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Software Product Manager

What They Do

Computer and Information Systems Managers Career Video

Insider Info

When you visit a computer store, whether it's online or offline, there are always new software packages available for sale. That's because the software industry is constantly researching, improving and inventing new software.

Software companies, especially larger ones, usually work on many different programs at once. Software product managers (sometimes called project managers or program managers) supervise the development of these programs.

"[We are] people who sit in between the software developers who actually code software and the customers who help you understand what kind of software you need to build," says software product manager Justin Grant.

"We manage requirements, we manage schedules, we define the feature list and work with all the constituencies in order to make sure that the product that comes out has stuff that customers want, that we'll be able to sell in the market, and that we'll actually be able to build," says Grant. "So it requires some understanding of the pieces of all those parts of the technology."

The software manager oversees the whole process from beginning to end. This means taking the initial idea through its development and finally into its production. The manager plays a role in the marketing, design and development of the new products.

"The role is always changing," says software developer Amber Shah. She has managed software projects for NASA, among others. "While the goals will remain constant, how they are carried out will change with each project, each team and each new day's challenges."

It can take a year or more to complete the development process, from the idea stage to when the product appears on the shelves or online.

The software product manager starts by developing a list of features that customers want in a new program. They send that list to the developing engineers. The engineers decide if the new requirements are possible, and determine how long they think they might take to develop.

"Understanding your customer is really the key skill in product management and the key skill of any software company," says Grant. "It's really understanding, 'Who is your customer?'"

The product manager makes a variety of decisions. The manager finalizes how many hours it will take to complete the project. The manager may also decide who should develop the software.

Then there are marketing decisions to make. This includes deciding how much it will cost. The manager may also train salespeople to sell the product.

Software product managers do a variety of tasks every day. They manage many assistants and hire different advertising and public relations companies. They speak with customers, engineers and software programmers. They should enjoy negotiating with people. They should also be excellent at organizing and managing their time.

"The most important thing to working with software is a strong technical foundation," says Shah. "From there you can become a software engineer, a software project manager or many other professions."

The computer industry is highly competitive. A software product manager has to be watching what competitors are bringing to the market. They need to ensure their products are better than the competition!

Competition means managers have to work hard and be creative. They have to be the kind of people who work well under this kind of stress.

"Like any manager, a software product manager must be a pragmatist rather than a perfectionist -- his or her work is constrained by cost and function, not aesthetics," says John Turnbull. He's a former software product manager currently working as a systems consultant and technical editor.

"With skill, it's possible for the manager to support the perfectionists, and help produce something that is better and more beautiful than anyone could expect," says Turnbull. "While that must always be the opening goal, it's the manager's job to blow the whistle at the end of the game, then declare the score."

Software product managers must enjoy working with people. They have to be able to speak with customers and understand what they want in a new product. In other words, they have to have good listening skills. They have to figure out what each group of customers, developers and engineers wants.

Most of a software product manager's work is done in an office. Yet the job also requires a lot of travel. Managers go to trade shows to talk with customers. They may also travel to train salespeople on the new software they will be selling.

Software product managers work varied hours. Their hours are generally 9 to 5, but they must often work overtime. This is especially true as a product's launch date approaches.

Physical requirements aren't strenuous. In fact, physically challenged people may find unique opportunities in this career.

At a Glance

Oversee the production of new software

  • It takes about one year to bring a new piece of software to customers
  • These managers make decisions that determine the success or failure of a company
  • Many managers have technical backgrounds and science degrees