Product Manager

While it takes a team to design, build, test, and market capital equipment, there is one person that is crucial to producing a winning product. It’s the product manager.

Product managers are the individuals responsible for the commercial success of a given product or product line. Their business cards may say “Product Manager.” They might also say “Product Line Manager,” “Marketing Manager,” or “Product Marketing Manager,” or some variation thereof.  The title doesn’t matter. What does matter is the vital job product managers perform to ensure a product line’s profitability and growth.


The product manager is the individual responsible for the commercial success of the product.


What Does a Product Manager Do?

To ensure the commercial success of a product line, a product manager will assess market opportunities and the competitive landscape to develop and drive strategies that grow revenue and profit. That translates into an extensive to-do list that includes the following.

  • Build and articulate a solid understanding of current, adjacent and targeted markets including growth drivers, trends, technology inflection points and market participants.
  • Analyze market window timing, sizing, needs, competitive landscape, and investment required to build business cases for market participation and investment.
  • Analyze customer requirements and competitor capability to define product roadmaps that ensure product lines will meet target customer needs and sustain competitive advantage.
  • Build a competitive intelligence system that tracks key competitors and industry players to identify their strengths, weaknesses, strategies, plans, and performance.
  • Drive consensus on and achieve support for product strategy and its implementation requirements.
  • Ensure product cost, development schedules, and performance constraints are optimized for all development activities to best meet market needs and opportunities.
  • Marshall products and product improvements through engineering, program management, operations, and support teams to ensure company’s goals are met.
  • Develop and execute marketing plans for new and existing products including product definition, pricing, positioning, and promotion.
  • Develop marketing collateral including white papers, datasheets, presentations, and other sales enablers to generate demand and substantiate a product’s value proposition.
  • Ensure that sales teams are equipped to beat the competition including designing and delivering training programs.
  • Provide content, expertise and source material to support marketing communications for collateral development, website content, product demos, presentations, to effectively communicate the product value proposition to prospects, customers, field, partners, analysts, and press.

Traits of the Greats

Product managers are responsible for all the strategic and tactical activities that define a product and establish it in the market. They get all the responsibility but usually without organizational authority. They almost never get a staff. They’re the first one called when the product has a problem, and they don’t always get recognized when it’s successful.

You’re thinking, “You’d have to be crazy to take a job like that!”

Indeed, the people who do are a rare breed. Great product managers are confident experts on their customers, competitors, and products. They don’t thrive on organizational power. Instead, they are obsessed with creating products that deliver superior value to the market.

The capital equipment industry’s best product managers exhibit the ability to

  • lead and inspire an organization to achieve common goals,
  • communicate precisely and concisely,
  • advocate outside-in thinking that emphasizes customer perspective and competitive context,
  • understand complex capital equipment and its applications,
  • distill large amounts of data into recommendations and decisions,
  • deal with ambiguity,
  • frame decisions in business terms,
  • develop and maintain robust relationships with team members, management, customers, peer companies, and other industry participants,
  • maintain focus on long-term objectives, and
  • avoid drowning in day-to-day tactics.

Where Do They Come From?

In many industries, the products and their applications are much less complex than they are in the capital equipment world. Most consumer products fall into this category.  In these industries, the typical product manager has a business education. They usually arrive at the product manager position via sales or junior marketing roles. Their careers from the earliest stages have prepared them to deal with the commercial aspects of product management.

In contrast, capital equipment companies source most of their product management professionals from the technical ranks. Typical equipment product managers have a technical education, often at the graduate or post-graduate level. They usually begin their careers in a technical role such as product development or applications engineering. Then somewhere along the way, they are recognized for their clear thinking, affinity for customers, and communication skills. This, in turn, leads to an opportunity to take on a product-management role.

Almost without exception, these incredibly capable professionals have technical education and experience necessary to master complex, capital equipment and its applications. This is a must-have capability to succeed as a capital equipment product manager. Without it, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish credibility with technology-minded customers and internal engineering teams.

However, product managers whose careers have followed this technical-role-first path should consider that their commercial skills may be less developed. For them, it’s important to seek mentors, resources, and opportunities that will help them develop the skills to capitalize on promising opportunities, grow their businesses, and compete.

Lessons for Engineers Turned Marketers

As an engineer or scientist intent on making a successful move to the marketing and product management side of the house, you’re going to need to heed three critical lessons. They are:

  1. Think need, not can
  2. Think what, not how
  3. Ask why to understand what

1. Think Need, Not Can

As an engineer, you were usually tasked with figuring out what you can do when it comes to creating products.  It was your job to figure out what product performance is possible and when it can be achieved. However, as a marketer, your job has changed from designing products to defining them. The task is now figuring out what product capabilities and availability timing are needed to be successful. That means taking an external perspective to determine what is needed to meet customer requirements and beat the competition.

As a marketer, there’s nothing wrong with knowing your capabilities and strengths, but it’s critical that you know and communicate what is needed for success. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a product strategy describing what you can do rather than what you need to do.

2. Think What, Not How

As an engineer, you were the steward of how to design great products. As a marketer, your job has changed. Now you’re the steward of what is needed, not how to design it.  A product manager’s most important function is to figure out the answers to “what” questions such as:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • What market are we solving it for?
  • What is required to solve it and beat the competition?
  • What return can we expect when we solve it?

It’s harder than you think. It’s much more natural to describe a solution than a requirement, especially if you’ve spent a large part of your career in charge of the “how”.  In fact, specifying solutions instead of requirements can be one of the hardest habits to break as an engineer turned marketer.

Understanding this concept is also very helpful when things get heated in the give and take between marketing and engineering.  When there is an issue on the table that marketing and engineering cannot agree on, your first step should be to get consensus on whether you are arguing about “what” is needed or “how” it will be achieved.

3. Ask Why, to Understand What

To develop the deep understanding of your customer that’s required to get the “what” questions answered correctly, you need to ask “why.” Whenever a customer tells you about a problem, ask them why it’s a problem. Keep asking why until you fully understand the problem and its implications for your customer’s business.