Dan Driscoll

@dbdriscoll

So you say you want to be a Product Manager …?

(Almost) everything you need to know (but are afraid to ask) before you wistfully ask a product manager to coffee so they will help you find a job.

TL;DR

  • Product management is a unique and poorly understood discipline, especially as it applies to software and other tech-related companies.
  • Product management is very much the dream occupation of the jack-of-all-trades, not-necessarily-master-of-any individual who possesses “raw intellectual horsepower.”
  • The ideal candidate for a product management role is “a technologist who got tired of being a technologist who wants to solve a business problem through a feature or a product.”
  • Creating and showing constant momentum through personal portfolio projects and volunteering is a powerful means of landing a new job as a product manager, especially if one has never officially held the professional title “Product Manager.”
  • Tailor resumes and cover letters for product manager job applications to each specific role.
  • Use frameworks in interviews to explain your qualifications and show your thought-processes.
  • Hard skills such as data analytics are essential to being successful as a product manager, but equally-valued are soft skills such as communication, collaboration and leadership.
  • Good product managers are team players who understand that flying solo is a limiting and isolating choice.

INTRODUCTION

This past fall, I attended the 20th annual Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) conference in Boston, one of the best business school conferences in the world and the largest gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) graduate business school students in the world. ROMBA is without a doubt one of the best professional conferences I’ve ever attended, a tribute to the incredible leadership and dedication of brilliant and passionate folks such as Matt Kidd, Kevin Smith and Hannah Yankelevich.

While supporting the LGBTQIA+ community at-large is a personal interest of mine, I must admit that my attendance at this most-recent ROMBA event was purely motivated by self-interest. As a product manager at HomeAway (part of the Expedia, Inc. family of brands), I was there to source the absolute best talent for the Product Management summer internship program in order to continue to push HomeAway’s agenda to develop a Tier 1 workforce.

Product management is a unique and poorly understood discipline, especially as it applies to software and other tech-related companies. Product management is very much the dream occupation of the liberal arts college student (such as I was) who aspires to an impactful career in business and technology rather than academia. Product management is a career path that is well-suited to the jack-of-all-trades, not-necessarily-master-of-any individual whose intellectual curiosities run far and wide; great product managers do not necessarily specialize in a particular skill but rather know enough to be dangerous across several skill areas.

In an interview with First Round Capital, Dropbox’s Vice President of Product and Design, Todd Jackson, observed: “The PM role needs to be purposely flexible, almost by design. A PM basically sits at the center of UX, technology and business. You may have heard the quote: ‘The PM is the CEO of their product.’ I think that’s pretty accurate, but it also means they have to do a lot of diverse things well, and good ones are extremely hard to find.”

Google’s product management guru, Ken Norton, has a similar take:

What do I look for in a PM? Most importantly, raw intellectual horsepower. I’ll take a wickedly smart, inexperienced PM over one of average intellect and years of experience any day. Product management is fundamentally about thinking on your feet, staying one step ahead of your competitors, and being able to project yourself into the minds of your colleagues and your customers. I usually ask an interview candidate a series of analytical questions to gauge intelligence and problem-solving ability.”

Great product managers are closet-creative types with an ambitious acumen for business fundamentals and priorities, as well as masters of persuasion and consensus-building. At any given moment, they are just as likely to be reading Man’s Search for Meaning or watching Helvetica on Netflix as they are to be watching The Profit on CNBC or discreetly thumbing through their well-worn copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Or, put another way, great product managers are often the “weird kids” in the MBA program who, while sitting in a finance class, wonder if they should have enrolled in a design school or coding bootcamp instead. (I did, which is why I petitioned to take user experience design courses during my business school days at The University of Texas and concurrently enrolled in a part-time coding bootcamp during my final semester. I wasn’t a very good software developer, and I was only modestly capable as a UX designer, but I learned enough to recognize clean code and effective, inspiring design when I saw it. More importantly, I learned how to recognize talented designers and developers when I met them and to ask the right questions when I work with them … at least I hope I did. :-)

As Suzanne Abate, founder of the 100 Product Managers website and weekly podcast, puts it: “Great product managers embrace uncertainty or what I like to call ‘a mindset of maybe.’ Instead of believing we always have the right answers, we pursue perspective.”

A recent job posting by zlien, a construction industry software company, frames the product manager’s mindset this way:

Do you find yourself staring at a complex world and identifying problems to engineer away? Are you passionate about creating great user experiences within a product? Can you take vague user problems and turn them into real plans? Is it an exciting challenge to create and study information about markets, industry trends, competitive movements, user sentiment; and to evaluate that information, and to find within it the answers about what a fast-growing and fast-developing company should do next?

