Product management is a vital role that sits at the intersection of multiple functions. To succeed, good PMs need a certain skillset.
If there was ever a profession that relies on a broad range of skills, it’s the product manager (PM). The PM role channels an architect, a fortune-teller, and a therapist—all at the same time.
So what is a product manager? The PM oversees the development of a product for a company. They sit at the intersection of the customers and developers by voicing the customer’s needs to the people who create the product. PMs need to see both the big picture and the small details. They also have to constantly balance customer needs, market demands, and engineering resources (we should add “juggler” to the list of product manager skills, too).
If you are interested in a career as a product manager—woo hoo! There are a lot of products out there that need awesome PMs to shepherd them to greatness. We’ve rounded up some of the top product manager skills so that you can make sure your resume—and you!—are up to the job.
1. Communication skills
A large part of being a PM is determining what is and isn’t working for your product. You could use your gut (probably not a great idea), or you could design an A/B test to really see if what you’re doing is working. With the right experiment, you can determine how well your features or design choices are engaging users. These tests allow you to Marie Condo your product, saving what sparks joy and ruthlessly cutting what doesn't.
A/B testing compares two different versions of a product, where only one change has been made between the two of them, like a different page layout or a different CTA. These tests allow you to test out UX and UI optimizations that can lead to better conversion rates, completion rates, or whatever you hope to encourage users to do.
Designing an A/B test can be harder than it looks, though. A good experiment has a solid hypothesis that includes a measurable goal to determine success. It also needs to be set over a reasonable time frame with a decent sample size to ensure your data set is representative of your larger user base.
You can practice running A/B tests by starting your own website, which is fairly easy and cheap to do these days. Once you have a site up and running, set up Google Analytics and Google Optimize. Analytics will collect your data, and Optimize will help you implement your tests. You can then use a program like Excel or Sheets to organize your metrics and see how your experiments performed. Don’t forget to use those analytical skills of yours. What does the data tell you about your users? How can you use this data to improve your user experience?
When you’re working as a PM, you’ll probably be using specifically designed product manager software, but Google’s tools are free to use, making them perfect for people just starting out. As a bonus, familiarity with Google Analytics is a marketable skill all on its own, so learning it now will definitely help you later on.
Having a coding skill set is one of the biggest assets a PM can bring to a team. Although much of your work won’t be strictly technical, being able to understand what your engineers and data scientists are saying and doing can make a huge difference.
It’s important to note that you don't need to be amazing at coding. Your job is not to write code. But by having a basic knowledge of code, you can understand what your technical team is doing and communicate that to the rest of your team. It'll also help you understand what you're asking of your engineering team, so you can budget time and resources appropriately. If you enjoy it, don't be afraid to really beef up your technical knowledge. An understanding of data science and Microsoft SQL Server can always improve your ability to do your job effectively.
3. Customer and market research competencies
Good product managers are always looking beyond their product into the wider world. They need to pay attention to what their existing users want and look for opportunities to expand into fertile new target markets. They also need to keep an eye on their competitors to stay one step ahead of them.
Most of these skills come from experience. However, there are things even new PMs can do to prepare. First, learn your field: who is your target market, what are the major pain points, and who are your top competitors? To learn about your target market, go where they like to hang out on the web. A good place to start is relevant forums or social media websites. To learn more about your competitors, peruse their websites, read their blogs, and see what people are saying about their brand online.
Making it a habit early to keep up to date with what is happening with your users and competitors will pay off later on with a job well done. You’ll know what people want and what others are offering, so you can design the best product for the perfect product-market fit. If you want to take that next step, you can also learn how to conduct more formal user research. This includes how you can use different research methodologies to get user data and how you can use that data to improve the product experience.
4. An understanding of the user life cycle
Great product managers are experts in every aspect of the product life cycle. But there’s another process you need to consider to be fully effective in your job: the customer life cycle.
The Product-Led Growth Flywheel is a framework for growing your business by investing in a product-led user experience. It consists of four sequential user segments—evaluators, beginners, regulars, and champions—and the key actions these users take to graduate from one stage to the next: activate, adopt, adore, and advocate.
You are putting your users front and center, from initial awareness to your most dedicated product fans. Moving users through the stages of the customer journey with increasing speed makes the flywheel spin faster. The result? A positive feedback loop that drives acquisition and increases growth.
For new product managers, one of the best places to start is at the beginning—user onboarding. PMs should have a strong knowledge of how to onboard new users, taking them from evaluators to beginners as effectively as possible. Once you’ve learned the basics of onboarding, move on to other parts of the flywheel until you have all of the skills and knowledge you need to get users through their entire life cycle.
As the product manager, you are the keeper of all product knowledge. It’s your job to keep team members up to date on what’s happening. It’s also your job to provide clear, comprehensive guidance to your design, engineering, and development teams. Poorly presented information can result in misaligned expectations and missed deadlines. And when deadlines are missed, everyone is unhappy.
With so many responsibilities, your day will be filled with all types of communication: meeting notes, Slack conversations, wikis, presentations, training materials, and—your ultimate guide—the product requirements document. You will spend a lot of time writing.
Writing your product requirements document is arguably one of the most important responsibilities you’ll have as a product manager. It’s the document your teams refer to, from concept to product launch, for the deliverables, specs, milestones, key performance indicators (KPIs), and much more. Therefore, you need to structure and write this document so that it’s easy to follow and understand, despite the depth and breadth of the information it contains.
