Want to trip up a Product Manager? Ask them what they do.

It’s complicated…

Four whole years after I started working in product management, I found myself sharing a house with my parents, mid-pandemic, when my dad, for the first time seeing how I spend my days (spoiler: mostly on Zoom), finally asked, “So what is it, exactly, that you do?”

As a Product Manager, I’ve occasionally been embarrassed by how such a common, completely reasonable question could render me so clumsy & tongue-tied. How to explain such a dynamic role in a socially acceptable number of words? I can’t imagine I’m alone as a PM in struggling to answer this question, and as the holiday season approaches, socially distanced as it may be, PMs run an increased risk of being asked to speak casually about their careers.

Aunt Gertrude, New Acquaintance, etc.: “What do you do for work?”

At a party or a bar, I’d usually answer with a semi-awkward question in response: “So, well, how familiar are you with the tech industry?” If someone knows the field, that’s always nice. But more often than not, they have very little sense of how software gets made, launching me into a lame, rambling explanation:

“So tech companies sell products, often through an app, and how that app gets built & changed over time depends on the product strategy and the work of software engineers, designers, data scientists, researchers, salespeople, customer support, marketers, executives, investors, and more. I work in between of all of those concerns and stakeholders to facilitate that software development process, making sure we build the right thing for the customers and the business, that it’s built right, that it’s delivered at a predictable pace, and with consistent quality.”

Cue eyes rolling back into the head, drool slowly rolling down the chin… I’m sadly certain I’ve left more than a few poor unwitting listeners regretting they even asked, wishing I’d said I were a salesman instead, a lawyer, or literally anything else at all. As I start each new sentence, enthusiastically sharing the unique nuances of the PM’s role, I, too, wish more and more that I could discuss my career as succinctly as “I’m in marketing” or “I’m an actor” or even “I trade securities”…

True to PM form, I’ve been reading my audience & iterating my response. I’ve finally found that saying “I work in software design & strategy” is a great way to get past the question and see where the conversation goes from there.

Whether it’s to a well-meaning relative or a crush from high school you haven’t spoken to in ten years, we all want to be able to speak succinctly about our careers. Even those of us who work in fintech, the B2B space, or in more deeply technical roles. Product Management is a special role, and all PMs know that… but for the holiday parties (Zooms), it may be best to keep things short and sweet.

Image: @pascalvendel via Unsplash

Product leader, writer, musician, New Yorker