What Makes a Good Product Manager?

by Alton Zenon III
November 27, 2019

In a single day, product managers must collaborate with engineers, absorb user feedback and work with data. Their work — setting the strategy and roadmap for a particular product — lies at the apex of technical and nontechnical skills. 

We spoke to product leaders at three LA companies who shared best practices for PMs looking to level up in the workplace. Some themes? A familiarity with coding concepts and data analysis, as well as top-notch communication skills are crucial to finding success in the role. 

 

Inspire's team chatting outside
inspire

Inspire’s VP of Product Chris Brereton said successful product managers should give their engineering teams direction and autonomy in equal measure. 

 

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

If I had to boil it down to three traits, they would be customer knowledge, business knowledge and market knowledge. You can’t make strong decisions if you don’t have the foundation of understanding your customers, your business and the market you compete in. 

The gap in the answer above, however, misses the soft skills that strong leaders need to coordinate across talented cross-functional groups. Soft skills help teams move in unison and deliver the highest quality outcomes for both the customer and the business. 

Product people need to be able to lead and have incredible time management skills. They should be able to see the forest for the trees, but also able to zoom into the bark-level detail. They should evangelize their vision and progress, and manage multiple time horizons at the same time. 

Soft skills help teams move in unison and deliver the highest-quality outcomes.”

 

What technical skills are most important in your role and how do you continue developing those, or other, skills?

I think the ability to understand the principles of how software or hardware development work are important. And not just front-end versus back-end or specific languages. It’s about understanding the whole stack and how it works together to enable the outcomes you seek to produce in an efficient way. 

The best way to learn those things is to be close with your engineering counterparts and understand that how they build something is their decision. It’s your job to decide what your engineering partners build and why they’re building it, but when you get into the how, be endlessly curious, listen and learn from them. 

 

Within team members chatting
Within

Within’s Senior Product Manager Eric Silverman said interviewing users of the company’s augmented reality technology is beneficial for gaining deep insight into how the product is working. And the user discoveries he uncovers are made even more impactful when their combined with data born from his use of SQL.

 

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

PMs need to be user-centric. A great product person ensures that their features focus on the most important problems and opportunities for their customer base. 

Secondly, the ability to collaborate across multiple departments allows PMs to refine, surface and advocate for the best ideas. 

Finally, product managers need to be able to clearly articulate the business outcomes driven by their roadmaps and overall product strategy. Also, a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt.

Good interviewers are able to uncover insights that mountains of Excel sheets can’t.”

 

What technical skills are most important in your role and how do you continue developing those, or other, skills?

There are two functional areas that I’m continuously investing in as a product manager, and the first is conducting effective user interviews. Good interviewers are able to uncover insights that mountains of Excel sheets can’t. Any time I can participate in a usability study or sit down with a customer, I will. 

The second is on the other end of the spectrum: SQL. The ability to query data often surfaces fruitful areas for exploration and clear benchmarks for product features. Ultimately, when product managers can marry insights from big data with the deeper learning that comes from user interviews, they can create incredibly impactful roadmaps. 

 

ChowNow team members working
chownow

Senior Director of Product Management Cliff Barrett doesn’t think product managers need to know how engineers are coding a product line-for-line. 

However, he did say they should have the desire to “understand every aspect of the technology” engineers are using. The product leader at food ordering platform ChowNow shared the importance of communication between developers and PMs. 

 

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

Good product managers are great leaders. They have leadership skills that inspire their teams. Successful PMs lead through partnership and collaboration. The best product managers I know also have an ability to articulate a clear vision and direction for the product. 

A successful PM should be able to have an informed conversation about the feasibility of a solution.”

 

What technical skills are most important in your role and how do you continue developing those, or other, skills?

Product managers should be able to understand how things are getting done; they do not necessarily need to understand every aspect of the technology. However, a successful PM should be able to have an informed conversation about the feasibility of a solution. 

Product managers that partner with their engineering team to learn more about the technologies being utilized in their product are able to stay current. 

 

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