The 3 Skillsets that Make Successful Product Managers

“When a project goes well, the engineering team was brilliant. When it fails, that meddlesome PM sabotaged everything… ”- An anon sr. engineer at Google

Being a Product Manager is tough. Succeeding is even harder. Over the last year, as I’ve taken on the responsibilities of managing a team of PMs I’ve been forced to think deeply about the skills that make successful PMs. It’s a tough question and no doubt I’ll refine my thinking in years to come but here is my framework to date.

At a high level, success as a PM comes down to passing a hurdle in each of the the categories below and typically indexing very highly in at least 1 category.

Successful PMs excel at 3 core skill sets:

  1. Setting a vision
  2. Getting stuff done
  3. Generating insights

Setting a vision
Engineers own the code base. Sales owns the pipeline. Great PMs own the vision. This doesn’t mean they “hijack” the vision - every cross functional member contributes but PMs need to actively sculpt, refine, simplify, stress test, guard and course-correct (if necessary) the vision. PMs that don’t own the vision will produce roadmaps - and ultimately products - that are off strategy, or orthogonal at best.

Owning the vision is a balancing act, but the PMs I’ve seen excel at it demonstrate 5 key qualities:

  • Spectrum of input: They deeply understand the product perspectives from power users to noobs and the range of insights from the engineering team to customer support
  • Market understanding: Understand not only the competitive landscape but the competitive trajectories
  • Perspective on future: Clear idea of how the market will evolve (technical capabilities, user base, competitive threats, potential disruptions)
  • Dissemination: Ability to communicate the vision effectively to everyone from customer support to engineering
  • Translation: Ability to build, protect and deliver on roadmaps which are making significant progress toward the overall vision (more on the specifics of roadmapping here)

Getting stuff done
PMs that don’t ship product aren’t PMs, they’re just people with nice ideas. The critical skills - which are cumulative - that help PMs excel in this category are:

  • Organization: It’s critical PMs are highly organized. A cursory read of Ben Horowitz' Good PM, Bad PM will lay out the firehose of tasks any PM will face on a daily basis. PMs need to parse through the tasks and organize them. That leads into…

  • Prioritization: Once organized, everything must be prioritized. Ruthlessly. Just like a product that tries to do everything, a PM that tries to do everything will fail. The 80/20 rule must be a guiding light for any PM to do list - if you’re unfocused as a PM that will force multiply through your org and wreak havoc (more on that here).

  • Communication: Once organized and prioritized, PMs need to communicate exceptionally well. Communication should be clear (if in doubt keep it simple), consistent (if this failing revisit organization and priorities) and context sensitive (eg you might put a deck together for sales on key types of customers to pitch for a beta but draw a flow chart for engineering on a new feature). Let’s also be clear that this does not mean requiring constant updates from eng, sales, etc. We’re talking about PM -> X, communication, not the reverse.

  • Cultivate feedback loops: Feedback loops are critical (not just with your users, which we’ll discuss in the next category) but with your internal stakeholders as well. Do your engineers feel you’ve let a precarious amount of tech debt pile up? Does your PMM suspect you don’t understand the new user experience fully? Is the support team aware of your prioritization for long running, low priority yet annoying bugs? Knowing the answers (at least directionally) to these questions is critical. Gathering the info isn’t hard. Quick emails, pings or coffee chats will work.

Generating insights
The last key component is the driving the product team forward with insights. The type and source of the insight varies but it’s the PMs responsibility to help generate, filter and evolve vision based off these insights.

The insights are critical because they help validate that the team is pursuing the right course of action (eg the feature we recently launched is driving up new payer conversion by X%) or informing the team about potential market, consumer or product changes that need to be tackled (eg the market appears to be shifting toward unbundled mobile apps w/ narrowly focused feature sets).

  • Data driven: Many insights can be gleaned from the actual product usage data (eg How to drive up IAP revenue). Another is publicly available market or competitive data (eg we believe we can monetize at $0.0X rev/DAU given comparable numbers from FB, ZNGA, etc)

  • Customer focused: These insights come from interviews, focus groups, community teams, online forums, surveys, etc and help generate qualitative insights about the product, users and market.

  • Technical: These insights come from new or evolving technical capabilities (eg a newly opened API or a new platform that might provide growth opportunities or an entirely new type of technology, like improved facial recognition software).

Overall, the PM role varies quite a bit company to company (sometimes even team to team) but the best PMs consistently deliver on the 3 key categories: set a compelling vision, getting things done and generating insights to keep the product moving forward. Understanding what a successful PM “looks like” is also critical. It provides an example to follow and furthermore helps illuminate rationale behind often asked questions like “Why does X co. only hire technical PMs? (eg if product is highly technical and PM needs to communicate w/ not only sales but eng, tech chops are an appropriate filter).

Lastly, a lot of great related material has been published by PMs (and some former PMs turned VC). Here are my favorites: @kennethn’s great piece on hiring PMs, @hunterwalk’s nice piece on PM DNA, @sachinrehki’s piece on the PM roleand @kevaldesai’s Quora answer on why GOOG and FB hire technical PMs and @ianmccall’s Quora answer on Top 1% PMs.

Follow me on Twitter @kivestu, for future posts!