Product Manager (PM) is likely the most widely interpreted job role in technology. Unlike designers, dentists, lawyers, recruiters etc. peoples’ understanding of what a PM is varies wildly. I’m going to give my take on it, the difference between Product and Project Managers, typical routes into Product and the key skills you’ll need to hone to be successful.

What is a Product Manager?

A true product manager should be a CEO of their product. Good product managers have a realistic vision of what success of their product means and they ensure that this vision becomes reality – whatever it takes.

They should be the one driving this vision forwards and inspiring and enabling teams across the business to make it happen. They should have a full understanding of how the current product sits versus the competition and craft a plan for where the most value can be brought. To do this, a good PM sits snugly at the intersection between Users, Engineering and the Business.

Product Management is a highly leveraged top of funnel position, therefore a bad PM leads to disproportionately huge consequences, including the wrong product being built, which generally has a significant impact on revenue, morale, and reputation — of both the PM and their company.

Please read this PDF by Ben Horowitz ( a la Andreessen Horowitz) who articulates in the best way I’ve read what makes a good PM. His excellent book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, whilst focussing on the challenges new CEO’s face, also focuses intently on Product Management too.

A clarification: Product Manager vs Project Manager

Too often people get caught out between Product Managers and Project Managers. Whilst it sounds like semantics, these are totally different roles. A Project/Programme Manager is following a pre-determined plan and making sure this plan is met and obstacles removed. A Product Manager is creating the plan in the first place.

What is the typical PM background´╗┐

There are no clear paths directly into Product Management apart from founding your own company, purely because PM’s are usually measured on their previous successes or failures . More and more universities offer courses in ‘Product’ – but most of the time you’ll usually switch from of the core competencies required to build a great product and naturally generalise into a PM position. The typical competencies that can lead there are:

  • Engineering
  • Data Analysis
  • Design
  • Founders/Management

I have worked with brilliant PM’s from all these backgrounds and each brings a different strength to the table. The very best product teams, have PM’s from varied backgrounds as the team is up-skilled as a result. The best PM’s (as with most executives) usually end up as the typical t-shaped employee.

Top product management skill set

Soft skills

Soft skills are brutally important for PM’s and need to be in symbiosis with broad hard skills. Your job is to persuade, inform and often excite in almost every interaction with the organisation.

  • Stakeholder Management
  • Clear Communication
  • Passion & Persuasiveness
  • Ruthless Organisation
  • Empathy

Hard skills

Often a PM has a deep ‘t’ in one of the areas below and a broad appreciation across the others.

Technical Nouse

In order to take decisions on the why and the what and to truly innovate, I’m a real believer that you should have understanding of how building blocks come together. Many PM’s rise out of Engineering and whilst they sometimes struggle in other areas they often have a great advantage with knowledge of execution. I felt deficient in this area and did Makers from a product perspective to bring myself up to speed on how the rubber hits the road.

UX and Design

A good understanding of how to find/deepen product/market fit and solve the right problem is key for PM’s. PM’s who have come from a design background typically excel here – an appreciation for strong design and positive UX patterns is also built through experience.

Data Analysis

Being able to digest large amounts of complex data and understand what it means is critically important. Every PM needs to be adept at doing this (or its impossible to answer the ‘why’). Bonus points for those who master basic SQL, which can be particularly useful at all levels in orgs with small BI organisations

Business Acumen

To be a product CEO, you must understand the business model inside out in order to drive forwards effectively and make tough prioritisation decisions. This is probably the area that takes the most effort as it is not a skill usually picked up from most paths into product management.