For a while on the podcast I used to ask the “BBQ question” of my guests… the basic format being along the lines of:
You’re at a BBQ & are chatting to your sister’s new boyfriend, getting on famously. He’s an accountant or something. He asks you what you do for a living & you say “I’m a product manager!” & he says “What’s a product manager?”
I stopped asking this a while back (and can’t even remember why I stopped) but I did ask it on Twitter
recently and the replies made me think a little bit about the types of response you get.
This is the type of person who wants the world to be just like Inspired
. When asked by a layperson what a product manager does, they’ll respond along the lines of “it’s my job to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible”. This is accurate (in “proper” product companies at least, rather than the dreaded feature factories), but it isn’t going to resonate with anyone who hasn’t read the book or who doesn’t know what product management is already.
The abstract philosopher
The answer here is more along the lines of “it’s my job to deliver value to the customer”. This is similar to the fundamentalist approach but somewhat more abstract. What does “delivering value” mean? Don’t other people in the company deliver value? The trouble here is that it doesn’t mean anything to anyone, probably not even most product managers.
The giver upper
The response here is probably to just say “I make software” or “I tell the engineers what to do”. In many ways this is probably the easiest response that will shut the other person up and let you get onto your next hot dog. Just make sure your engineering team isn’t standing nearby.
The other type of giving up is just to say “I’m a project manager” because a lot of people will understand that. It’s ok, we won’t judge you for getting through a tricky situation (and, let’s face it, there are lots of project manager product managers out there… we’re here for you!)
This is the type of person who will try to find as close an analogy as possible that resonates with the layperson asking the question. If they’re talking to an accountant, they’ll try to explain how their job is to make sure that the platform an accountant uses does what the accountant needs. If they’re talking to a kid they might try to explain it in terms of making sure their favourite toy has all the right bits and pieces. They’ll probably gloss over the gory details and concentrate on describing it in the questioner’s frame of reference.
In a non-product scenario I would almost certainly try to use this approach.