Good communication skills also come into play when educating and getting buy-in about different product initiatives. You’ll be talking to everyone—including stakeholders, customers, and company leadership.
Bottom line: you need to be able to write and speak clearly.
Along with great communication, diplomacy is a key product manager skill. You’ll often face competing interests—such as your stakeholders versus your developers—and need to negotiate between the two.
Listen and empathize with both sides and then try to find common ground. Engineers say the project will take two months to complete, and the stakeholder wants it done next week? You will often serve as the go-between. These conversations can be difficult and involve both parties “giving” a little.
Diplomacy may be required in customer interactions, too, especially if they’re unhappy. Give the customer space to air their grievances and then be prepared to offer solutions while not over-promising.
As the product manager, it’s your job to sell your ideas to the people who can bring your vision to life—the engineers.
Julie Zhuo, former VP of product design at Facebook, states:
“Engineers make every good proposal real, and this fact should never, ever be forgotten. Even if your company has five, or five hundred, or five thousand engineers, engineers are not a 'resource'. They are the builders of the foundations, the keepers of everything that makes your product tick.”
To effectively sell your product idea, you need to understand how engineers think. You must be technically savvy enough (see above) to be comfortable discussing the technical aspects of your product. And you need to know how, so you can effectively convey your product vision in a way that brings them on board.
Be your product’s biggest cheerleader, especially if you’re in a larger organization where you’re competing for your team’s time and talent. Storytelling is a powerful way to create support for your product. Combine anecdotal customer feedback and interviews with data-driven materials like market research and surveys to make a compelling case for your idea.
Finally, empathy for developers is an important part of creating a productive dialog. As Julie said, engineers are not merely a resource. Engineers are people who have their own pain points and battles. Showing that you understand where they’re coming from goes a long way toward establishing you as a good partner.
You’ve heard it a thousand times: do what you do best, and delegate the rest. Unfortunately, it’s smart advice that few people actually follow.
Product coach and consultant Matt LeMay advocates delegating not only tasks but also responsibility. If you delegate tasks but insist on still being the go-to person for all decisions, you’re not really lightening your workload that much. Plus, you’re missing out on the opportunity to empower the people around you.
Product managers at startups should take this advice to heart as they tend to wear a ton of hats. Whenever you can, delegate. As long as you are clear about the expectations (and fight the urge to micromanage), you can rely on smart people within the organization to help with some of your product management responsibilities.
P.S. There are other ways to reduce your workload besides delegation. Products like Zapier can automate mundane tasks. And as your team grows, you’ll want to think about when it might be time to add a product ops team.
9. Strategic thinking
Product strategy involves both short-term and long-term goals. You often have to make quick decisions based on these objectives... and be able to back them up. You’re keeping your finger on the pulse of overall company objectives and user needs. What should your product’s overall direction be? How should you prioritize different product features? Two high-priority bugs have been reported—which one do you tackle first?
A product-led growth strategy means leaning into your product when making these decisions. For product managers, this translates to even more reliance on the user experience. Understand how users interact with your product on a detailed level, and use that information to guide your choices as a PM.
A lot of this comes from experience, but don’t worry if you’re a new PM. In past roles, there were likely times when you had to exercise sound judgment. Think about the factors that contributed to your decision and the outcome and how you can apply those lessons to your work as a PM. The company will be relying on you and your ability to guide the product to future success.
You’re not going to have someone watching over your shoulder all the time as a product manager. Between strategy and daily tasks, you have to self-manage priorities and deadlines. You need the skills to autonomously run meetings, manage your time, and generally get sh*t done.
To improve your self-management, consider building your schedule around blocks of dedicated work time instead of leaving your entire day open for meetings. Some projects require larger blocks of focused attention. Attending meetings at all times of the day (and night) leaves you with only small chunks of work time that aren’t enough to get the momentum you need.
Speaking of meetings, employ your prioritization skills and be selective about which ones you attend. Indiscriminately accepting every meeting invite you receive is a sure way to lose control of your schedule. What purpose will you serve? What do you stand to gain from attending? Does it fall into the “this meeting should have been an email?” category. You should be equally cognizant when you send out meeting invites to others.
Remember those writing skills we talked about earlier? Your self-management includes organizing a lot of information, and writing is the best way to make this happen. It’s always a good idea to write down key discoveries, decisions, and next steps coming out of meetings, in particular.
11. Interpersonal skills
If you want to be a successful product manager, you’d better have serious people skills. Strategic and technical skills are important, but you’ll have a tough time bringing your product vision to life without interpersonal skills.
Product management isn’t just about being a taskmaster—it’s about supporting and empowering others by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. And it’s about having enough influence to keep everyone working together toward the same goal.
Emotional intelligence and empathy help you read and manage situations more accurately and tactfully. Relationship management skills enable smoother operations and help with conflict resolution. Self-awareness helps you stay objective, so you can be an effective champion for the customer.
In short, you need to motivate people by clearly articulating the big picture. From there, help each team member individually to do their best work in support of your collective goals.
The most important product manager skill? A passion for solving problems
Product management is a complex role that requires mastery of a myriad of important skills. The responsibilities are many, and the exact job description varies from organization to organization. But at the heart of the role is a relentless passion for problem-solving.
Many product manager skills can be taught—but every successful product manager brings this passion to the table from day one. Without that, they’d never be able to survive all the ups and downs that are a natural part of the product development life cycle.
If you’re looking to step into a product manager role, don’t worry if you haven’t yet mastered everything on this list. Bring your passion for making people’s lives better and then commit to learning new skills as you go.