Product Managers? We don't need no stinkin' product managers!

The role of a Product Manager varies company to company so greatly,
especially in an early stage startup, that anyone applying for PM jobs
still has to ask, "So what will I be doing?"  It's not like being the
left fielder for the Mets where you can pretty much narrow it down to,
"We'd like you to hit, field, and run the bases."

In some companies, you're not so much a Product Manager as you are
a Project Manager.  Features and ideas come from business, marketing,
or upper level management and you're just the translater of functional
specs to tech speak, checking boxes in MS Project as things get done.
This is a helpful coordination function as a product is being built
but often has limited usefulness once something is up and running.  At
that point, you might see folks from the business side take over the
running of the product and its direction.

Other times, the PM is shaping core strategy and really living and
breathing all aspects of a product, not just coordinating, but
inspiring and collaborating with Engineering, Design, Marketing,
Business, etc.  They're the ones that let the CEO go to sleep with a
clear head because PMs dream of their products.

The interesting question is trying to figure out what, if any,
kind of PM your company needs and at what stage.   Some would argue
that you need a distinct Product function as soon as you start
building, not only to be the eyes and ears of the Engineering side.
Sometimes, swimming in the open water of deep code, the tech team
might not poke their heads up often enough to make sure they're not
swimming to Jersey.  (As a swim support volunteer in kayaking for
Manhattan circumnavigations, I can attest firsthand that this is very
important.)  Also, it may be important to have a PM insolate and shield
the product from the pull of business demands.  It's important to
insure that your scaleable product business doesn't turn into a custom
development shop with the addition of every new business development
partner.

What has often surprised me is how often engineers seek out
someone in a pure product role.  I would have thought that the people
doing the building would naturally want to lead the direction of a
product, but that's not always the case.  Sometimes, engineers become
PMs, but its a difficult thing to do both sides at once.

That often happens in startups, and I believe it is to the
detriment of the end product.  You can do all the user testing you
want, but its important to have a fresh perspective on a product,
especially when it comes to interpreting user feedback.

So what should the background of a good product manager be? 

First
of all, you need to have extraordinary communications skills.  You not
only need to coordinate a lot of different areas, but you need to make
sure everyone feels like their feedback is important and you need to be
able to synthesize a lot of different needs and goals.  After all,
listening is half of communication. 

I think the next most important
thing is empathy.  You need to have a feel for what users want to do
with your product and how they want to interact with it, even if you
yourself don't necessarily represent that demographic.  A lot of this comes with knowing a lot of different types of people pretty deeply and being genuinely curious about the human condition and how people operate.... being aware of lots of other "selves".

Breadth is important, too.  You need to know a little bit about a
hell of a lot of things...kinda like a utility infielder.  (For the
record, on my softball teams, I've played leftfield, center, short,
third, first and pitched  and that's only in six games so far.)

Attention to detail is important, too, but not necessarily in the
way you might think.  Products change and no one gets every last detail
right the first time, but I think it's more important to be deep in
your work and not just comprehensive.  So, if you're creating a suite
of tools, one damn good one is better than five so-so ones.  That will
at least hook some users who will anxiously await the development of
the other tools.

Is it fun?  Sure...but I have to say that one of the most
difficult things is not just being able to sit back and be a run of the
mill passionate user, because you're too busy bug fixing, speccing the
next feature and thinking about marketing to participate as much as
you'd like to in the community of users.