If your answers are “yes” to all of the questions above, then product management may be the perfect role for you.

PRODUCT MANAGEMENT ON THE DAILY

So what are the daily expectations of a product manager?

My daily Monday-Friday routine looks a lot like this:

6:30AM (30 minutes): Read and respond to emails and instant messages that came in from our teams around the globe while I was sleeping
7:00AM (1 hour): Clean up and head to office
8:00AM (1 hour): Read tech blogs, general news articles and review backlog
9:00AM (1 hour): Enter issue tickets for any notes I have made regarding new feature ideas or bugs
10:00AM (2 hours): Attend product leadership team meetings to stay abreast of other teams’ efforts
12:00PM (1 hour): Lunch (mostly reading more tech blogs at my desk or doing an “office hours” video chat with someone interested in product management … which was the inspiration for writing this essay)
1:00PM (3 hours): Attend more product leadership team meetings and meet 1–1 with teammates, such as developers, designers, executives, business analysts, fellow product managers, marketing and product marketing specialists, external partner reps, data scientists, business development and sales reps, and customer service reps
4:00PM (2 hours): Analyze data for feature performance and insights, continue to enter issue tickets for any notes I have made regarding new feature ideas or bugs, as well as work on presentations and white paper documents for various purposes
6:00PM (1 hour): Workout (this is really important — your work suffers when your health declines)
7:00PM (4 hours): Get dinner and hang out with my wife (more realistically, fall asleep on the couch five minutes after we start watching Netflix)
11:00PM (30 minutes): Check email and instant messages in case anything merits a reply before I pass out (again)

My friend and mentor, Jon Loyens — Chief Product Officer at data.world — believes product managers can come from a variety of experiences and skill areas, but they must always be passionate about serving their users:

Great product managers come from all types of backgrounds and have all sorts of traits. Generally, I look for someone with a real passion for the domain (or learning lots of domains) and strong opinions. I like people who are great listeners and can synthesize multiple points of view quickly. I don’t think a technical or business background is necessary either. Most important, a great product manager has a great passion for ensuring that their customers (users, clients, members… whomever the person who holds their product and uses it) get great value out of said product. They care that the product as advertised delivers value and that the people who buy it realize that value one way or another.

As many a PM job description will relate, a product manager manages the overall product lifecycle. This requires setting the strategic vision and product roadmap based on market research, as well as testing and stakeholder feedback.

The product manager must be an expert for both their product area and the business of the company, which, in the words of a recent HomeAway job posting, involves a combination of “industry analysis, end-user feedback, and development knowledge to establish a product vision, multi-year solution roadmap, and an effective engineering partnership to deliver a world-class solution.”

Mike Galyen, HomeAway’s Vice President of Marketplace Design and a long-time product manager, considers adaptability to be one of (if not the most important) characteristics of a product manager.

“Adaptability is one of the most important traits I look for in a product manager,” says Galyen. “In a world of constant change, great product managers not only can adapt but thrive with change. As markets change, technology evolves and companies move strategically, the best product managers are able to have their thumb on the pulse and ride change like a wave.”

As John Bower, Chief Product Officer at YourWelcome, agrees, adding:

“A great product manager has an expert understanding of the business they are part of; a facilitator that combines design, development, support and marketing. They are an advocate for the end-user or client; exploring all viable scenarios before creating a new feature, taking their time to understand the true objectives behind a request (rather than simply doing as they’re asked). They combine both qualitative and quantitative data to influence their design decisions, while keeping an eye on wider market trends — it’s important to understand how & why new technologies could influence their future roadmap. There’s usually also a little je ne sais quoi — a charisma that shines from the products they create.”

A collaborative mindset is key. Once a product, feature, update or variant is added to the roadmap, the product manager is responsible for defining the requirements in collaboration with developers, designers, data scientists, business analysts, marketers, product marketers (not the same as “marketers”), sales people, customer service agents and others to design, implement, test, refine and deploy this new addition to the roadmap.

Galyen cautions that many PMs get stuck inside what he calls “four walls.”

It’s one of the most common traps I see product managers fall into — getting stuck inside four walls. Literally and figuratively. The demands of the role often add up to a full schedule that can drive even the best product managers to lose sight of their market and their customers. Weeks and months can go by without leaving the four walls of the office and that can quickly turn into an internal mindset. It’s important to get outside of the four walls on a regular basis. Commit to observing and interacting with your customers on a weekly, if not daily basis. This can be accomplished via face-to-face meetings, Skype, phone calls, reading community posts, reviewing feedback forums, commissioning research projects, time in the usability lab, attending conferences — there are many avenues. And just as important as your paying customers, spend time with your internal customers. Yes — this is often within the same four walls as your office. But more often than not, your product is bigger than the features and the code. The product often has an army behind it including customer support representatives, account managers, development operations managers, engineers, quality assurance analysts, designers, researchers, data scientists and more. Don’t get trapped inside four walls — invest time into your customers. Both internal and external.

