BY SERGIO, MY JOB GLASSES MENTOR & SENIOR PRODUCT MANAGER @ AMAZON
“What are the skills needed to succeed as a Product Manager? Can I still become a Product Manager? Do I need to have an MBA to become a good Product Manager? What if I don’t have a technical background?”
These are some of the questions that students have frequently asked me over the years as a mentor at My Job Glasses (hint: the answer I like to give to students is more nuanced than a yes or no). The frequency and consistency in which I hear these questions point to a broader theme, which is the misconception of what product management is and, more specifically, to the skillset required to get into product management and thrive as a Product Manager (PM). While explaining what is product management and what a PM does could be the subject of an entire book, it is important to have a general understanding of such role to identify – and put into context – what skills are needed to become a Product Manager (PM). However, this article focuses on the skills you will need rather than on understanding the role.
In this post, I will start by giving a (very) brief overview of what a PM does, followed by the three skills I believe are the most important and pervasive across the product management function: (1) creativity, which includes being aware of technology trends, (2) effective communication across all the organization, and (3) data-driven mindset, including knowing how to analyse data. The last section features a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that I have heard from students over the years.
This piece of content reflects my personal view on product management and is based on, mainly, my experience as a Senior Product Manager at Amazon over the last five years and complemented by books, conferences and online material.
IN SHORT, WHAT IS A PRODUCT MANAGER?
WHEN THERE’S A PROBLEM…
Imagine someone comes to you with the following problem: “I need to get from point A to point B. Can you help me?”. After spending more time with that person, you come up with a solution: “A car would help you with your problem! But first, let’s start with a skateboard and move on from there based on the results”.
… THERE’S A SOLUTION
You then get together with your team of mechanical engineers, ergonomic designers and safety department to build the skateboard and, afterwards, ask the person to give it a try. You gather information such as the time needed to get from point A to point B, satisfaction of the ride, and the safety score – which measures any event during the ride that could have derived in an accident.
Everyone is happy with the results, and so you start working on the next product: a scooter. After repeating the cycle, you then start building a bicycle, and finally… a car.
SO, WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A PRODUCT MANAGER?
There you go, you just lived for a moment inside the world of product management. The PM is in charge of all of the aspects in that example: understanding customers problems (i.e. get from A to B), defining a solution that solves such problem (i.e. a vehicle), creating a product vision (i.e. from skateboard to a car), defining success metrics and working with internal teams in your organization to develop such solution. This list is illustrative, although not exhaustive, of all the responsibilities of a PM.
The PM is the responsible for (1) defining the correct product to solve a customer problem (or opportunity), (2) delivering it to customers and (3) keeping the product evolving. My favourite definition of product is that it is a vehicle of value. As such, PMs can oversee from smaller specific features in a product (e.g. the “add to cart” flow on an e-commerce site) to broader features or services (e.g. the recommendation system of YouTube).
WHAT SKILLS ARE NEEDED TO BECOME A GOOD PRODUCT MANAGER?
1. CREATIVITY AND KNOWLEDGE OF DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGIES (THEY GO TOGETHER)
PMs have a strong vision of what the product is, where it should go, and how it will evolve in the future. PMs influence different stakeholders in the organization through such vision – a vision that no one else has ever thought about. This is where creativity comes into play.
PMs need to sketch a future that does not exist: a future that excites executives who read about it, a future that excites developers and engineers who want to build it. Typically, this vision materializes in a 3-year product plan and roadmap the PM creates and requests stakeholders to sign off on. As you can imagine, this is an ambiguous territory as PMs must create something out of nothing.
To help in shaping that vision, it is important to know about the current technology landscape: what are the technologies out there that can help your team resolve business problems or explore opportunities? What is the state of new technologies (e.g. blockchain, NFTs, Metaverse etc.)? This does not mean PMs are experts on the technologies or know how to build them, but rather are sensitive to how such technologies work (on a high-level) and what problems they solve. The more PMs know about a technology, the easier it will be to come up with new ideas on how to use it. To some extent, PMs should also be curious to learn about technologies.
2. EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION ACROSS ALL THE ORGANISATION AND STAKEHOLDERS
PMs interact with different teams and stakeholders: customers, engineering, design, data science, business owners, marketing, finance, and executive-level teams. Some of these stakeholders will be peers in a different team, senior-level managers in a different organization, or customers on the other side of the world speaking a different language.
