By Mollie Vandor (Product Manager, BetterWorks) Think of building a website like building a house.
There’s the engineers, who are akin to construction workers, actually putting the nuts and bolts of the structure together. The site’s designers are like decorators, making sure the house looks and feels put together and polished. And, the marketing team are the real estate agents, making sure the house attracts buyers -- or, users -- and driving up the house’s value as much as possible.
But, before any of that can happen, there has to be an architect. A person with the vision to plan the house out from studs to ceiling, and the project management skills to make that vision a reality. When building a website, that person is the Product Manager.
A lot of people don’t know exactly what a Product Manager does. Which is understandable, because a good Product Manager tends to do a little bit of everything. They’re involved in planning the site from a technical perspective, figuring out which features to pursue and which ones to punt on. They often wireframe the site, laying out all the elements according to the best practices of user experience, information architecture and the like.
And, since they know the product most intimately, they often tend to help out with marketing the site, speaking directly to users via copy and collateral, and helping the executive team formulate a strategic vision for the future.
A great Product Manager, like Google’s Marissa Mayer, Hunch’s Caterina Fake and Quora’s Sandra Liu Huang, has their hands in every little bit of the product -- whether it’s the on-site experience or the way the product is presented at a conference or marketed in an ad. This is why you often see great Product Managers, like Marissa Mayer, go on to become great executives.
Product Managers are the ultimate advocates of the product -- and by extension, the end user -- above all else. And, like a great architect, they’ll fight tooth and nail to protect the integrity of the overall product vision.
That means that a typical Product Manager’s day might include everything from a business development meeting to a problem solving session with engineers. She could be looking at the birds’ eye view of the big picture one minute and conducting a microscopic examination of a single line of broken code the next. BusinessWeek detailed seminal Google Product Manager Marissa Mayer’s daily schedule which illustrates this point perfectly.
She jumps from design to business development, engineering to recruiting, all within a given day. That’s the beauty of being a Product Manager. You never get bored, because you’re never doing the same thing long enough to be. And, like an architect, you truly get to be involved with every step of the building process, from vision to execution.
Unlike an architect however, there’s no official schooling path to become a Product Manager. Well-known Product Managers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Marissa Mayer and Leah Culver started off on the engineering side. Caterina Fake started her career as Art Director at Salon.com and she majored in English at Vassar. Sandra Liu Huang studied Economics and Management. I studied Film and Media and pre-law before helping to launch Ranker.com, which kickstarted my own career as a Product Manager.
Google has an Associate Product Manager role designed to help ease new graduates into the Product Manager position. But, if you’re not one of the lucky few to make it into that program, there are many other ways to become a product manager.
The best place to start is to begin developing your knowledge of the core competencies required of a good product manager:
- the best practices of user experience
- the basic tenets of website design
- a working knowledge of web development
These are not skills you necessarily need to learn in a classroom. There are plenty of online resources to get you started. A few great places to begin include Smashing Magazine, Stanford’s Engineering Everywhere Program, the Usability Professionals’ Association and Jakob Nielsen’s Useit.com. There are also some fantastic books out there, like Steve Krug’s user experience bible Don’t Make Me Think and Marty Cagan’s Inspired.
No matter how you choose to do your research, successful product managers all agree -- the best way to become one of them is to take all that research and apply it to as many products and projects as possible. So go find a great idea and do your best to turn it into a great product.
The worst thing that can happen is that you walk away with the kinds of lessons you need to turn yourself into a great product manager, and your next product into a great success.
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Mollie Vandor is a Product Manager at BetterWorks. She is also a contributing writer for Lalawag. Prior to BetterWorks, she was an associate product manager at Cooking.com. Prior to that, she helped launch Ranker.com, where she served as the product manager, amongst many other roles. Follow her on Twitter at @mollierosev.