Key skills behind a great product manager

As a daily Medium.com customer, there are days when I read (or listen) to posts/articles which make me think more about how I operate, think or shape myself in my professional and personal life. You know…when you read something that just hits the spot at the right time and makes you go ‘wow, that is so timely’.

I had one of those this morning on my way into the office on the bus, which articulated the nexus of what makes a great product manager.

This is a tricky one to shape as the role has many guises in many businesses. But, as this role has shaped a large degree of my thinking and how I operate, I look at this role in the context of digital product management, which is the role that has been changing the world over the past 15-20 years (yes, these are the people behind email, messaging, social media, smartphones, search …I could go on).

So, I wanted to share the article from Jack Moore (https://medium.com/@jacknotjohn), which hit the spot with me:

https://productcoalition.com/product-managements-most-important-lessons-2fd74c1b69b2

Product Management’s Most Important Lessons

The lessons that the best product people teach over and over again

When people ask how I got into product management, I like to say that I “fell into it”. That may not exactly be true, when I look back on my path, but either way I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve discovered this field. Building products that solve peoples’ problems, and that do it in a measurable way, is an incredibly rewarding vocation.

The biggest thing that I can stress about great product managers, and probably great professionals in general, is that the continuous learners are the ones who succeed. The great PM’s out there who follow the axiom of “firm beliefs, loosely held”, and follow up by seeking out opinions that challenge their beliefs, are the ones that I seek out and attempt to emulate.

As I’ve struggled to live as a constantly learning PM, here are the lessons that I find myself learning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, from the greatest minds in product.

There is no one path to product

A product manager is one that challenges themselves to treat every problem in the world as a solution waiting to happen. That empathy is core to what makes a product manager different, and it’s the core value that one must have in order to succeed in this field. It’s also not something you can learn while getting a CS degree.

When product management first burst forth into the early world of agile software development — a world of floppy discs and post-it notes and manifestos — software engineering was the common path towards the uncommon field of product managers.

As the field has grown, all walks of life have lent some of their most empathetic and technologically curious to product management.

Ask any product manager worth their salt and they’ll tell you that there’s no one route to this line of work. Yes, familiarity with the software that you’re asking your team to develop is a plus, and so good product managers sometimes come from software development backgrounds, but as we’ve asserted, this is not the PM’s most important quality.

If you survey the field, you’ll find history majors, math majors, and electrical engineering majors. You’ll see ex-real estate agents building the software that they have learned is needed through their years in industry, and doing it better than product managers with years of experience elsewhere.

…But the most successful PM’s work to know the tech

Though I’ve learned that there is no single path to success as a product manager, as I continue to learn what it means to be a good PM, I often hear …

You don’t need to be technical, but it sure as hell helps

Being on the less technical end of the spectrum, especially when I started, this was an uncomfortable thing to hear, but I heard it from the most successful PM’s out there. Over and over again.

In his book InspiredMarty Cagan says that there are 2 classes every product manager should take, one of which is an introductory programming class (the other is an introductory accounting or finance class). Cagan says in his book

You may love it, you may hate it, but either way it will fundamentally expand your technology horizons and enable you to have much richer discussions with your engineers and designers. It will also give you a better appreciation for the power of enabling technology. — Marty Cagan, Inspired

but you’ll find that the successful ones can at least talk shop with engineers.

This isn’t a skill you need to pick up in college, but it is something you should strive to cultivate. A working knowledge of the technology allows a PM to:

  • More easily explain to others what you’re building. Analogy is a product manager’s second language, after all
  • Develop more of a rapport with your engineers
  • Understand the horizons of what is possible in your architecture

One of a PM’s core responsibilities is that of a bridge between the customer, engineering, and the line of business. As such, being able to communicate the day-to-day of your engineering team is right behind the ability to communicate the needs of your customers, in terms of importance.

Once you understand the problem, knowing the tech allows you to understand the solution.

The unofficial official motto of the product manager

Product managers are responsible for the success of the products that they manage, but the teams that develop those solutions do not report to the product manager. In fact, most product managers are actually individual contributors.

The most important challenge a product manager faces is how to get your team to build the right product, when they don’t actually work for you?

The product manager is in a position where they have to inspire engineers to build products which inspire change.

As such, product managers are responsible for creating a compelling case for why any particular piece of work is what their team should be dedicating their time towards. The best engineering teams want to understand the impact of their work, and it’s the product manager’s job to impart that understanding…

The WHY of product is where great product managers make their cheddar. A good PM can guess at WHAT a customer needs in order to be reach a given outcome, and a good engineering team will tell you HOW to get there.

Great engineering teams, on the other hand, want to understand the WHY their product is important.

A product manager who is not responsible for the impact of the solutions they’re building is not a product manager.

Developing a shared knowledge with your team regarding their mission can be done in a number of ways. Engineers respond to users in pain (another Marty Cagan-ism), and so qualitative analysis like user interviews are often key to developing your team’s empathy of a particular user.

I’ve also found that data often tells a powerful story as well, and as such developing a foundational knowledge of the data surrounding a problem is important.

Ultimately though, qualitative and quantitative analysis are most powerful when used in combination.

  • Quantitative analysis can answer a lot of questions, but it doesn’t easily tell you which questions to ask.
  • Qualitative analysis is fantastic at uncovering important questions and assumptions, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

This combination of qual and quant make for a powerful 1–2 punch that engineering teams respond to, and product managers that maintain this sort of benchmark are the ones that can truly communicate whether their products accomplish the goals that they’ve set out to accomplish.