The Many Hats of Product Managers: Their Indispensable Hands-On Roles as Individual Contributors


Throughout my career at large companies and startups, I’ve worked closely with many talented product managers and leaders. Their dedication and expertise have been invaluable in driving the success of our products at companies including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal where I worked as CTO and CTO & Chief Product Officer, respectively.

I’ve seen firsthand the value of effective product managers in driving the success of products from conception to launch and beyond. But beyond the strategic thinking that typically comes to mind when discussing product management, these professionals also function as individual contributors, making a real impact throughout the entire product lifecycle. In this blog post, I’ll share a list of hands-on responsibilities of product managers based on my experiences and insights to shed light on the many hands-on responsibilities of product managers, illustrating how they add value at every stage of the process and debunking the misconception that they only play a managerial role. Join me as we explore the multifaceted and essential work that product managers do, and gain a deeper appreciation for their crucial contributions.

Product managers are the driving force behind successful products, wearing multiple hats and actively contributing at every stage of the product lifecycle. They are the linchpins who connect customer needs, business objectives, and technological capabilities, ensuring that each component works in harmony. With an extensive list of hands-on responsibilities, product managers delve into the nitty-gritty of product development, from identifying customer needs and defining requirements to creating user stories and prioritizing backlogs.

These versatile professionals don’t stop there; they also collaborate with cross-functional teams, conduct market research, track KPIs, analyze data, and manage product launches. They are the guardians of product documentation, usability testing, training, messaging, and sales support. Furthermore, product managers navigate the challenges of customer escalations, roadmap management, and third-party tool evaluations, consistently focusing on product improvement and user engagement.

In this expanded blog post, incorporating valuable insights from colleagues, I explore the unique perspective and value that product managers bring to the table, highlighting their ability to blend customer, business, and technology insights. We also emphasize their management and mentoring skills, showcasing how they inspire and guide their teams towards success. Engaging and informative, this article provides a glimpse into the multifaceted and indispensable role of product managers in the world of product development.

You can dive right into reading this blog post, but you will get even more value out of this if you have already read one of my most popular blog posts to date, titled Activities, Outputs, and Outcomes — A framework for your job. That framework describes job duties in the context of tasks, production, and results. With that in mind, you can read about each of the responsibilities below and think about whether it is an activity, output, or outcome.

List of hands-on responsibilities for a product manager

Here’s a list of hands-on responsibilities for a product manager or product leader, focusing on tasks that demonstrate their individual contribution and value:

  1. Identifying customer needs: Conducting user research, surveys, and interviews to understand what customers want and need from the product.
  2. Defining product requirements: Translating customer needs into detailed product specifications and requirements, which will be used by the development team.
  3. Creating user stories: Writing clear, concise, and actionable user stories that describe the desired features and functionality of the product.
  4. Prioritizing the product backlog: Organizing and ranking the features and enhancements to be developed, taking into account customer needs, business goals, and resource constraints.
  5. Developing wireframes and prototypes: Creating visual representations of the product’s user interface, working closely with UX/UI designers.
  6. Collaborating with cross-functional teams: Communicating product requirements and vision to developers, designers, QA teams, and other stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aligned and working towards the same goals.
  7. Participating in agile ceremonies: Actively engaging in sprint planning, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, and retrospectives, providing input and feedback to the development team.
  8. Conducting market research: Analyzing competitor products, market trends, and new technologies to inform product strategy and development.
  9. Defining and tracking product KPIs: Establishing key performance indicators to measure the success of the product and make data-driven decisions.
  10. Analyzing user data and feedback: Reviewing product usage data, customer feedback, and support tickets to identify areas for improvement and inform future product iterations.
  11. Managing product launches: Coordinating and executing product launches, including planning release timelines, collaborating with marketing teams, and ensuring all stakeholders are prepared for the launch.
  12. Creating and updating product documentation: Writing and maintaining product guides, FAQs, and help articles, ensuring that users have access to accurate and up-to-date information.
  13. Leading usability testing: Organizing and conducting user testing sessions to gather feedback on the product’s usability and identify areas for improvement.
  14. Developing and delivering product training: Creating training materials and conducting training sessions for internal teams, such as sales, support, and customer success, to ensure they understand the product and its value proposition.
  15. Crafting product messaging and positioning: Collaborating with marketing teams to develop clear, concise, and compelling product messaging that resonates with target audiences.
  16. Participating in product demonstrations and sales calls: Assisting sales teams by providing subject matter expertise, showcasing product features, and addressing customer questions during sales presentations and calls.
  17. Handling customer escalations: Addressing high-priority customer issues, working closely with support and engineering teams to resolve problems and provide timely updates to the customer.
  18. Managing product roadmaps: Creating and maintaining a long-term product roadmap that outlines the planned features and enhancements, balancing customer needs, market trends, and business objectives.
  19. Evaluating third-party tools and integrations: Researching and assessing potential tools, technologies, and partnerships that can enhance the product or streamline development processes.
  20. Continuously improving the product: Regularly reviewing the product’s performance and user feedback, identifying areas for improvement, and iterating on the product to ensure it continues to meet customer needs and drive business success.
  21. Championing product adoption and user engagement: Actively promoting the product within the target audience, identifying barriers to adoption, and developing strategies to increase user engagement and satisfaction, ultimately driving customer retention and business growth.