Product managers who get stuck inside this “four walls” scenario run the risk of becoming feature managers, not product managers.

“They aren’t thinking about the customer; they aren’t understanding the opportunity or problem to be solved,” cautions Galyen. “They are building a feature or set of features without the bigger picture.”

Marcelino Moreno, CTO and Head of Product at GuestU, agrees.

“Avoid formulas and generic guidelines,” he tells me. “Focus on your problem, your solution, your business, your team. Like Elon Musk, who believes to solve a problem and innovate you really need to clear your mind from pre-conceptions.”

Darren Nix, Group Manager of the Assessments product team at Indeed and founder of the Y Combinator-backed startup Interviewed (acquired by Indeed), also considers creativity a must for product managers:

“Users can’t design your product for you. Don’t ask them to tell you what to build to make the product good. Don’t get me wrong: when you’re UX testing a prototype and a customer tells you they don’t like something, you should definitely believe them. But, users are awful at imagining how the product could be and how they would actually use it in practice if it were different… that’s your job. I’ve seen teams spin their wheels churning out feature after feature that users suggested only to find that none of them moved the needle.”

And that’s why I spent several months petitioning my employer’s recruiting team to sponsor the ROMBA conference. Having attended the conference in years past as a student, I knew that ROMBA wasn’t just a gathering of students from the top MBA programs around the world; it was a gathering of some of the most creative minds at those top MBA programs. You see, part of my HomeAway compensation is in the form of Expedia stock ($EXPE), so it is in my personal interest to fill our talent pipeline with the absolute best product management candidates the world over.

I might have pursued a humanities education at a “kumbaya college” in California, but it’s only human to be at least a little bit selfish!

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS A PRODUCT MANAGER?

Also known as the most coveted job for MBAs, a product manager is both the CEO and the janitor of their product. Product managers have the exciting responsibility of establishing the goals, roadmap and tracking metrics of their product (among many other duties), and also the less-glamorous but equally-important task of taking care of all the blocking and tackling required — from administration to politik — so that the talent, the designers, engineers, analysts and data scientists, can focus on their core work. Product managers have the exciting task of representing their product and teams to internal and external stakeholders at leadership meetings and conferences, and product managers have the perhaps less-glamorous task of troubleshooting their product and taking feedback from internal and external stakeholders. (Admittedly, I love all of the above, and if none of this sounds underwhelming, you probably are a good personality match for product management.)

In the words of Kevin Ashworth, who oversees recruitment for HomeAway’s product management teams, “A product manager is a technologist who got tired of being a technologist who wants to solve a business problem through a feature or a product.” Kevin adds that the most important skill of product managers is the ability to work across a matrix organization with different stakeholders and to articulate a vision around a feature or product with a clear business value that makes sense to all. Such articulation occurs in many forms, from company-wide presentations in front of executives to discrete one-on-one in-person chats. It’s not enough to simply be clear in vision and in communication, though; it’s essential that every interaction inspires and motivates all stakeholders to align with your vision and needs.

The ability to ask questions of data and analyze it effectively for insights — often referred to as business analytics — is another critical product management skill. In addition to being an expert using Excel or Google Sheets (know your pivot tables!), there is much value in learning SQL and either Python or R. The best product managers can take the data analytics a step further and apply data science methods such as cluster analysis to develop and train predictive models that can either be used in a product or suggest the value of developing a product.

Chris Walk, a principal product manager at HomeAway, believes “understanding data is the breakthrough skill. The machines are going to do all the number-crunching going forward, but you’ve got to know what to ask them to do and how to interpret the results.”

While product managers at larger companies typically have business analysts assigned to their teams and may even work with a team of data science PhDs, it is important to have enough mastery to know what’s going on, to know what questions to ask and even to recognize potential bugs while troubleshooting a “janky” data point. What’s more, getting your hands into the data will help you better understand your product through the natural osmosis of the process and inevitably inspire better questions for better insights.

My colleague, Taylor Smith, astutely observes: “Each tech department is a different culture that you have to be adaptable to in order for progress to be made.” Some teams just want to know what and how to build something; others want to know why they should build something before the what and how are explored.

“Product Managers should invest heavily in learning to communicate effectively, build intimate connections, and foster trust with colleagues and with customers,” says Suzanne Abate. “Pretty much everything else can be learned on the job or online, [but] I think failing to truly establish shared understanding is a common mistake for product managers and teams. In my roadmapping workshop I often use ‘now, next, later’ as a framework. It’s incredible how few people take three minutes upfront to agree on what ‘now,’ ‘next’ and ‘later’ will mean to them.”

