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.
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.
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):