The Unique Perspective of a Product Manager: Combining Customer, Business, and Technology Insights

As product managers, we play a crucial role in ensuring the product’s viability by maintaining a delicate balance between customer needs, business goals, and technology. We bring a unique perspective to the table, which allows us to make informed decisions that drive product success.

One of our primary responsibilities is to ensure a strong market and product fit. This means that the product not only solves the customers’ problems but also generates revenue for the business. A deep understanding of business models is essential for a product manager, as it enables us to identify opportunities for growth and strategize accordingly. As Marty Cagan suggests, gaining a solid foundation in finance and business principles is crucial for product managers transitioning from engineering roles.

To further strengthen our skills and knowledge in product management, it’s essential to stay updated with industry standards and best practices. Ravi Mehta’s Product Competencies framework is an excellent resource to guide personal and team growth, helping product managers identify areas of improvement and focus on developing well-rounded skills. By continually refining our expertise, we can make better-informed decisions, drive innovation, and lead our teams more effectively.

Product managers excel when they possess a strong grasp of customer needs, business objectives, and technology insights. By continually growing and adapting to industry standards, we can maintain our unique perspective, ensuring that the products we create are valuable, profitable, and successful in the long run.

Management, Business, and Technology

Product managers not only excel as individual contributors but also often manage and mentor other product managers, effectively managing and motivating cross-functional engineering, design, and development teams. They invest time and effort in understanding the basic architecture of the platform, the tech stack, and the release process for the services they help build, enabling them to make more informed decisions and contribute effectively to the product’s success. In some cases, product managers even go the extra mile by running database queries to analyze data or assisting with acceptance testing.

A strong grasp of technology allows product managers to understand engineering concerns such as feasibility, scalability, data architecture, modularity, and more. This understanding helps them communicate better with their technical counterparts and make more informed decisions.

Additionally, product managers must be well-versed in business principles, enabling them to model the return on investment (ROI) of any product, design, or engineering efforts. This skill allows them to prioritize projects and features with the most significant potential impact on the company’s bottom line.

It is also essential to define what a “product” can be in the context of product management. A product can encompass anything from a new feature, an entire platform, an application, or even a physical object like a car or a smartphone. I wrote a definition of product in my earlier blog post about organizing product and technology teams.

Product managers play a vital role in managing and developing these diverse products, ensuring their success in the market.


As we’ve explored the diverse hands-on responsibilities of product managers, it becomes clear that their role extends beyond management. They are the essential glue that holds the entire product development process together, working to ensure that every aspect of the product journey is aligned with customer needs and business goals.

As you continue to develop your own products or collaborate with product managers in your organization, I hope that this deeper understanding of their role will help you appreciate their contributions and foster a more collaborative, effective product development process. Remember, the true victory in product management is not just about winning, but about winning people over and working together to achieve outstanding results.

Note: I updated this biog post to incorporate feedback from my colleagues Jim Mortko, Zack Packer, and Nataliya Becker.


Leave a Reply

Related Articles