Droplr CEO Gray Skinner and Head of Product John Smrekar extrapolated on this point, noting that empathy is required both for internal and external stakeholders.

“The ability to empathize is the number one character trait of a great product manager,” Skinner told me, referring both to customers and to teammates. “This allows them to build a vision for their product that satisfies customers in the most effective way possible. Listening requires creating an open line of communication with customers, and listening with a discerning ear to filter out noise that can steer a product away from it’s unique value proposition.”

“Deciding what’s important is critical because what you decide not to do is very often more important that what you decide to do,” adds Smrekar. “Communicating a vision effectively helps the product manager to first craft a vision and to inspire excellent execution amongst the team tasked with bringing it to life.”

He added that a PM should “never execute without a strategy. A product manager should always believe that what they plan to execute will produce an ideal outcome for both the customer and the business.”

Hunter Brennick, co-founder and COO of Landing Lion, emphasizes humility and listening for product managers.

“The ability to listen intently and put yourself in the shoes of your customers” are the defining characteristics of the best product managers, says Brennick. Great PMs are prone to “patience and the ability to not jump to conclusions.” Misguided PMs ignore their users and think “that their idea is the best. These managers have a tendency to steamroll conversations. Managers with this behavior intimidate their team from presenting ideas.”

HOW TO GET HIRED AS A PRODUCT MANAGER

The question I am constantly asked is, “How do I get my foot in the door for a product manager job at a tech company?

Hmmm.

I’d like to say the answer is simple, but honestly it isn’t. As FullContact’s Catherine Shyu notes, there is significant inconsistency in the job descriptions and skill requirements of product managers from company to company, and even within a given company, some roles will favor candidates with considerable technical or data science backgrounds, whereas others will be more weighted toward strategists or even marketers with a track-record of conceiving clever innovations that drive tangible ROI for stakeholders. In the words of XO Group’s Brent Tworetzky, “confusion is rampant across the product management industry itself” when it comes to answering the questions: What is a product manager? What do they do?

Companies such as Google and Facebook almost always insist on an engineering background for product managers, whereas other firms such as Expedia and Amazon are more flexible and more interested in the point of view candidates bring to their business lines, as well as the candidates’ abilities to ask the right questions of the right people to drive the right solutions. At some firms, including the aforementioned, a UX design background can serve as a substitute for an engineering or business background.

Further, as JUICE co-founder and product director David Khandrius, observes, technical aptitude is a must.

“This isn’t to say that PMs need to know how to code,” Khandrius clarified to me. “However, really great PMs have a deep understanding of the technology used in building their products. This allows the PM to know what is possible and what isn’t; helps interface with tech teams; and aids in the user research aspect. Without this skill, PMs often write unrealistic requirements and have a hard time lining up business goals with technology teams.”

Across the board, it is essential that candidates can indicate a clear line of sight. It is not enough to be “very qualified” and simply want to work “in tech” so you can “innovate on technology.” (You may be laughing, but these phrases show up in the vast majority of the cover letters sent my way by aspiring product managers.) Top firms want fiercely ambitious product managers who possess a deep and revenue-generating empathy for their users, their colleagues and their shareholders.

I know, yes, it seems obtuse and unrealistic to pair “fiercely ambitious” with “deeply empathetic.” Maybe that’s why those product managers who check both boxes are the true unicorns of the field. But, no, they aren’t imaginary. Personal and professional integrity is an absolute must for any product manager, and I think many of the best product managers remind me of leaders of powerful social movements: these are people who are obsessed with something they have observed that needs to change in order to make the world better, and they are phenomenally gifted at rallying others to see and help execute their vision. To remain focused and break through the inevitable barriers that arise along the way requires both fierce determination and sincere empathy in order to understand not only why your vision is the best way forward but also why others may not be inclined to agree and then to persuade them of the righteousness of your position.

In the hiring process, common expectations of product managers are high levels of initiative and proven track records managing multiple, overlapping projects of varying complexities, and the deliverance of those projects on or ahead of schedule in a fast-paced environment.

Certainly, you can chart a career in product management by having the fortune of starting in an “entry level” role just out of school, such as Google’s famous Associate Product Manager program, but that’s not the only path. Though some brands such as HomeAway now offer product management internships, many companies will expect at least a few years of experience for even their most junior product management positions. So it’s the annoying chicken-and-egg scenario that you need experience to get experience.

Fortunately, there are ways through this, and they will both train your day-to-day product management skills and establish other instincts that are of considerable benefit. From building teams and raising money from investors to pitching at showcases, growth hacking on the cheap and scaling your product from a few friends to a few hundred thousand users, all of these are highly-valued skills both at startups and at major corporations.

