Folks ask me how to get into product management. I could talk to fill time and make myself feel important. But instead I stop and ask them what kind of product management they want to get into?

We talk about ‘product management’ like it’s a single thing. But it isn’t. There’s no meaningful or useful certification. There’s no real professional body. There’s folks doing stuff. Product management means different things to different people. The day-to-day reality of the role can vary from organisation to organisation. From product to product. And, sometimes, from hour to hour.

I’ve created a diagram to show the main types of product manager. It’s based on personal experience and the experiences of others. There’s no ultimate ‘right’ version of product management. There’s right for right now. If we’re choosing the right version for the right reasons then everything’s good. What’s important is to recognise the types and use them with intent. I’ve been all these types of product manager over the years.

Let’s look at our diagram and ask the question: What type of product manager are you?

Type of Product Manager Quadrant Diagram by Scott Colfer

The diagram’s got two axes.

Axis 1: Product Owner → Product Manager

Product Owner is someone who leads their team’s tactics for building something.This version of the role might focus on outputs (e.g. software features). At its simplest, we’re playing the Product Owner role as described in the Scrum Guide.

Product Manager is someone who leads their product’s strategy for improving value. This version of the role focuses on outcomes (e.g. benefits for their users and their organisation). At its simplest, we’re playing the Product Manager role described in the UK Government’s Digital, Data, and Technology Capability Framework.

Spectrum 2: Jack of All Trades → Specialist

Jack of all Trades is someone who provides many perspectives within their team. This version of the role may do some research, some design, and some of the technical tasks. They may be responsible for sales, marketing, or support. At its simplest, we’re doing most of the work with occasional support.

A specialist is someone in a multidisciplinary team. This version of the role is not covering gaps in the team. They have time to be product management-y. At its simplest, we’re understanding the specialist perspectives of others and looking for value in the sweet spot where they align.

Where might I be a product owner?

I see product owner commonly used in technology startups. I’ve been a product owner in this space. I see lots of product owners in this space through interviews and conversations. Common characteristics include:

  • Founders remain ‘hands-on’ in leading direction for the organisation. The own the business model and the product strategy
  • Technology is the focus, as is increasing users. Engineering (and Design sometimes) are the dominant professions in the organisation Product is being introduced. The first product managers may be engineers and designers moving into new ‘management’ roles. Their focus is helping teams build new technology features.

I’m using technology startup in a broad sense. This covers the spectrum from commercial companies making apps to large non-profit organisations introducing ‘Digital’ teams for the first time.

‘Product owner’ can be a good version of the role in this context. There’s high confidence in the problems. Product strategy is owned elsewhere. There are clear goals. ‘Delivery is the strategy’.

Issues can arise when this approach is taken but assumptions about the problem, the strategy, and the goals are untested. The organisation is set on a trajectory that’s moving away from reality. It’s hard to course correct when product is used in this way. Further issues can arise if founders or leadership remain too hands-on when the organisation becomes too large for them to do so effectively (‘founder’s syndrome’).

Where might I be a Product Manager?

I worked for myself for a while. Some clients wanted me to act as a consultant and review their business model. In these situations my time was not spent leading a development team. I was paid to help them find product/market fit and improve profitability.

Let’s take one of my clients. They hired me when they were coming to the end of their funding and had to become profitable. I focused on their customers and found that their sales time was 3-9 months. This was because their information security generated lots of questions. I made the case to prioritise information assurance accreditation for three months. This allowed us to reduce sales time to 1-3 months. It also gave us time to explore procurement processes for our customers. We realised we could quadruple the cost of the newly secure product without affecting sales.

This is the kind of situation where product management can be a good fit. There’s low confidence in the problem. Low confidence in the solution. And a broad scope to make changes, quickly, based on testing in the real world.

Issues can arise if this approach is taken when there’s no real scope to change. If we’re running a website development project. And it’s the fiftieth one we’ve done. And it’s entirely typical. Then this type of product manager could easily become overkill and lead to a waste of time and money. Further issues can arise if this type of product manager is hired but only has the scope to function as a product owner. Or is expected to be a jack of all trades.

Where might I be a jack of all trades?

Some organisations have one or two specialisms that dominate their culture. I did some digging into associate product management schemes a couple of years ago. It was interesting to read one of the tech giant’s programmes. They said that their focus was engineering. They wanted product managers to fill the gaps in the team. To support engineers to do engineering by taking care of the other stuff.

This can work well when the organisation is clear on its problems and solutions and needs help to focus on delivering outputs. Issues can arise when this isn’t the case as it can enable an organisation to continue in a direction that’s no longer working.

In other organisations it’s a simpler reason. Money. Organisation only has the money for one full time role? A Product Manager may seem like they can do the lot. Does this sound farfetched? I’ve been a product manager in a non-profit where there were only eight people in the whole organisation and I had no permanent support. Beyond some money for help from a digital agency, and some volunteers, it was all me. I’ve met or interviewed lots of people who’ve had a similar experience.

This can often work well from the perspective of the organisation. They’re getting a lot from one person. The issues can be for that one person. Long hours, burnout and problems with health and relationships can be the end result.

Where might I be a specialist?

Some organisations have multidisciplinary teams comprised of the skills needed for their products. They need product managers to play a smaller, more ‘specialist’ version of the role. Their specialism is to understanding the different perspectives of their team. And find value in the sweetspot where they align.

From a personal perspective, working in Government is where I’ve most needed to play this role. And where I’ve most been able to play this specialist role. Digital products created in-house within Government need to have multidisciplinary teams. It’s a condition of their investment.

Issues can arise if we hire this type of product manager but have gaps in the team. When faced with real people who need help versus a more abstract ‘product strategy’? People (normally win). This can leave a gap where the product strategy should be. And can leave the product without real direction.

What type of Product Manager are you?

Do you recognise the range of product management shown in my diagram? Do you recognise that you’re in one particular quadrant? Do you think that’s where you need to be? Or is it where your organisation has left space for you to be? Are you doing the right thing but have the wrong role title? Or are you doing the wrong thing with the right role title? Do you move around the quadrant a lot, playing different roles as needed? Are you in one quadrant and ready to move to another? Or are you very happy where you are?