Successful product managers have a mix of technical skills, soft skills, and domain-specific skills. But unlike software development, accounting, or biology, there isn’t a particular major or educational path where you learn these skills or even find out what they are.
In this piece, I’ll outline some critical skills in each category and how you can use them as a product manager. But first, let’s start by touching on what product management is in the first place.
What Exactly Do Product Managers Do?
Broadly speaking, product managers are responsible for building and bringing products to market. They are the organizational muscle that ensures developers, management, and stakeholders are all moving the product forward.
This isn’t a job you can do in isolation with your head down and earbuds in—your success is measured by the success of your team.
At software companies, product managers are typically responsible for:
- Determining which features to build next based on what they learn from external clients, internal stakeholders, user testing, market research, and past experiments
- Planning out how and when to build those features based on existing priorities and available resources (human, physical, and financial)
- Ensuring the development team is getting its work done on schedule—and if not, either addressing whatever is blocking them or changing expectations
- Collecting and analyzing data to determine how well the product is doing in the market
- Communicating team progress and bringing any major issues to management
I’ll focus on software development and Agile methodology in this article, but product management isn’t limited to tech and software, and Agile isn’t the only approach. You’ll find PMs in retail, logistics, finance, real estate, and healthcare using Waterfall, Six Sigma (DMAIC & DMEDI), and other methodologies.
Furthermore, the product in product management isn’t just what a company sells online or in a store. It can also be the proprietary operations, sales, accounting, and development tools as well as the processes that your team relies on internally. For example, does your account management team use a custom Salesforce plugin to improve client experience? That’s a product. Does your factory rely on a special machine or assembly technique? Those are products too.
Product managers define the direction of the product and how their team builds it. This requires a special set of technical planning, organization, and prioritization skills:
The most important skill for a product manager is figuring out what customers want and need and then translating that information into requirements for the developers who will actually be building the product.
In order to accomplish the first half, you’ll need to talk to your management team, clients, potential users, and subject matter experts. This involves asking open-ended questions about the issues they’re running into and the goals they want to achieve, such as:
- “What are you trying to accomplish?”
- “Why do you need to add new users?”
- “How do you do that right now? How often?”
- “What is your dream scenario for adding new users?”
- “Where and how is this data used?”
This is called requirements gathering and it’s how PMs determine what customers will pay for and, in turn, which features to build, which not to build, and which to put on the back burner.
A common pitfall of overeager PMs is to fixate on specific technologies and solutions. Product managers should instead focus on defining acceptance criteria based on what they learned from gathering requirements: defining how a feature should work, what it accomplishes, and how to handle exceptions.
Implementation Planning and Sprint Management
After defining the direction of your product, you need to build it. But you can’t just tell a group of engineers to “build a new app so our bank tellers can pull up customer account information, look at past transactions, and move money.” That’s far too big a bite to chew.
Product managers need to “break down complex problems with many moving pieces into small, workable tasks,” explains Dan Ostrovsky, product manager at Oshi Health. Each task must be organized in a “specific, prioritized sequence, so that they can be addressed given the limited resources available.”
In Agile development, teams work in one- to two-week blocks, called sprints. It’s the product manager’s job to determine which tasks will fall into the sprint and who will tackle each one. Most PMs use software like JIRA or Trello to manage their sprints, so you’ll need to become familiar with these kinds of tools in order to put your skills into practice.
Even with a perfectly planned sprint, though, there are always last-minute exceptions: software bugs, shipping delays, service outages, fire drills from management, sick days, etc. It’s your job to re-prioritize the sprint and reallocate your team’s resources (or negotiate for more) to get the most important things done. Failure to do so will lead to blown deadlines, wasted time, and idle developers.
As with many skills, it’s important to practice in order to develop and sharpen them. I came into product via engineering and learned about requirements gathering, implementation planning, and sprint management by treating small features like full-scale products.
For example, if I was assigned a small landing page update, I’d talk to marketing to get all the background on why we needed to make this change. I’d write up a detailed set of tickets outlining what we needed to do and talk about them with a designer and an engineer about how to approach them. Finally, I’d assign tickets to myself, do the work outlined on each one, and move them across the board until the feature was deployed. It may have been overkill, but it was great practice.
Specific Software and Tool Skills
As a product manager, you’ll need to have some basic familiarity with your team’s tech stack in order to plan appropriately and communicate effectively with developers. Learn the names and purposes of the tools your industry commonly turns to and which ones your specific company and team uses. For example, you don’t need to know exactly how Redis or Memcached work, but you should know that they’re both used to cache data in memory.
As a product manager, you don’t manage people in the traditional, “I’m your boss and I’m responsible for your professional development,” sense. But you are responsible for making sure the team delivers the final product on time and according to the requirements.
In other words, you’re accountable, but you’re not in charge. So you’ll need to be able to motivate, build trust, and help your team succeed as a colleague rather than a manager—which requires some serious soft skills and interpersonal skills, including:
Development time is limited and quite expensive. Your team and their needs come first, so you have to become adept at defending their time, even when it means sacrificing your own. Deniz Cebenoyan, a product manager at Indeed, happily takes meetings with “that team in that horrible time zone, with that guy [who] says no to everything,” so the developers on her team can focus on their sprint goals.
To keep your team on track and reduce the amount of time they spend switching gears, look for ways to prevent interruptions. That means taking inbound calls, intercepting bug reports and product requests from colleagues, writing SQL reports, and whatever else it takes to keep them in the deep work zone.
