Centered at the intersection of marketing, design, and engineering, the ever-evolving role of the product manager has emerged as a stand-alone business function within tech organizations. These “mini CEOs” are not only tasked with satisfying core business functions, but must also bring emotion and ingenuity to digital experiences built with nothing more than 0s and 1s.
The highest-paid technologists in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, product manager role differs across organizations. Some focus more on back-end or program management-style roles that may be completely internally facing. Consumer-facing organizations, on the other hand, may have several teams dedicated to solving user pain points and improving the overall experience for their target audience. Even within organizations, larger product teams often divide and conquer based on skillsets. Despite the core differences between the various PM roles, however, the underlying foundations of what makes a good product manager hold true across organizations of all types.
Let’s dive into which skills tech companies look for in product managers.
Before diving into the more nebulous skills necessary to successful product management, it goes without saying that PMs must be technical. A good PM needn’t necessarily be a software expert, but should have the technical acumen necessary to prioritize projects. A core understanding of product complexity from a code perspective ensures proper team collaboration, respect, and expectations. Maintaining a reliable code base is just as important as shipping new features to customers—and high-quality PMs can help to minimize engineering risks.
Companies like Google prefer software development as a prerequisite for product managers. While you can certainly find PM opportunities that don’t require an engineering background, a good technical understanding will never hurt, so learning some software basics is one way to boost your PM application.
Whether you’re working behind the scenes or on an outward-facing feature, the product manager’s job is to understand the problem that’s being solved—and the product’s users are your best source of information. Jeff Bezos instills this philosophy throughout Amazon, claiming that “we see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” Product managers are the champions of this principle in any company, so it’s important prioritize empathy and understanding of who you’re serving.
Tech companies thus seek product managers who build with their target audience(s) in mind and constantly work to learn more about their customers. According the Hemal Shah, product lead at Twitter, “[product managers] know their target audience and the best ways to reach them.” Some companies may prefer product managers with previous industry knowledge, but many others tend to hire those from diverse backgrounds with new and creative ways of thinking through problems.
Product managers are the decision-makers when it comes to user experience—and given the time-sensitivity often associated with user issues, PMs must be able to make the right decisions in short periods of time.
As more companies embrace “lean” principles, releasing products or features early for the purpose of testing them in the market, rapid decision-making becomes increasingly more important. Product managers are not only responsible for flagging user issues, but also for putting out fires while remaining calm—all the while managing the multiple stakeholders involved in any product launch.
But it’s not enough to make a fast decision. Companies want PMs who make the right decisions, and therefore look to fill PM roles with people who have a sharp mind for data, and who can translate that data into actionable recommendations.
Many companies look for technical PMs, but good design sense is an increasingly crucial skill as companies realize the importance of design to a great user experience.
The importance of good design is evidenced by Airbnb, which, some may say, still exists today because of a keen focus on design and aesthetic from day one. In a moment of unscalable, non-data-driven genius, the entire early team flew to New York to take high-resolution photographs of property listings—an ultimate turning point for the company.
Knowing what good design looks like doesn’t require product managers to become Sketch wizards, but rather to point out good UI and UX, and to make suggestions when something doesn’t look or feel right. As with many PM functions, incorporating design sense requires a bit of art and science—attention to what the data is saying, but also an eye to what makes sense from a design perspective.
In an era of shorter development cycles, better access to data, and “fail fast” company cultures, product managers are expected to approach challenges as experiments, with the outcome of each experiment leading to better user experiences.
At the same time, however, experimentation can be costly—in terms of dollars, time, and resources—so the best product managers know how to prioritize experiments that could lead to tangible positive outcomes. In growth-focused PM roles, for example, the product owner is often tied to conversion metrics that are reported back to management and investors, so he or she must balance outcomes and user experience with the costs of each experiment—as well as the potential upside should an experiment be successful.
People management is at the heart of every PM role. From ensuring that designers and engineers are working on the highest-priority tasks to keeping secondary stakeholders such as legal, quality, operations, and data teams well aware of product changes, product managers must be on top of all team functions.
A PM must therefore be dependable and able to delegate, but at the same time willing to roll up his or her sleeves in a crunch. This is where not only a wide variety of skills comes in handy, but also the ability to work effectively with hugely different personalities and across all levels in an organization. Unlike roles that involve working squarely within teams, product managers need the emotional intelligence necessary to interfacing with colleagues of all types. These softer skills allow good PMs to read and quickly respond to situations in ways that resonate with the affected individual(s), reducing the friction that would otherwise occur between business units or teams.
Given product managers sit between a number of crucial business functions, it’s no surprise that the skills a successful PM needs are highly diverse. From technical savvy to user empathy, each day in the life of a PM is guaranteed to be wildly different, but those who can master a balance of the above six skills will be crucial to any organization they work with.