Darren Nix stresses that product management is “a learnable skill, provided you have intellectual curiosity and empathy. You can develop enough engineering knowledge to be dangerous without becoming an engineer and you can use empathy to feel your user’s pain and make Vicodin.”

Side projects, class projects, hackathons and “startup weekend” events (such as TechstarsStartup Weekend and the university-focused 3 Day Startup program) offer excellent opportunities to learn the skills required of a product manager. What does this mean? Well, there’s no better way to get experience than to #JFDI.

Personally, this was my path toward becoming a product manager. As a graduate student, I showed up at a 3 Day Startup weekend event offered at my university, pitched an idea I had for a marketplace for swapping sports gear, and that launched me into the world of startups. Over the next few years, I experienced all the highs and lows of trying to develop a product, get it in the hands of users and then get the users to love and share it. I pitched potential teammates to join me, investors to fund us, businesses to partner with us and customers to use us. I learned every “hack” in the book and invented some of my own in order achieve all of the aforementioned goals, from A/B testing the subject line of a cold email to investor leads to calibrating the exact amount of incentive credits required to convince users to share us with friends.

Even more, I learned (from a starting point of zero know-how) about Jira tickets and Trello boards and wireframing and UX paper tests and InVision mocks and metrics-based roadmapping. I learned that software engineers — or developers — are just as much artists as they are scientists. I learned designers want some guidance but not too much in order protect their creative freedom. I learned that the person who is creative enough to come up with a good product or feature concept but perhaps not specialized enough to design or code it is a product manager. And I learned that almost anyone will talk to you and hear you out if you buy them an overpriced latte.

One habit that proved critical to being recruited into HomeAway’s product management track was that I was always creating momentum for myself. Momentum is so important, whatever your career path. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to make use of your skills and hone new ones; get after it, even if you have to pay to do so. Go to every hackathon, both locally and in other cities, especially those in cities to which you would consider moving. I first got to know the person who recruited me to HomeAway when he volunteered as a judge at Jason CalicanisLAUNCH festival hackathon, for which my friends and I flew from Austin to San Francisco just to participate and surround ourselves with some of the world’s smartest developers, designers and tech nerds at-large. I got to know many of the people who endorsed me for this role and others through Techstars’ Startup Weekend, 3 Day Startup, and Lean Startup Machine events, as well as at conferences I made the effort to attend annually such as SXSW, LAUNCH and 500 Startups’ unSexy Conference.

Working with different groups of friends, I developed a portfolio that included a pair of small but venture-backed startups, a mobile app that applied a Tinder-style user experience to researching job opportunities and for recruiters to sift through applicants in a similar fashion (based on resumes, not physical appearances), a website that offered homesharing pricing suggestions more effectively than Airbnb’s tool, and several other projects. None of these proved to be billion-dollar endeavors, but they did prove that my friends and I were creative; that we executed on promising ideas; and that we were truly, madly nerdy.

For all the cynical talk about “selling out” and “going corporate,” the reality is that Tier 1 companies great and small should and will value and reward intrapreneurship. In fact, Expedia — HomeAway’s parent company — was founded by a Microsoft engineer working on a side-project. I honestly doubt I would have been invited to join the team at HomeAway if it wasn’t for my entrepreneurial instincts, and (for the most part) my startup-style execution habits have been assets. Being clever is important, but cleverness without execution is useless to most companies.

Kevin Ashworth seconds that notion. In evaluating candidates, he wants to know if they have “experience taking a feature from ideation to release successfully.” Other key questions he looks to answer:

  • What metrics did they track to define success?
  • What unique experience do they have to qualify as specialists in this particular role? (E.g., for HomeAway, a background in marketplaces, e-commerce, payments, reputation profiles, travel and hospitality are all very attractive to recruiters)
  • Ability to look at complex data sets and then articulate the nugget of information that will drive value for a product
  • Highly varied educational background is valuable; some teams want an CS background and an MBA, others don’t care if you have a degree or technical experience
  • That said, a candidate’s passion and ability to work well with others is more important than any degree
  • Ability to see trends in the market and narrow things down to a kernel from which you can execute in order to contribute to overall value and mission

All of these questions need to be answered by your resume. While cover letters matter, you need to assume that not everyone who needs to sign off on your candidacy will read your cover letter, let alone word-for-word from start to finish. Whenever possible, use statistics in your bullets. Don’t write “significantly increased user base” when you can tell a recruiter that your team “increased monthly active users (MAUs) by 50% in three months.” Don’t write “made the app better” when you can tell a recruiter that your team “increased the overall iPhone App Store rating from 1.5 stars to 4.6 stars overall out of >20,000 reviews.”

