Managers As Experts

By Steve Johnson July 01, 2010

In larger companies, titles proliferate. The role of product manager is often called something else. In one company, sixteen people in a meeting, each with a unique title, learned they all did basically the same job. Titles are meaningless if they don’t illuminate. Years ago, a “manager” was above “supervisor” in the corporate hierarchy; a manager managed people. Then as titles began their escalation we started seeing senior managers, associate managers, and assistant managers as well as industry managers, marketing managers, product managers, program managers, process managers, and so on.

Nowadays, people who manage people are now called Directors and people who manage ‘things’ are now called Managers. In effect, the term manager can now be equated with expert. If we changed the word “manager” to “expert,” would titles still hold up?

In any discussion of titles, there is a disconnect between the general view and the specifics in a single company. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the manager titles in use today to see how they can be interpreted in the context of expertise.

Product manager. The role of product manager is to drive market information into the product planning process by defining product requirements and to deliver the resulting product to customers with a go-to-market strategy. While development and engineering rely on product managers for market information, sales and marketing professionals often rely on product managers for deep product knowledge.

What if we changed the title from manager to expert? Are product managers really product experts? Or are they experts in markets? Both? What is their expertise? And which expertise does the company really need?

In reality, the role of product management is two jobs in one—markets expert and product expert—which is why companies often split the job into two roles: product manager and market manager. Yet the market manager title doesn’t seem to be as attractive on one’s resume. Perhaps “markets manager” is better. But implicit in the product manager title is expertise in a product or products.

As a company grows, we often see a product expert partnered with a marketing expert, splitting the job into product management and product marketing roles.

Product marketing manager. The product marketing manager is an expert in marketing products. She takes products from engineering and delivers them to the market with a go-to-market plan. But inherent in this title is the need to be expert in the product also.

Product manager or product marketing manager. Both use the term “product” in their titles, so both should be experts on the product.

A sales person or sales engineer should feel comfortable contacting the product marketing manager for deep technical knowledge. Yet this is rarely the case: field people typically contact the product manager rather than the product marketing manager. Why? Often the product manager knows more about the technology—the product manager is the product expert—but titles should not use the term “product” unless the manager has expertise in a specific product or set of products. A product marketing manager needs deep product expertise to deliver the product to market, just as a product manager needs deep technical expertise to understand the markets’ requirements.

Development manager. Who is expert on the program or program suite? Typically this is the development manager or development lead. As development managers, they are expert in the techniques and processes of development. The development manager often takes on many roles: expert on the product design and development process as well as managing the technical team assigned to build the product. As companies grow larger, some of the activities of the development manager are divvied out to project and program managers.

Project manager. More and more, technical products companies are adding a project manager to their panoply of roles and there is much confusion about the role of the project manager versus the role of product manager. Is the product manager a peer or subordinate to the project manager? Using the “expert” approach, it again becomes more obvious: a project manager is an expert in projects. One definition of project management found on the web is this:

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project.

Notice that product expertise is not part of the definition; project expertise is the key phrase. Product managers and development managers can be expected to manage small projects but for larger-scale projects, particularly where multiple projects intersect, a project manager brings deep expertise in managing complex projects.

Typically the project manager is focused on a single project such as a new software release or a new hardware model where the product manager is concerned with multiple versions across the product life cycle.

In some organizations, the project manager role has been elevated to expert in corporate processes. This Project Management Office (PMO) concept codifies the major processes in the company, such as cross-department product planning as well as other detailed processes in different departments. That is, they typically do not define the process but document it and often enforce it.

In this advisory role, project management can deliver a standardized procedures manual with corporate templates and process documents to a product manager or development manager who is new to the company. Imagine how a new employee with such a document could be productive almost immediately.

Taken to the extreme, this process/project office can potentially become draconian, enforcing company-wide procedures regardless of whether they apply. The project manager role works much better when it is considered a project management advisor to the team rather than part of a process enforcement agency.

Release manager and launch manager. A subset of project management is found in the release manager and launch manager roles. A release manager role, if present, is almost always found in the development or engineering group. A release manager focuses on the process management necessary to move a product from requirements to final build. In effect, they are expert in getting a product ready to release to the market. A similar role, the launch manager, can be found in marketing; the launch manager focuses on all the deliverables and dates to get a product from final build to market.

Program manager. Ah, here’s a tricky one. What is a program manager? We often encounter this term in development organizations yet it has a different meaning in every company. Is it a program expert? And if so, what program?

Searching for ‘program manager’ on the Microsoft website gives us this definition:

Program managers translate customer requirements into product features and create functional specifications. On the implementation end, they prioritize and deliver on those features, working closely with key technical resources, such as software development, testing, documentation, localization, tech support, and more. Program managers typically have a software development background.

In other words, the program manager is expert in technical design. Perhaps Program Manager could better be described as “product design manager.” Other terms used for program manager are product designer or product-level architect. Regardless of title, the role translates market requirements into product specifications, analyzing problems and designing solutions. Few software companies seem to define the program manager as Microsoft does. In these companies, program manager is often synonymous with project manager.

What is your expertise?

Knowing each area of expertise and thus scope of responsibility is critical. When problems arise—and they will—each manager is responsible for their area of expertise. Suppose we are missing dates. Who will revise the schedule? The project manager is the likely decision-maker. If the project requires a change in the product requirements, then the product manager decides. If development resources are the issue, the development manager should take the lead. Knowing who has responsibility for an area of expertise helps identify who makes the call. Of course these managers are all working together as a team; since changes in one area will affect others, all the members of the team must be informed. Changes to requirements, schedule, quality or resource mean we all must sync up again.

When defining a new title, change “manager” to “expert” and see if the title still illuminates. In small companies one or two experts do everything; in larger companies, additional specialists provide the expertise necessary to fulfill the various aspects of delivering products. For most companies, a group of no fewer than three experts are needed to deliver a product: a product (or markets) expert with market requirements, a design expert to convert requirements to specifications, and a development expert to build the product. To be effective, each of these roles must have technical expertise blended with evangelism, empathy, conflict negotiation skills, and a passion for driving projects through to completion.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success. 

Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.

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