Selflessness extends beyond protecting your team’s time. It’s also about highlighting team and individual accomplishments while taking responsibility for failures. If folks on your team feel unrecognized or unappreciated, they’ll leave. “Be humble. Give credit to your team,” Cebenoyan says. “Good devs have their pick of the litter when it comes to jobs. Make working with you fun, and you'll be more likely to keep them."
Empathy and Communication
Product management is a cross-functional role. You interact with people from every department, so you need to be able to see problems from every point of view and communicate with people in various roles.
While your world may revolve around product requirements and two-week sprints, your CEO and your marketing, sales, and support teams don’t operate with the same rhythms, assumptions, or objectives. The better you understand your colleagues’ work cycles, goals, and language, the better you’ll be able to interact with them, prioritize their requests, and motivate them to stay engaged.
For example, a coworker from the sales team might come to you with their frustrations about a feature they need that doesn’t exist. You need to be able to empathize with their perspective, understand what they’re asking for and why, and communicate what building it would entail and—potentially—why it can’t be done right now.
As a product manager you also have to empathize with your developers. Not every product is exciting, press-worthy, high-tech, or a viral success story. Sometimes you’ll find yourself building “boring” but useful and necessary products. For example, you may have to put off working on a flashy machine learning project until next quarter in favor of building a billing portal. It’s hard to tell a teammate, “No, you can’t work on exciting feature X,” even though it’s vital to keep your team on track. You’ll have to find a diplomatic way of doing it without killing their enthusiasm.
Finally, if you’re working with a global or distributed team, you’ll need to pay extra attention to how you communicate as a PM. Idioms and jargon don’t travel well, so use plain, declarative language. You’ll want to provide as much context as you can when asking questions or making notes for teammates in other offices to avoid delays and misunderstandings.
Successful products are never finished; they evolve. That means you can’t sit on your laurels once you’ve shipped version 1.0. You always have to think about what’s next.
Curiosity will drive you to learn what your product is doing right and where there’s room for improvement. Monitor competitors and talk to users, clients, and stakeholders on a regular basis. Evaluate your competitors’ products. And follow investor and entrepreneur Laurel Touby’s advice: On the first of every month, “assign yourself three new technologies/apps you’ve been hearing about—test drive them. Repeat.”
In addition to technical and management skills, product managers need to consider the industry they work in. You don’t need to be an expert on day one, but the more you learn about your particular business, the better decisions you’ll make.
If you work on consumer-facing products or products that require a lot of advertising or consumer marketing, for example, you’ll no doubt be asked to run A/B tests and interpret the results. Experimentation, analysis, and data visualization skills are important, so you may want to explore online courses in data science, statistics, analytics, Excel, and SQL.
If you work in healthcare or education, you’ll probably need to understand certain laws and regulations (like HIPAA or COPPA) to avoid costly mistakes and legal issues—especially with respect to data and privacy. If you work on food or health and beauty products, you’ll probably need to have some familiarity with the science behind them as well as safety measures and regulations.
The software and tools you use might also vary depending on your industry or sector and you’ll have to become comfortable using the appropriate ones depending on what kind of PM role you pursue.
Highlighting Your Product Management Skills During Your Job Search
Product managers are measured by the success of their teams and products. Requirements gathering, sprint management, breaking down complex problems—those are the building blocks. Ultimately, you need to show how your skills and work led to a successful outcome.
At Oshi Health, Ostrovsky looks for evidence that candidates can “clearly and concisely communicate their process for solving and prioritizing solutions.” How? “Resumes with accomplishments that include success metrics stand out the most.”
For example, did your work save or make the company a lot of money last year? On your resume, make sure to put that—and achievements like it—in your top bullet points. Here’s what that might look like:
- Migrated four business units to a new in-house CMS, saving $15M in infrastructure and operations costs in 2018
- Identified and executed onboarding improvements that improved customer signups by 200%
Call out scenarios where you used technical, management, and industry-specific skills to drive development:
- Wrote quarterly technical whitepapers and proposals for new Alexa feature development, including in-skill purchasing and livestreaming
- Managed new product development involving local staff, off-shore contractors, and third-party hardware testing facilities
Don’t forget to mention the people and teams you worked with. Interacting with the CEO and other executives signals trustworthiness and authority. Cross-functional work speaks to your ability to build consensus and communicate with non-technical audiences. If you had direct reports, weave that into one of your bullets to illustrate your experience managing a team. For example, you might write:
- Delivered weekly progress reports to the CEO and leadership team about product status, roadblocks, and customer feedback
- Directly managed a team of five product managers, covering mobile, web, and wearable verticals
At interviews, be prepared to go deeper than what’s on your resume and explain how you’ve leveraged your skills. Make sure you have stories on deck that demonstrate technical, interpersonal, and industry-specific skills and practice using the STAR method to convey those stories in answers to interview questions.
Good product managers listen to as many ideas as they can and synthesize input in order to create cohesive and actionable product plans. But they also aren’t too precious about their plans—they’re flexible and they adapt.
You can’t talk to every customer. You can’t write all the code. You can’t find every bug. And you can’t optimize every landing page. But you will almost certainly be measured by how well your team does all those things and by the ultimate success of your product.
If you understand your product, communicate effectively to technical and non-technical audiences, and stay organized, you’ll be ahead of the game.