If you’re a product manager with technical skills, you’re at the intersection of marketing, design, and engineering. Your ever-evolving role is often a stand-alone business function within tech organizations.
As a “mini CEO,” product managers with technical skills are tasked with satisfying core business functions, while expected to 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, the product manager (PM) 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.
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 many PM opportunities don’t require engineering backgrounds, a good technical understanding doesn’t 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 at hand. The product’s users are often the 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 to prioritize empathy skills 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. They often fill roles with product managers who have sharp data skills. More importantly, people who can translate 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 an early moment of unscalable, non-data-driven genius, the team flew to New York to take high-resolution photographs of property listings. Ultimately, a 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. They must be confident 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. This means attention to the data with an eye to what makes a good design.
In an era of shorter development cycles, better access to data, and “fail fast” company cultures, companies expect product managers to approach challenges as experiments. The goal of each experiment is better user experiences.
At the same time, however, experimentation can be costly in dollars, time, and resources. The best product managers know how to prioritize experiments leading to tangible positive outcomes.
In growth-focused PM roles, for example, the product owner is often tied to conversion metrics. Because these metrics are reported to management and investors, they must balance outcomes and user experience with the costs. In addition, if the experiment succeeds, they must be prepared to accommodate the demand.
People management skills are at the heart of every product manager role. They must be on top of all team functions. PMs must ensure designers and engineers are working on the highest-priority tasks. They also keep secondary stakeholders such as legal, quality, operations, and data teams aware of product changes.
Therefore, product manager skills include dependability and delegation, and willing to pitch in as needed. This is where a wide variety of skills comes in handy. Leadership needs the ability to work effectively with different personalities and across all levels in an organization.
Unlike roles working squarely within teams, product managers need the emotional intelligence to interface with all personality types.
Good product managers use softer skills to “read the room.”
This helps them appropriately and quickly respond to the affected individual(s). This ultimately reduces potential friction between business units or teams.
Given product managers sit between a number of crucial business functions, it’s no surprise 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. Those who master a balance of the above six skills are crucial to any organization.
Revised Nov. 4, 2021