What Makes a Good Product Manager?

by Madeline Hester
November 27, 2019

With the advance of AI, many worry their jobs will one day be replaced by robots.

For those in retail, bookkeeping and especially manufacturing, this fear might be valid: The BBC recently reported that robots may replace up to 20 million factory jobs by 2030. Product managers, who utilize creativity, empathy and strategic thinking on a daily basis, should feel pretty safe, however. 

After all, the irreplaceable soft skills that allow PMs to collaborate across departments can’t be calculated by a computer or automated by machine learning. We talked to four Boston product managers who said possessing traits like empathy and patience — as well as technical chops — are necessary to finding success in the role.

 

mineraltree
mineraltree

MineralTree builds accounts payable and invoice automation software for mid-market businesses. Product Manager Jose Garcia said empathy and grit are necessary for anticipating the needs of users. 

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

The most important trait, and often the most challenging one for PMs, is empathy.

Empathy is a critical trait because it helps uncover the root problem your users face and becomes an effective tool in determining a solution. Empathy shouldn't stop with your users. It’s important to be mindful of your stakeholders too.

At its core, product management is a job of grit. This means being able to deal with pressure well. Product managers are commonly at the center of the organization, so when problems arise, you have to roll up your sleeves, persevere through the unknown and act to find solutions to sometimes difficult problems.

In order for organizations to grow past infancy, you must be more critical about what you will and won't do. You should consider your strategic direction and what data you have to support new features. 

At its core, product management is a job of grit.

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Critical thinking and detailed business analysis coupled with broad technical understanding are vital skills contributing to the success of any PM.  Product managers not only need to fully understand the market they serve and anticipate the needs of their end users, but must also be able to partner with engineering to ensure that collectively they are delivering true business value.  

 

zaius
zaius

Zaius engages with customers across email, web and social to collect and connect data. With that information, Zaius creates a personalized roadmap to drive growth for marketers. Vice President of Product Greg Cypes explained how people skills like listening and patience are essential when working across different teams.

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

A good PM inspires through a shared vision of product.  Most product managers do not manage people, but they do manage a product. Many of the traits of a great leader are needed by product managers as well.

Another important trait is to be a great listener. Product managers interact with customers, engineering, sales, customer service and marketing on a daily basis. They share ideas, problems and opportunities. Having an empathetic ear helps reinforce your leadership skills.

Lastly, be cool under pressure. When times get rough, deadlines are approaching and user adoption isn't hitting projections, product managers need to keep calm, develop plans and instill confidence in the team.

Many of the traits of a great leader are needed by product managers as well.

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Know how to learn and teach yourself new things. It makes a huge difference in being open to new ideas. Very few people start their careers in product management; they typically gravitate to it after working in marketing, engineering or customer success. Being able to learn on your own becomes very handy for someone making that transition.

 

edx

By offering online courses from over 140 colleges and universities, edX aims to provide high-quality educational courses to everyone, everywhere. But sometimes the best learning happens outside the classroom. Senior Product Manager Shelby Quinn told us how a PM with a diverse background and lived experience is more open to solving business goals in new ways.

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

Stellar product managers have all sorts of different backgrounds, abilities and lived experiences. The best PMs are customer-centric, awesome at building relationships and most importantly, decisive. You’re responsible for ensuring that real problems are being solved in a way that aligns with the business’ goals and values without being married to a specific solution or a narrow framework. 

You need to both collaborate with and represent key stakeholders within the company, ensuring that all perspectives are taken into account. Once you’ve gathered the ideas and data from your stakeholders you have to quickly synthesize it in order to decide on the best path forward. 

The best PMs are customer-centric, awesome at building relationships and most importantly, decisive.

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Though a technical or engineering background is not a requirement, it is crucial to understand the technical implications, challenges and opportunities of the underlying platforms you are working with. While I definitely recommend taking foundational classes to build up your knowledge of software engineering and data analysis, what’s more important is building strong relationships with your engineering teammates.

Ask someone to sketch out the platform architecture and ask their opinion of what the strengths and weaknesses are. Be willing to learn about the challenges, opportunities and tradeoffs of different technical approaches when you are collaborating on a new initiative.

 

profitwell
profitwell

Profitwell offers subscription companies business solutions that optimize monetization and customer retention. To bring these business solutions to market, Product Manager Neel Desai said that empathy is essential when serving as a liaison across departments.

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

At ProfitWell, Product Managers are responsible for successfully defining the problems that need to be solved and ensuring the team has what they need to deliver on the solutions. PMs have ownership over the ProfitWell Metrics, Retain and Recognized products, which help subscription companies with the hardest part of growth. This translates into improving existing products, as well as building entirely new ones. 

PMs need to have a high degree of empathy to deeply understand customer pain points. They need to be able to work cross-functionality and communicate at a high level, especially when serving as a liaison between the customer, design and engineering. Lastly, PMs need to be analytical in order to track and measure the results of their work.

PMs need to have a high degree of empathy to deeply understand customer pain points.

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Depending on the product they’re working on,  PMs don’t need to have technical backgrounds or have studied computer science to join the team. We are much more interested in learning how you think and work. Having said that, to succeed and thrive in a PM role, a solid understanding of the product development process and a foundation in data analysis (Excel, SQL, etc.) is critical. Learning from engineers and designers first hand, combined with a drive for self development and learning, will accelerate this learning curve. 

 

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