What does a product manager really do? We talked to 4 Chicago startups to find out

April 5, 2017

Product managers are often the glue that holds a company together, facilitating communication between stakeholders and ensuring deadlines are met. But the role can be vastly different depending on where you work, so we talked with four Chicago tech companies to learn more about what the job really entails.


Answers from Bill Cronin, director of PMO. Devbridge Group is a software design and development company that helps large enterprises improve the customer experience and business processes.

What does a product manager do at Devbridge Group?

Our product managers are problem solvers. They empower our clients by translating client vision into reality. With the help of product designers and software engineers, our product managers use Lean and Agile software delivery techniques to take products to market quickly. Our product managers own each phase of the process: from ideation, research and prioritization to execution, launch and support. Product managers work collaboratively with cross-functional teams to define a product roadmap, own the product backlog, facilitate agile ceremonies, track project health and act as the single point of contact.

What do you look for in a product manager?

We look for fun, passionate, multidimensional product leaders with a proven track record of taking products to market. We prefer product managers with a technical background and solid understanding of the tools, technologies and techniques needed to build great products. Our product managers are passionate about technology and often keep up to date on the latest trends in the industry. We like candidates with a growth mindset who continually pursue mastery and self-improvement. They seek difficult challenges, know how to deal with setbacks and have a strong emotional intelligence. We also look for candidates who are a good culture fit, as the lines between friends and colleagues at Devbridge tends to blur.

Answers from Erika Warren, VP of product. Wyzant connects learners with private tutors for one-on-one learning, enabling people to get together for strong “I get it” moments.

What does a product manager do at Wyzant?

Product managers (PMs) at Wyzant operate as "owners" of a piece of the business, be it a product, like our online learning tool, or a focus area, like SEO acquisition. And as any entrepreneur or business owner knows, you inevitably wear many hats.

And as owners, all PMs start with a deep understanding of our customers — internal, students or tutors. This ensures that we are creating solutions to our audiences’ problems. From there, Wyzant PMs work collaboratively to build roadmaps that achieve a business or customer goal. A lot of time is spent communicating, doing analysis, weighing tradeoffs and making adjustments when things don't go as planned.

PMs work side-by-side with designers and developers to not only ideate, but also ship elegant and well thought-out solutions. And after shipping products, there are always refinements and iterations to be made that come from monitoring analytics and customer feedback. Or new problems arise that need to be tackled. It's an extremely rewarding role due to the autonomy and responsibility of owning the success of a piece of something.

What do you look for in a product manager?

Since PMs run into new problem each and every day, we strive to understand how a candidate thinks and their approach rather than product suggestions. We also evaluate candidates on four main areas that we believe are essential for success.

The first is communication and leadership. As a PM, you are a communication hub, and will likely interface with almost every function in the company. It's important to be an excellent and organized communicator. Similarly, PMs need to be able to successfully lead and rally a team in a matrixed reporting structure.

The second is decision making. PMs are constantly making decisions and weighing tradeoffs, so it's important to understand a candidate's approach. We value a process that is rooted in research and data analysis.

Curiosity is our third factor. We've found that our most successful employees (across all departments) are innately curious and just like to sink their teeth into new areas and undefined problems.

Finally, we want to make sure that a candidate is a good fit for our culture. We look for self-starters with a bias towards action, and it doesn't hurt if we'd want to grab a beer after work sometimes, too.


Answers from Laura Durfee, talent acquisition manager. Paylocity helps companies manage human capital and payroll with cloud-based software that integrates with other solutions to ease management hurdles.   

What does a product manager do at Paylocity?

The mission of the Paylocity product technology team is to identify and deliver against unmet customer needs early and often. It is the product owner’s pursuit to identify and solve for these unmet needs. To bring a solution to market effectively, a product owner must prioritize ruthlessly, collaborate compassionately, and evangelize tenaciously on behalf of their users and products.

What do you look for in a product manager?

We look for someone who is:

  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Humble
  • Adept at leading with a customer unmet need (both short- and long-term)
  • Equally skilled at dreaming big and starting small, and able to concisely articulate the value in both
  • Able to develop a viewpoint based on mix of data, experience, and gut
  • Thick-skinned enough to successfully interact with C-level executives, and curious enough to ask questions and alter point of view appropriately


Answers from Jonathon Schuster, VP of product management. DialogTech helps connect humans in a world dominated by digital communications by offering call optimization and analytics.

What does a project manager do at DialogTech?

A product manager at DialogTech is the CEO of their product line. Most product managers do not manage just one product, but a set of products. In any given day a PM is working with their dev team, soliciting feedback from customers, presenting their ideas to members of our executive team, helping our sales teams present to customers, or just spending time looking into what the next big thing is. At the end of the day, though, they get great product shipped.

What do you look for in a product manager?

When hiring a product manager I start by looking for passionate curiosity. A great PM wants to know how things work, how customers and stakeholders think, how the market is going to respond to a new idea, and more. I also look for amazing communication skills. A great PM needs to be able to communicate at all levels through an organization and externally as well. Lastly, like all great candidates for DialogTech, I look for SWANs: people who are smart, hard working, ambitious and nice.  


Images via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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