Product managers probably spend 90% of their time influencing cross-functional team members, communicating requirements to engineering, and adapting to strategic changes and ambiguity from leadership. And there are probably many more PM skills that aren’t listed below…technical skills, domain expertise, presentation skills, project management skills, Agile development process skills, quantitative modeling, etc.
The theme of this post, however, is to invest in learning specific, tangible skills that you can demonstrate. If PMs had a portfolio like designers and developers, they would include “product management assets” to show competence. Every product management candidate can and should build hard-skills that they can activate to drive the success of their products.
I’ve seen so many PMs at both startups and large companies that, frankly, don’t have the hard skills listed here. Shocking! I am suggesting a workshop approach to anyone that is looking to improve, ie go build these skills.
How do you learn product management skills?
The best way to learn product management is on the job. Work with more senior people who can teach frameworks and approaches through the product lifecycle. In the absence of generous mentors and a PM role at a company that has mastered shipping product at scale, the best way to learn is to workshop these skills and keep practicing.
What is the Product Management role?
A Product Manager drives decisions about WHAT a company builds. And WHY they should build it. And for whom and whom-not. This means a PM is setting strategy based on customer insight, writing product requirements and defining the product’s user experience.
In order to put yourself in a position to decide WHAT to build, you need to have skills and experience across ALL functional groups, including finance, engineering, marketing, design, and sales. And above all, you need to know more about customer behavior than any of your colleagues. You are the voice of the customer, and will use customer data to justify your every product decision. Customer insight is the gold mine that a product manager uses to drive decisions about WHAT to build and WHY to build it.
Yes, you should use data, master PowerPoint, be the voice of the customer, know how to influence without having authority, build trust with engineering colleagues, master the art of the product demo, and above all be obsessed with the customer experience and quality.
Beyond the basics, here are 5 hard-skills that can set you apart.
#1: Think like a Product Manager
A sales person will naturally want to say yes to all customer requests. An engineer will naturally want to build the most efficient and scalable approach. A product manager needs to measure the trade-offs between saying yes to some and no to others. And balance market demand with technical capability. All in an effort to optimize ROI on product development investment by maximizing the customer experience for the target market. A product manager should also be able to put on a sales hat or engineering hat, but with a focus on optimizing for the target customer segment.
Ironically, a common mistake that product managers make is to focus on building a product.
The product manager role starts with exhaustively analyzing the problem it should solve. Product Managers should know more about customer pain and market inefficiency than anyone in the room. I realize this sounds counter-intuitive since building is the fun part. This doesn’t mean that engineering is a commodity, it means that most start-ups fail from beautifully engineering a problem that doesn’t need to be solved in the first place.
Remember: Having a product idea is not the hard part. Building that product is not the hard part. Nailing the problem is the hard part.
Start the process by analyzing the market problem. For example, many product manager interviews start with a general question like “what is the future of shopping?” Start your answer from the perspective of what shoppers think and examples of shopping experiences that are gaining traction. And e-commerce fads that failed and why.
What big problems need to be solved next?
#2: Communicate the plan with a roadmap
You’d be amazed how many companies don’t maintain a product roadmap. They just follow the competitors. A roadmap is critical to communicating the priorities, strategy, and goals of the company. The product roadmap needs to constantly evolve as you learn and adjust. The product roadmap anchors the entire product lifecycle management exercise.
The product roadmap answers the question: Where are we going?
#3 Do usability tests
Knowing what to build starts with talking to customers. Usability tests are best when they are task driven, 1:1 interviews. The key to usability tests is to understand the customer’s workflow, their expectations, and to identify where friction in the flow is causing frustration. Usability tests unearth opportunities to improve, and drive feature prioritization and roadmapping exercises.
Quantitative market research, like web surveys, are just as important, but I think qualitative usability tests are important enough to highlight on this top 5 list. There is definitely a skill to running user tests, and I’ve rarely seen product managers conduct one without bias or with customer empathy.
And of course, usability tests aren’t complete until you write up a summary of insights with key recommendations and socialize the next steps across cross-functional teams. Always include verbatim customer quotes to drive home the insight into what you are learning.
Customer insight is your persuasion tool. Wield it carefully
#4 Build a competitive landscape
I’ve always been surprised how many product managers ignore competitors. I almost fired an MBA intern (from a top 5 business school!) for telling me that we didn’t have any competitors.
It’s really important to landscape your market in a one-page view that shows how you differentiate and how you are creating and plan to dominate a new sub-segment of a growing market. Knowing your competitors strengths and weaknesses, and even having used their products in depth, will drive your assessment of the top priorities for a future version of your product that will address customer pain in a way that they don’t. Constantly discover new competitors, add them to your list, categorize them, research them, and track their progress.
#5 Wireframe the user experience
Being able to visualize the product user experience has become a must-have skill. The alternative is to wave your hands in meetings, write hundred page product requirement documents without showing stakeholders and customers how you are defining the user experience. Just seeing static mockups is not good enough. Wireframes should be interactive and reflect the flow charts and decision trees behind the product logic. The key to Agile development is to learn as much as you can about customer needs BEFORE coding a first version of your product. The wireframe IS the product requirements document.
Products are experiential
Wireframes are meant to demonstrate the functional experience of the product, not the look and feel of it. Design and aesthetic polish are important, but come later. Examples of wireframing / mockup platforms that every product manager should be familiar with: Balsamiq, InVision, and Figma. Keep in mind that mastering the tool is not the objective, mastering user experience design is the objective — the tool is secondary.
The primary goal of the product manager is to maximize the success of their product by being laser focused on the problem their product addresses. The best way to do that is to think like a product manager (focus on the problem from a customer vantage point), have a product roadmap (communicate the plan), do usability tests (look for friction in the flow), map out a competitive landscape (differentiate your offering) and go through wireframe the product experience (drive user experience design).
Well, that’s my top 5 list of product management skills that most product managers should master, but surprisingly…haven’t. I’m sure there are many others skills that could be called out here, but those are skills that, in my opinion, set a product manager up to successfully launch and grow adoption of their product.