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Product Management: What Does It Mean? How Do You Do It?

What is product management blog post
I’m often asked all kinds of interesting questions in my day-to-day work. Usually, these questions are related to the products we build here at SolarWinds®, and I absolutely love answering them. But people often ask me a more existential question when I tell them what I do for a living. I say, “I’m a product manager (PM),” and they say, “What is a product manager?” and “What exactly do you… do?” So, I thought it might be interesting to explain some of the major pieces in the world of a PM. Though some of what I’m about to describe could be true of PMs at any company, some of it may be specific to being a PM at SolarWinds. Either way, if you’re curious about what a PM does or if you are potentially interested in pursuing a role in product management, then this blog post is for you.

Driving The Product Roadmap and Strategy

As a PM, I’m responsible for defining the strategy and vision for the product and for turning those visions into the work the engineering teams do. This starts at the highest level by defining a roadmap for the product, which lays out where we intend the product to go over an extended period. Sometimes, this roadmap can stretch out to encompass many years of work. Then, we break the roadmap up into milestones. The milestones are then often broken into even smaller pieces assigned to time frames defining a specific version release. We create a document called a “one-pager” to clearly outline what we need the engineering teams to accomplish in each release. Typically, the line items for a one-pager include a balance of net-new features, improvements to old features, bug fixes, security updates, and architectural improvements. Once these items have been approved and committed to, we begin the actual development process. During the development process, many things arise and must be dealt with. It’s my job to assess each item and deal with it appropriately to make sure we stay as close to schedule as possible while also delivering as much of what we defined on the one-pager as we can. Though we don’t share these roadmaps directly with customers, we’re always looking to drive transparency into what we’re working on through this THWACK® page. THWACK is our community forum and is a great resource for product questions or technical content about our products. Customers can even submit feature requests for consideration as we build out product roadmaps.

Marketing Plans and Research

It isn’t always all about the coding and engineering, though. As a product manager, I must interact with many other groups responsible for the success of our products. I stay in close contact with our marketing teams to make sure we’re sending the right message to the market to drive interest in our products. This can include a wide range of activities, from helping to create the verbiage on a product webpage to presenting a webcast about a subject related to our products. The marketing team also helps me analyze and assess the sales numbers for each product on a regular basis. We spend a lot of time learning the effect our marketing activities have on our sales. New releases, marketing campaigns, and news about our products in the market all have an impact, and it’s important to understand them and seek out ways to use them to our advantage. We also spend a lot of time researching the market in general. This can mean reading up on the latest features in competitive products or looking at analyst predictions about the market. We’re always looking for current, well-defined customer problems and trying to anticipate what the distant future may bring so we can calibrate our plans accordingly. I also spend a great deal of time working with the teams who directly interface with customers on a day-to-day basis to ensure they’re well equipped to help our customers find success. This can mean producing training materials the sales, renewals, and sales engineering teams utilize when working with prospects or existing customers or helping the support and customer service teams overcome a problem in one of the products, so they can assist with customer problems. I always spend time gathering feedback from these same groups, as they’re a proxy voice for the customer.

How PMs Work With Customers

Speaking of customers, I—of course—also work directly with customers. At the end of the day, they are who we make the products for. Without the customer, our company would be nothing. As a product manager, this means it’s vital to attend meetings directly with customers on a regular basis. One day, I might be on a call where the user experience (UX) team and I are asking a customer to try a new feature and give us their feedback. On another day, I might meet with a customer who has a specific concern about a bug or special use cases they need help implementing in the product. The list of reasons I would be on a call with a customer goes on and on, but they’re all important, and it’s my job as a product manager to listen carefully and try to find the best resolution for them. And customer interaction isn’t limited to calls and meetings. Attending trade shows and conferences is another important aspect of the job and can be a great way to gather feedback, learn about trends in the market, or network with others who share an interest in the industry.

Why Product Managers Are Important

As you can see, the role of a PM is intricate and complex. There are a ton of moving pieces in any organization trying to sell a product, and the PM is the central hub of those activities. We act as a bidirectional conduit for information and hopefully a stabilizing force allowing for a successful delivery of products. Though the above may not be an exhaustive list of everything a PM does, I hope it sheds at least a little light on what goes on behind the scenes.
James Barnes
James is a Senior Product Manager at SolarWinds in Austin, Texas. In addition to his current role, James has spent time as a Senior Sales…
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