What does a Product Manager do? A Musical Metaphor

For the longest time, I’ve been passionate about working as a product manager. Once I got my first taste of it at Adobe, I couldn’t get enough. And yet, whenever I would talk to people in social circles, I had the hardest time describing my role without confusing or boring them. One of the ways I would describe my work was that of a mini-CEO, responsible not for the success of the entire company but rather just one or a few products within the company. While that metaphor helped, it was still woefully inadequate. While I held similar responsibilities for the success of my small portion of the business, I lacked the authority and budgets that CEOs have to work with.

 

Product Manager Meme

A humorous look at the different perspectives about a product manager

A Better Product Manager Metaphor

Then one day, I came across a beautiful metaphor by the director of product management at the BBC, one that particularly resonated with me given my musical background. A product manager is really like being the conductor of the orchestra. This description fits much better than the CEO metaphor. Just look at this side-by-side comparison of the responsibilities of a symphony conductor versus a product manager:

Symphony Conductor Product Manager
Leads and coordinates several musical sections Leads and coordinates across departments
Creates the vision for the orchestra’s direction Creates the vision for the product’s direction
Is an expert in the music they direct Is an expert in the market/domain they serve
Does not control or directly lead any one section Does not control or directly lead any one department
Does not directly manage individual performers Does not directly manage individual contributors
Relies on grants from sponsors for support Relies on executive sponsorship for support
Measures audience appreciation for the music Measures customer satisfaction for the product
Controls timing of the music Controls the roadmap and product release timing
Brings in each section to play their part Brings in each department to play their part

Note that like the conductor, a product manager does not deal with payroll, direct people management, or even individual operations. Instead, the product manager is an expert in a specific “genre” of the market. They represent the voice and vision of the market to the organization. A product manager focuses on getting each “section” to play together in harmony in order to create a beautiful experience for the “audience”, the customer.

Conclusion

It is hard for people outside an orchestra to fully appreciate what a good conductor does for the group, and I imagine outside perceptions of product management are very similar. Yet, great product managers and conductors can determine the difference between resounding success or whimpering defeat—a melodious symphony or a dissonant descant. Being able to influence the direction and success of products in such a meaningful way is so satisfying that I don’t think I can ever quit it.

In closing, feel free to enjoy another humorous yet accurate depiction of what product managers do (apologies for the poor computer voice-acting):

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