The world needs more great software product managers. This role requires a blend of business and technology skills that seems to be elusive when it’s never been more important. No university program currently offers, or is at least known for, this specialty and the most popular books on the topic seem to focus too much on branding or processes.
I’ve been very lucky to have been part of some successful product teams. I’ve also seen a few products crash and burn. This post covers what I consider to be the three most important skills shared by the best product managers I’ve ever worked with in my experience with companies of all sizes in industries like telecom, e-commerce, and finance.
Building the right thing is harder than it sounds. People are usually polite and won’t give you the feedback you really need. A/B testing, telemetry/analytics and “minimum viable products” are great for quantitative testing of hypotheses but often it’s the ability to process qualitative feedback that makes the biggest impact. The only way to achieve this to listen to people. Really listen.
The kind of listening I’m talking about is really empathy or even compassion. Parroting a specific customer request is easy. Deeply understanding the business context, motives, and psychology behind the request is much harder. There are many techniques to achieve this deep level of understanding and it’s a very difficult skill to master, especially in high-pressure situations.
It’s equally important that product managers listen, really listen, to their teams. The people who create the product aren’t just digital construction workers. How they think about the product every day is what matters most, not the lines of code or pixels they produce. These people are thinking about the product subconsciously day and night with the occasional epiphany in the shower or on the train. Listen to them with all the focus, empathy, and respect as you would a customer.
If you generally talk more than you listen (you know who you are) then this role isn’t for you.
I don’t mean aesthetics. Design is really a thousand little decisions that ultimately enhance or degrade the user’s experience. It’s a discipline that, like listening, isn't usually taught in business school.
Effective design means being able to say “no”. Don’t accept a role as a product manager if you don’t really have this authority. Politics and influential customers can make this challenging, but the product manager should have no reservations about saying “no” the majority of the time if it’s the right thing for the user experience and the product's longevity.
Assuming you can say “no”, how do you make the right design software design choices? There is no right answer of course, but I’ve found these to be true most of the time:
- Be decisive. Saying that everything “should be a configurable option” or “just use a data grid with all possible fields each user can choose from” is the opposite of making a decision. If everything is important then nothing is important.
- Make decisions that can quickly be reversed. Your goal should be to have tight feedback loops (sprints, release cycles, whatever) so that you can change course if you need to. Don’t just demand the software be infinitely flexible, since it almost always involves a tradeoff with simplicity. Approach such decisions with a “simple first” mindset.
- Understand your medium. For example, if you’re building a web application, you know that you can’t "just squeeze things” to make a page designed for desktop browsers work on a mobile device, instead you need to have a deliberate mobile-first responsive design. Just like a music producer understands recording or a movie producer understands filmmaking, a software product manager should understand the basic mechanics of creating software just to have a sense for what is feasible.
Making good design choices is not in conflict with the ability to listen to people. Empathy doesn’t mean making commitments to placate customers, it’s just a way to collect high-quality input which is later prioritized with everything else.
The United States Marines have a low-tech, but highly effective, secret weapon. In the event they lose communications with their commander, or each other, they can make some safe assumptions about what their fellow units are doing because it’s “what a Marine would do.” This capability comes from sharing core values; an understanding of what’s important and what is not.
The greatest product managers I have ever worked with knew that their job was primarily to make sure that everyone on their team completely understood what was truly important. They would jump at the opportunity to answer questions about the market, the technology, the customers, and so on even if they had to do it a thousand times and no matter who was asking. They did this because they knew they could not become the bottleneck. They knew that real leaders don’t tell people what to do, or worse, manipulate them.
A product is a manifestation of the intrinsic values and design skills of the team that created it. The manager’s ability to make design decisions inspires the rest of the team to do the same. Failure to make good design decisions can quickly erode morale in a creative team.
Leadership through listening and designing is the complete opposite of the traditional command-and-control, myopic project management doctrine that is the default in our industry. Software products are by definition a long-term endeavor and require a focus on iterative design not status reporting and planning.
In order to be an effective leader you also need a team to lead. People must trust you and want to stick around during the rough times. You may think that being a decisive leader requires a large ego but often the opposite is true when working with smart, creative people. Be genuine, share information, have fun, highlight positive progress, emphasize the purpose behind the work, and empower your team to learn by reminding them they don’t need to get it right the first time.
Listening, designing, and leading are the three key skills for every software product manager. If you are hiring for this role, look for these traits instead of merely domain expertise or sales/marketing experience. If you are a PM or are interested in pursuing the role, be mindful of how important these skills are and do your best to master them.
Check out some of these great books if you want to learn more: