading this, maybe you can relate too. How many times have you tried explaining what you do for a living or what a product manager is? And even if you have a great explanation, how often is the person left confused because they still don't  understand?

As a new product manager, I’ve begun to see this play out across my own life with my family, friends, strangers and even coworkers. Heck, even my mom has no clue what I do for a living! That's a problem. What's even more confusing is that I’m finding everyone in this field of work has a different answer for what a product manager is.

I find myself constantly fumbling for an answer to this same question. Since I truly feel like I do not have a great response, the sole purpose of this blog is to attempt to craft my own response by collecting qualitative data (aka cheating and coming up with my own answer) and bringing you all along for the ride. I interviewed as many product managers as I could, along with other coworkers and relatives. To make this as simple as possible, I asked them all one question: What is a product manager? The following responses came from a group of 14 people: six product managers, a project manager, four coworkers, two relatives and, of course, my mom. To keep it confidential, I’ll refer to each interviewee as a character from Friends (except for my mom). Here are their responses:

  1. Ross: A product manager makes sure what we build is worth it.
  2. Joey: They’re the manager of the product. Product managers manage the idea and process in which products are created.
  3. Monica: A product manager solves problems that customers love, in a way that works for our business too.
  4. Chandler: A product manager is the leader of a group of people who has no direct “authority” but must successfully provide direction, clarity and team strength through influence and relationship building.
  5. Phoebe: A product manager works with customers to figure out what they need and what we should build—in a way that the business wins too.
  6. Rachel: A product manager sets direction and vision for a product.
  7. Janice: You manage a product, right?
  8. Carol: A product manager is the voice of the customer in the business, tasked with understanding the customer problems and helping teams come up with solutions for those problems. We try to align business incentives with customer incentives.
  9. Gunther: A product manager is like a project manager, or like a product owner.
  10. Marcel: A product manager ensures a product effectively meets the needs of a customer.
  11. Richard: I really don't know.
  12. Ben: Well, my answer is based on whether the person is familiar with technology or not. If they are not, I say I'm in technology. But if they are, I usually say a product manager works with programs and designers to build apps and digital products for people.
  13. Mr. Heckles: A product manager makes sure the product is valuable for both the business and the customer.
  14. My mom: I don't know, something with Dave Ramsey and working on computers.

Yes, I’m thinking exactly what you’re thinking. Why is it so hard to describe what we do? Why are there so many different explanations and responses? And how do I explain to my mom what I do for a living?

I did notice a few common themes that popped up across most of these responses. Those were the customer, the business, technology, team collaboration and problem solving. It’s true that a product manager functions in all five of these capacities, and we’re also responsible for addressing the risk associated with a successful product. But how do you put all of that into one or two sentences?

Well, now that I’ve gathered all the data, here’s what I plan to tell people moving forward:

A product manager bridges the gap between the business, technology and the customer. In collaboration with a cross-functional team, we solve real and meaningful customer problems in a way that meets the needs of the business.

As for my mom, I think I’m just going to tell her I work in technology . . . Seems simple enough. What do you think? Are you clear about what a product manager does?