Tony Fadell on the role, responsibilities, and importance of product management

I recently finished Nest creator Tony Fadell’s book Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making (I highly recommend it). I wanted to spend a few moments reflecting on the chapter on product management because it is just so good. I haven’t read something that made me feel this inspired about the importance of what we do in a long time.

First, it’s always fascinating to me how different people define this undefinable role. Here’s what he says:

A product manager’s responsibility is to figure out what the product should do and then create the spec (the description of how it will work) as well as the messaging (the facts you want customers to understand). Then they work with almost every part of the business (engineering, design, customer support, finance, sales, marketing, etc.) to get the product spec’d, built, and brought to market. They ensure that it stays true to its original intent and doesn’t get watered down along the way. But, most importantly, product managers are the voice of the customer. They keep every team in check to make sure they don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal—happy, satisfied customers.

One definition is never enough, though. Every product management book has a few “oh, but also…” sections, and this one is no different:

Product managers look for places where the customer is unhappy. They unravel issues as they go, discovering the root of the problem and working with the team to solve it. They do whatever is necessary to move projects forward—that could be taking notes in meetings or triaging bugs or summarizing customer feedback or organizing team docs or sitting down with designers and sketching something out or meeting with engineering and digging into the code. It’s different for every product.

It’s interesting to read his perspective on product management vs. product marketing (especially since I am also currently reading Martina Lauchengco’s SVPG book Loved: How to Rethink Marketing for Tech Products, which has a decidedly different view on this role):

Most tech companies break out product management and product marketing into two separate roles: Product management defines the product and gets it built. Product marketing writes the messaging—the facts you want to communicate to customers—and gets the product sold. But from my experience that’s a grievous mistake. Those are, and should always be, one job. There should be no separation between what the product will be and how it will be explained—the story has to be utterly cohesive from the beginning.

But my favorite parts of the chapter are the ones that made me feel. There is so much content out there about just how hard the job of product management is, and so little about what an exciting and special role it is. Tony gets to the heart of what makes this work worth doing:

Sometimes they’ll have the final opinion, sometimes they’ll have to say “no,” sometimes they’ll have to direct from the front. But that should be rare. Mostly they empower the team. They help everyone understand the context of what the customer needs, then work together to make the right choices. If a product manager is making all the decisions, then they are not a good product manager.

And:

So the product manager has to be a master negotiator and communicator. They have to influence people without managing them. They have to ask questions and listen and use their superpower—empathy for the customer, empathy for the team—to build bridges and mend road maps. They have to escalate if someone needs to play bad cop, but know they can’t play that card too often. They have to know what to fight for and which battles should be saved for another day. They have to pop up in meetings all over the company where teams are representing their own interests—their schedules, their needs, their issues—and stand alone, advocating for the customer.

He’s right about how difficult the role is to hire for, though:

This person is a needle in a haystack. An almost impossible combination of structured thinker and visionary leader, with incredible passion but also firm follow-through, who’s a vibrant people person but fascinated by technology, an incredible communicator who can work with engineering and think through marketing and not forget the business model, the economics, profitability, PR. They have to be pushy but with a smile, to know when to hold fast and when to let one slide. They’re incredibly rare. Incredibly precious. And they can and will help your business go exactly where it needs to go.

Yes, I know—I just quoted someone who called us “precious,” which is a little obnoxious. But I spend enough time hand-wringing about how we shouldn’t consider ourselves so special (see, for example, The dangerous rise of “crazy-busy” product managers) that I’m going to give myself a freebie here.

Anyway, you should read the book. I have some issues with the parts that lean heavily into hustle culture, but if you ignore those bits it is really fantastic. The ending made me tear up a little bit…

In the end, there are two things that matter: products and people. What you build and who you build it with. The things you make—the ideas you chase and the ideas that chase you—will ultimately define your career. And the people you chase them with may define your life.