Lately, I have been observing and trying to understand the product manager role and, in the process, I studied that famous Venn diagram showing an overlap of business, technology and user experience; came across the notion of CEO of the product; read a few articles about how to be a great product manager; shadowed a colleague who is in the role for quite some time now, and gave it a lot of thought. What I have found/observed/analysed so far is that there is no specific definition of the product manager role. It’s diverse, versatile, broad yet focused. And that’s what makes it so cool and challenging at the same time; well, at least for me. Here’s what I learnt about what kind of attitude and soft skills is needed to become a successful product manager.
Newton’s first law of motion!
In a software development team, there are creative and technical folks — the geeks and the artists — who like to stay in their state of geekiness and creativity so that they can produce beautiful code and graphical assets. The thing is, technical and creative people like to focus on their niche problems and that’s what makes (can make) them great at what they do. For example — a software developer wants to make sure that he has used right data structures and design patterns while writing his code and, on the other hand, a digital artist wants to make sure that the shader he has written makes the model look beautiful and still is performance friendly. These niche problems demand a lot of concentration and attention. You need to be in a flow to efficiently solve them.
At times, there are external forces that try to stop these people from staying in their state of geekiness and creativity. These external forces can be anything — resource crunch, lack of communication, lack of direction, a difference of opinion, etc. etc. This is when the product managers play an important role. They take care of these external forces and try to keep their impact to the minimum so that the geeks and artists can continue to focus on their work. This makes me believe, product management is a lot about unblocking people rather than about anything else.
To really unblock people efficiently, you need all that’s mentioned in those articles about product management. You should have enough knowledge (and experience) about all three sets of that Venn diagram. Enough here means that you are at least able to understand the problems and are able to justify the effort needed to solve them. This is how you will be able to plan things in a better way.
There are times when you are presented with many solutions for the same problem (see, those geeks are artists are smart people), and then you need to choose the best solution depending upon the implementation timelines, priority, effort and business requirements. This is when the team looks at you to help unblock them by taking a decision. The data should drive your decisions. Hence, you need data analysis skills too. For example, if you need to make a decision whether a bug needs to be fixed first or a new feature needs to be added, you need to know what the end users would prefer; what are the usage patterns of the product; the reviews, etc. You also need to make sure that your decisions are not negatively impacting other people and this is where foresight also comes into the picture. You should always have a clear direction in mind, about the product you are managing. This direction becomes very clear when you analyse data, when you plan ahead and when you understand the current problems at hand. Once you have that clarity, making decisions becomes easy.
Knowing your playground!
Just like it is expected out of a manager in the steel industry to know the process of making steel from iron ore (smelting, casting, etc.); just like it is expected out of a builder to know the construction process; similarly it is expected out of a software product manager to know the process of making software. You simply cannot run away from this. A basic knowledge of programming languages and user experience patterns is absolutely necessary if you want to be a successful product manager. Period.
I also see an analogy — Most of the business tycoons ask their children to take a small position to start with when they join the family business, and then they move into a bigger role. This gives them knowledge about how things are done. Similarly, when we aim to become the CEO of the product i.e. the product manager, we need to understand how this product is being made, what are the markets/users we are targeting and what should be the user experience.
So, that was about the skills and attitude needed for a product manager. Now, for people who are looking at moving into the product management role, here’s some really good advice from Tom Redman.