Be sure to tailor your resume and the portfolio materials you send to a recruiter to the needs of the specific company to which you are applying. It’s better to apply conscientiously to a small handful of companies and really customize each application for each company than to create a general application and use the spray-and-pray method to blast hundreds of job applications to dozens of companies.

Product management recruiters look for people who have the general product management skills and also unique skills sought by the hiring manager (e.g., in applying for a job with the checkout team at Expedia, it would be better to prioritize experience in e-commerce and checkout conversion than to focus on your love of traveling). Further, get as much intel as possible on the product management culture of the the company and the hiring manager. If a given hiring manager is looking for someone who is adept at backlog grooming, make sure such expertise is easy to find on your resume.

When it comes to interviewing, similar logic applies. Be sure to take each conversation in the direction of the specific job for which you are applying. Don’t generalize your experience. Be able to speak deliberately, such as how you have specific experience building a checkout experience when interviewing for an e-commerce role. Using frameworks such as the STAR and Lewis Lin’s CIRCLES methods are highly recommended. It’s not just about how well your experience fits the job, it’s also about how well you communicate how well your experience fits the job. The ability to structure your interview responses in a manner that is succinct but also delivers the “minimum viable content” required to impress the interviewer and inspire them to want to learn more about you and ideally work with you is a critical skill that will transfer well to working as a product manager. Good PMs know how to communicate what they know and believe in a manner that is compelling to whomever is their target audience.

“The skill I most value in a PM is being able to personality-split,” explains Darren Nix. When it comes to interviewing, leading candidates shows they can “simultaneously channel the mindset of the customer and the engineer so they can imagine simple solutions that solve the customer’s problem and are easy for engineering to build.”

SO, YOU’RE HIRED! … NOW WHAT?

Once you get the job, know that the hard work has just begun.

Never work on a product you don’t want to use; you will suck. Good PMs are very good listeners — customers, other employees, books, blogs, social media, news — and then they are equally good at communicating their goals and vision in a manner that is most effective to a given audience. PMs managing a product that isn’t appealing to them will not know to whom they should listen, for what they should be listening and certainly not how to communicate what matters back to the stakeholders.

Communication is always key. For customers, I use narrative techniques that resonate with them personally; for execs, I use financial figures to explain my logic; for colleagues, I use a hybrid and establish how working with me will help them get a bonus, a promotion or a nice bump on that stock they’re holding.

One essential element of communication is leveraging data. It’s not that compelling to state “I believe X to be true.” It’s compelling to state “I believe X to be true because we are seeing an upward trend in data point Y which we know is heavily influenced by variable Z.” As I noted earlier, it is important for a product manager to know to whom they should listen and for what they should be listening. This also applies to the data that a PM analyzes. At the core of data analysis is the question, Why do I care about this?

Here’s a real example from my own role at HomeAway. When I joined my team, I was told the most important metric of success for the supplier-side mobile experience was monthly active users (MAUs). That seemed weird, because much of the purpose of our marketplace’s supplier-side app was to reduce the amount of effort a supplier needed to put into the experience they delivered to our demand-side users. Quite literally, I went for a walk around a lake near our office. I left my phone at my desk and opted instead for a notebook and pen.

What is the point of this supplier-side app? I asked myself over and over. Every time I attempted to answer the question, I wrote it down in the notebook.

Ultimately, I focused on the idea that the most important thing our supplier-side app did was make the demand-side experience better. That’s how I decided that MAUs were an “important to know” metric but what really mattered is the Net Promoter Score (NPS) of a demand-user who interacted with a supplier who used our app. How did this score compare with the NPS of a demand-user who interacted with a supplier who did not use our app? How did this month’s average NPS of a demand-user who interacted with a supplier who used our app compare with that of last month? What is the value of a one-point improvement or decline in the NPS associated with a demand-side user?

In other words, I determined that the “end user” of my app was not the “actual user” of my app. The actual user was the supplier, but the impact of the app on the supplier ultimately is expressed through the review the demand-user leaves of our marketplace. Further, I was able to show the actual monetary impact of what this impact is worth to the company (thinking along the lines of customer spend, customer acquisition and retention costs, etc.).

Be careful, though! Being a data nerd is a very useful trait of product managers, but it isn’t enough to be successful. Product management also requires political skill. Good PMs have to find a way to influence others despite often having zero direct reports; this requires lots of relationship-building, from cheerleading and hosting happy hours to using your resources to help another under-resourced team. I’ve even babysat for a PM who desperately needed a movie date night out on the town with his wife (sans les enfants); a few months later, he was more than willing to help me in a pinch. Top PMs do a lot of favors for others without expecting anything in return; they build up their karma bank for the unforeseen moment when they might need help. Chris Walk cautions that overly-confident product managers “often try to do too much themselves. It’s difficult to avoid, but if you can inspire and guide others, then you’re much better off.”