Because of this, PMs need to adjust their communication based on the type of audience they are engaging with, both verbal and written. This usually spans across the following areas: (1) calibrating the level of details needed, (2) focusing the conversation on a particular area, challenge, or opportunity, and (3) language used. For example, in a quarterly product review with your VP, you do not want to include feature-level requirements or bugs found in the last sprint (unless they are critical or impacted the performance significantly).
Similarly, if you are meeting with your finance partner to obtain their alignment on a cost reduction forecast, you want to include tables with projections, sensitivity analysis and call out the assumptions you make – and maybe leave out customer feedback or information about your next feature releases. In contrast, if you are discussing requirements with your engineering team, you need to be very precise on what the product is supposed to do, including edge cases, wireframes or mocks, and explain how users are using the tool today.
3. DATA-DRIVEN MINDSET, INCLUDING ABILITY TO ANALYSE DATA
A data-driven mindset refers to knowing how to use data (either generating new data or leveraging existing one) to better comprehend behaviour. PMs must know what to look for in datasets and be able to identify patterns and extract insights from the data. For example, when building a chatbot solution, the PM must think about what are the relevant metrics to measure and include them in the requirements to engineering (hint: not all things that can be measured are worth measuring).
Likewise, PMs will often need to “dive deep” into the data to identify trends or patterns explaining certain behaviour. As such, PMs should feel comfortable using tools like Excel (or other low-code or no-code tools) to extract insights from datasets. This does not necessarily mean PMs need to know how to code, use SQL or scripting languages like R or Python – even though knowing such tools could give you more autonomy and speed. At the end, it will also depend on the scope of your role and the industry or product you work on.
Connecting the data-driven mindset with crafting a product vision, PMs should also define the success metrics for different phases of product development. A good mental model is to think about metrics either as inputs (what you can control and directly influence) or outputs (what you can’t fully control but can indirectly influence). For example, if you own the detail pages of an e-commerce site you may define the % of items with pictures and videos on the detail page (input metric) and the % of increase in sales due to better detail pages (output metric).
KEY TAKEAWAYS ON SKILLS NEEDED TO BECOME A PRODUCT MANAGER
The area of product management is very big, with a growing number of literature and content about it. This post reflected on my experience mentoring students over the last years who were eager to understand more of the product management function and the skills needed to become and be a successful product manager. In that context, I selected the three skills I believe build the foundations of a PM. However, the list of skills a PM should have goes beyond this three (as I outlined in the FAQ section below). A product is a vehicle of value. I would summarize the key takeaways as follows:
1. Creativity and sensibility of technologies. The PM should know about existing and new technologies and use that knowledge to think about new ideas. In essence, a PM is a creative person who likes to learn and explore about new things.
2. Communication across the entire organization. The PM interacts with all type of roles and levels in the organization. As such, they must know how to adjust their communication and content based on the audience.
3. Data-driven mindset. The PM should feel comfortable working with data, either defining new metrics, analysing data, or asking others what to analyse.
And remember, PMs are responsible for their lifecycle, including low-level definition of requirements to the high-level strategic vision.
FAQS BY MY JOB GLASSES STUDENTS
To conclude this article, I would like to share the most recurrent questions I have been asked by My Job Glasses students, as well as my answers :
- Do I need to have a technical background or a work experience to become a PM? No. Your background (irrespective of which) will give you specific strengths as a PM. Yes, a technical background may allow you to communicate better with engineering teams. However, holding a background in psychology could make you understand better customer problems and build empathy with them – which is very important as a PM. The only exception could be certain roles or industries where a technical background is desired – e.g. if you own a specific service within a company that offers cloud solutions.
- Do I need to have an MBA to become a good PM? No. As with the previous question, such background gives you certain strengths. However, I have seen MBAs struggling in the PM role (and viceversa) as well as non-MBA thriving as PMs (and viceversa).
- Do I need to code to become a PM? No
- What are other skills that are useful to succeed as a PM?
- Influencing without authority
- Develop models to estimate impact, entitlement, attribution, etc.
- Knowing how to say “no” to requirements.
I hope this reading has helped you understand the role of a Product Manager and what are the most important skills to succeed in this position. In a world where technology is everywhere, Product Managers are key to understanding what customers need and translating those needs into concrete solutions, even if this sometimes this means creating something from scratch!
Are you keen on knowing more about the role of a Product Manager? Click here to contact Sergio on My Job Glasses!