I have spent a chunk of the last few days of my break at various incubators and companies and I have noticed a lot of interest and questions around Product Management. So I am going to capture my thoughts around some of the key aspects of Product Management and write them down (hopefully to the benefit of those reading it).
The best way to structure this write-up is as a part of two part series.
Part I: discusses how to hire a good product manager (helps define the role too)
Part II: focuses on the certain best practices of Product Management
Bonus III: I am not sure what this post will be. It might depend on your response and what you might want to know after reading Part I and II
(Image credit: Pragmatic Marketing blog)
Who is a Product Manager?
At its broadest, it is someone who is responsible for building and launching a product. Of course, this is the joint responsibility of a lot of different functions, but the Product Manager is the primary person who is on the hook. If the product succeeds, then you spread the credit. If it fails, then you take the blame. From that perspective, it is a leadership position but one that comes with little commensurate control. It is leadership by influence.
Another definition of Product Management is someone who is the voice of the user in the room. This is the champion of the user, what they feel, how their problems can be solved, what makes them happy. And great companies tend to make these champions responsible for building the product end to end.
What should we look for in a Product Manager?
I have spent a bit of time building teams of product managers and also interviewing myself for such positions. Based on my experience, here are some of the traits to look for when evaluating a potential Product Manager. Remember, its not in any particular order of priority though some things matter more than the others.
Empathy: You can can call it ‘user sense’, ‘sensitivity’ but its basically the ability to put yourselves in the shoes of the ultimate consumer. This can be the user who buys and uses your phones, or can be an enterprise team that will use your SaaS software. Whoever the ultimate user is, a good PM has the ability to put themselves in their shoes and feel their pain points and frictions. The ability to do that well allows a PM to craft really good thoughtful products. In my career, every time we started with the user, we built better products (Moto phones, Google mobile apps). And whenever we got caught up in other strategic imperatives and missed out on what the end user really wanted, we lost the plot (Google+ being a good example).
Breadth of understanding of the ecosystem: The best way to describe this trait is that you should look for someone who could be an Associate in a VC firm. A strong PM has good, thoughtful opinions on everything from Video Ads, next generation of Android phones, VR to latest on ride sharing, ecommerce in India/China, the list goes on. This does not mean we hire a savant who can provide deep analysis on all these topics. But familiarity, a general sense of understanding, and what I call — breadth across the ecosystem is very useful. This is because strong PMs are often generalists. They can pick up any area and in a few months become very deep in it. A general understanding of the technology landscape helps.
Technical Chops: A strong PM might not need to have an engineering degree (though I have a strong bias towards those that do). But they do need to have a strong technical background either through hacking or learning on the job. If you do not understand the technical implications of the choices you make as a Product leader, either you will lead the engineering team down a wild goose chase, or you will lose credibility almost instantly with the engineering leadership. And I know no examples of great product leaders who do not have the trust of their engineering counterparts. This is critical. Do not get into the business of technology without learning technology. (and pls don’t throw examples of exceptions to the rule to me. Exceptions are just that…exceptions. You don’t want to bet your career on a one in a thousand chance you succeed in this role without understanding tech)
Sweating the details: Great PMs are usually very detailed and obsessed with every aspect of their product. They do not tend to rely on Program Management (unless the product scope is crazy big). They run their own spreadsheets, roadmaps, and have an uncanny habit of picking up on things that could go wrong. This requires an unnatural level of fussing over things. A key principle that works well here in almost all settings is: “Prepare for the Worst and Hope for the Best”. Great Product Managers plan every aspect of their product and its launch assuming the worst, and then radiate the optimism and calmness of a person whose ship is in the right direction.
Communication Skills: A strong PM is almost always a strong communicator. Your role demands negotiation, inspiration, influencing people, listening thoughtfully, and learning the delicate art of coercion while being on the same side as the person you are working with. You will be faced with a lot of human scenarios in your role. Ranging from getting on the stage and articulating the passion behind the product, to going for a walk with someone who is struggling and understanding how they feel, to reaching across teams and companies to ensure things get done. Communication skills is a critical skill for PMs to have and is tied very closely to the next one, perhaps the hardest to judge in an interview.
Emotional Intelligence: PMs are supposed to be leaders. But this is not the get on the stage, rah-rah, I lead — you follow kind of leadership. This brand of leadership can be from the front, back or the middle depending on the needs of the team. Understanding the motivations and needs of your team, your users, your execs is a critical aspect of a PM’s job. This is where most PMs stumble unfortunately. A lot of naive PMs think Product Management is a lead from the front position and the team has to do what they tell it to do. Others find it hard to scale as teams get larger because they micro-manage. Most of the failings in this role stem from this bucket. It is also a trait that is super difficult to evaluate in an interview. I recommend thorough vetting and talking to past companies, bosses, teams to understand how the prospective candidate fares in difficult situations.
There are things like design, critical reasoning and data analytics that need to be honed too, but I am going to assume those building blocks and focus on larger themes for now. Some like design can be contextual based on the team, product and company. This is just a generic framework PMs can use to groom themselves for the role, and companies can use to evaluate strong PMs.
By the way, few people are amazing at all of these things. I find that I am reasonably good at the first four, but keep tripping over the EQ part especially when faced with people very different from myself and senior leaders who I do not respect. I think the trick is to keep developing yourself along these tangents and aspire to be a better person.
Because ultimately a strong PM is usually a pretty darn good human being. That’s the nature of the role. It is the birthing ground of strong leaders.