Building on that point, Christine Luc, a product manager and design consultant at Tradecraft, emphasizes the leadership and cheerleader duties of product management. “Product managers play a critical role as team cheerleaders,” says Luc. “So when faced with difficult business decisions, it’s important to stay positive while also remaining authentic to the team and oneself. This is easier said than done, particularly when the stakes are high, so make sure to take care of yourself.”

Great product managers don’t just worry about the next 24 hours, the next seven days, the 30 days or the next year; great product manager always have one eye on the present and one on the future. This isn’t limited to roadmapping. Having one’s eye on the future requires a hunger to constantly be in a state of learning. Read the tech blogs every day. Study emerging technologies, from voice, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to cryptocurrencies and the blockchain; from augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to autonomous vehicles and robotics. Don’t assume that an obscure emerging tech won’t soon be in the hands of billions; don’t assume a tech in another industry won’t soon be impacting your own.

When I asked Chris Walk what he considered the defining characteristics of the best PMs, he told me: “I’d say it’s best to be curious, courageous and persistent. You’ve got to be curious enough to explore and gain a deep understanding of user problems, creative and courageous enough to take risks and present novel solutions, and persistent enough that you keep driving the product forward until it works.”

“Great product managers are in constant pursuit of discovery and this first requires understanding through constant research, observation and questioning,” adds Mike Galyen.

Indeed, the belief that a constant pursuit of discovery and reinvention is a necessity is a sentiment shared by many product leaders, including David Khandrius.

“The biggest mistake is that PMs often focus too much on being managers and not enough on being thinkers,” Khandrius told me. “Great PMs are deep thinkers that really think about the product, its applications, user stories, etc. This helps make meaningful suggestions to business and take the product in the correct direction. Managing teams and roadmaps is more a function of product managers. Less focus on managing and more focus on thinking.”

This is a sentiment all top product leaders share. Redfin’s Senior Lead Product Manager, George Perantatos, gave me his take via email:

What are the character traits of a great product manager?
Being naturally curious. Wondering why customers do things a certain way, or why they’re not using a product as you intended. And, having the willingness to dig in and explore and ask great questions.
A leader to chart the path forward and rally their team. This means owning and driving all aspects of a product, sweating the details, and charting a path that makes sense for the customer and the business. And, being able to rally a team to get behind the plan by explaining why it’s important to go this direction, and how the team will measure success.
Being scrappy. Figuring out how to stay unblocked. Making do with what you have. Making forward progress every day. This is absolutely necessary at a smaller company, but just as valuable in a big one.
Being collaborative within the company or organization. Solo PM heroes can’t scale. With the exception of tiny startups, they need to work with engineers, marketers, designers, and executives to get the right thing built and shipped to the customer. And that includes figuring out how to be successful in the team and place the PM is working within.
What are the skills a product manager needs to hone in order to be “Tier 1?”
An ability to figure out what customers want, and when. This means spending time with customers, watching them work, listening to what they say, and asking great questions to get below the surface and really understand their wants and needs.
Ability to process and synthesize a wide variety of information. This includes customer feedback, input from executives, input from engineering, and one’s own analysis of the industry and the competition.
Great communication skills. Being able to speak and write clearly and concisely with the team, executives, investors, and customers. Being able to focus on the gist of what people need to know, and abstract away the details that aren’t relevant.
Being metrics-driven. Anecdotes are great, but data speak volumes. PMs should be able to get their hands dirty with data to analyze an A/B experiment or figure out where in the flow most customers are dropping off.
What are common mistakes made by product managers, or pitfalls to generally avoid?
Not being open to new learnings and ideas. PMs can’t stop doing user research, and can’t rely on last year’s research to drive their decisions in perpetuity. Customers change, as do their wants and needs, and competitors are shipping products all the time which changes the landscape. A PM needs to always be plugged into what their customers are saying, doing, and asking for.
Not being sufficiently paranoid. Things rarely go as planned in software projects. Worrying about dependencies, schedules, customer feedback, user interface details, industry trends, and competitors are all important to both ship the right thing and ship it at the right time.
Not fully understanding their domain. I don’t want to fly in an airplane designed by someone who doesn’t understand center of mass versus center of lift. PMs should understand their space well enough to both dive deep with an engineer, and zoom out to explain what they’re doing and why to an executive or an investor.

In a similar vein, Khandrius told me that great PMs are prone to intense attention to detail.

“Really great products are ones that pay very close attention to details,” he explained. “Sometimes the smallest detail can deter users and can be the difference between sky high conversion rates and just okay ones. Rockstar PMs have to be attentive with every part of the product — making sure that no detail is overlooked and no rock is left unturned.”

The need for close attention to detail begins with user research, according to Khandrius. “User research is an integral part of product management. Being able to speak to users, truly understand their needs, and implement their feedback is a skill that any top tier product manager should possess. Products are built for users — not businesses.”

HOW TO THINK ABOUT A NEW PRODUCT, FEATURE OR TEST

There are plenty of methods for thinking through a product or feature. To keep myself grounded and consistent, I often start with this template before applying other methods and lenses:

  • What’s the goal?
  • What’s the platform? (E.g., Mobile? Web? Voice? SMS? Chatbot? In-person? Phone calls? Video chat?)
  • What already exists?
  • What works well?
  • What are the shortcomings?
  • Who is target user? Demographics? Location? Professional status? Term?
  • Is this intended as a general product? Or does it target a niche: ex-offenders reintegrating?
  • Fill-in the blanks of this sentence: “As a [ INSERT PERSONA ] …trying to [ INSERT GOAL ], … I want to [ INSERT ACTION ], … because [ INSERT HOW ACTION HELPS ACCOMPLISH GOAL ].”
  • Choose a focus and a metric for evaluating success
  • Evaluate pros and cons of three different solutions
  • Create paper tests for each solution
  • If a paper-test solution is successful, design minimum viable product (MVP)
  • If MVP is successful, plot iterative roadmap
  • Assess business value

Beth Blecherman, Vice President of Product at Savitude, a Techstars portfolio startup, emphasizes how important it is to hone in on your MVP.

“One pitfall that stands out…is to wait too long to perform testing to gather customer feedback,” she cautions. “It is important to obtain critical customer feedback in the ‘discovery’ phase before the ‘delivery’ stage where Engineers build the product. The concept of a Lean Product is to create a Minimum Viable Product Prototype that is tested with customers before the product moves on the ‘build’ phase.”

Elaborating, Blecherman observes:

Being a Product Manager is difficult because you are the center-point gathering information from the business and engineering teams to create the product. At the same time, you always need to advocate for the customer, often testing the product in real-world scenarios and make sure, in the end, that the product solves their needs.
While real-world testing is not possible for all types or products, I do think it is important for a product manager to be the “voice” representing the full diversity of customer needs. What options would they choose? When they choose those options, does the result solve their needs? Considering the voices of all types of customers gives me the chance to run different types of tests and catch a variety of results.

CONCLUSION

If you take away nothing else, remember that (1) being an avid listener and (2) being intensely aware of common sense are the two most important habits a product manager can refine.

Great product managers engage constantly with their users and industry experts to understand the evolving needs of their market; and they know the difference between what’s exciting and technologically possible versus what is actually useful. (HINT: the boring, easy-to-build idea for which your customers have been screaming is usually way more valuable than that crazy, complicated feature you discovered in a dream.)

I’m a big fan of Zeke Silvani’s summary of a product manager. Zeke is a Senior PM at Capital One, and when he interviews a PM candidate, he says he looks for: “Someone who has the creativity to imagine a different future, the technical ability to build a plan that can get us to that future vision, and the courage to evangelize that vision and inspire others to lead them on the journey there.”

So, what do you say? Still think you want to be a product manager?

READING LIST

BOOKS & BLOG POSTS

INTERVIEWING TIPS

TECH BLOGS & PODCASTS

SCHOOLS & RESOURCES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Driscoll

Dan Driscoll is a digital technologist and strategist currently working as a Senior Product Manager at The Home Depot.

He is also a proud co-founder of 🏳️‍🌈 Startup Weekend HackOut 🏳️‍🌈 (www.swhackout.org), the world’s only LGBTQIA-themed Startup Weekend event, as well as a board member of the Austin chapter of StartOut, which is one of the nonprofit organizations that puts on Startup Weekend HackOut.

Prior to joining The Home Depot’s technology team, Dan was a product manager at HomeAway, part of the Expedia, Inc. family of brands, focused on mobile and supplier acquisition. Technology startups counting him as a co-founder include Prepify — an edtech startup co-founded with his wife, Rena, offering free college guidance counseling and test prep online — and previously reQwip, a local peer-to-peer (P2P) marketplace that was founded for the purpose of buying and selling sports gear.

His writing, work and insights have been featured in publications such as The Economist, VentureBeat, Poets & Quants, Universal Sports, NBCOlympics.com, NBCSports.com, Austin Monthly, Bicycling Magazine, The Austin Statesman, The Los Angeles Times, Built In Austin, and more.

In 2015, Built In Austin included Dan in its list of “50 Austin tech CEOs, founders, designers & hackers to follow on Twitter.”

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