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Can You Be a Rockstar Product Manager?

As Marc Andreessen said: “Software is eating the world.” With more and more businesses moving online, there’s an ever-growing demand for talented designers and developers to design and build the best products. There’s also a critical need for solid product managers (PMs) to determine what products and features to build. Product management has become that sexy role in the Valley and elsewhere. In fact, many top tech companies’ CEOs have previously been highly respected product people (e.g. Marisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo; Jack Dorsey, Founder of Twitter & Square).

The product manager is the liaison between the customer voice and the technical team. She understands and speaks the languages of the developers and designers. She is a bridge between the market and the product. She is the reality between customer needs and technical possibilities (and challenges).

You may wonder if the product manager role is right for you. Below, we lay out the main responsibilities of a PM and what attributes make a top 1% PM:

1)   Comprehends markets and customer needs:  The PM’s ability to empathize with customers and understand their needs – as well as the competitive landscape – is a PM’s most crucial skill. Everyone in the company relies on the PM’s clear understanding of customer needs (via research, surveys, and interviews) and the succinct communication of those needs (via user stories).  Read Steve Blank’s “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” book to help you understand and implement these techniques.

 

2)   Gets things done through leadership, influence and adaptability: One of the most important responsibilities of a PM is to make things happen and ship the product. But how? You need to work closely with the different stakeholders in the company to understand their interests, their resources, and their constraints. Then, you must synchronize efforts from various groups to reach the main goal: shipping the product. Frequently, resource gaps will exist and the PM needs to get the priorities straight in order to direct the team in the right direction. To achieve the right balance, your leadership skills, your decision making capabilities, and the power of influence will all come into play.

3)   Team player and enjoys working cross-functionally: The product manager role is one of the most cross-functional jobs in a company.  As a product manager, you’ll spend the majority of your time working with engineers and designers. However, you’ll also work closely with the QA, marketing, sales, legal, and executive teams.  A superb PM will be a great team player, comfortable being stretched in many different directions, and managing different parties’ expectations. They know that there is only one way to win: “as a team”.

4)   Understands and advocates great design: The necessity for simple, slick, and beautiful design is becoming ever more critical. With so many alternative products out there, users’ tolerance for underwhelming, confusing products is diminishing. Thus, building a product that has the minimum functionality required to meet customers’ needs and is user friendly should be on top of any company’s priorities list. As a PM, you’ll often have significant influence on design decisions. Let yourself and your product stand out by making the best design choices.

 

5)   Solid understanding of technology: It’s a given that, as the product owner, the PM needs to understand the ins and outs of her product. A solid understanding of front-end and back-end technology empowers a PM to make better product decisions and lead the team to better outcomes, faster. It also helps to gain trust from your engineering team (without which, your life as a PM will be significantly more difficult). However, this doesn’t mean that every PM needs to have a CS background or technical PhD; there are many awesome companies that hire non-technical PMs to work on really cool products.

 

If you don’t have a technical background, we recommend getting your hands dirty by learning some coding. There are fabulous online sources such as CodeacademyKhan AcademyUdacityUdemy, and TreeHouse. You can start with HTML, CSS, Java, Python or Ruby on Rails.

 

Most probably, your goal won’t be to become a hardcore developer. Rather, it will likely be to understand – even at a high level – the technologies underlying the products you’re building. This will enable you to ask the right questions to make the right decisions – even when you don’t have a deep understanding of the specifics – and give you a huge leg up as a PM.

 

6)   Visionary: Although it’s important to listen to your customers, an effective PM has a clear vision of where to take the product over the short and long term. If you ask customers what they need and build just for that, you may end up with the situation described by Henry Ford (Founder of Ford Automobile Company): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

 

7)   Analytical and data driven:  Some PM roles are more analytical than others. However, any solid PM should use data to drive product decisions. Tracking the right metrics, analyzing them, digging deeper, and finding out why numbers behave as they do are essential skills for a PM. But, combining these with vision and intuition make a PM a truly top player.

 

8)   Absorbs and remembers significant amounts of details: As a PM you’ll spend the majority of your time in meetings, in which all sorts of information are provided to you from various sources. There are a lot of moving pieces in the development process. As you receive more information from customers about their needs or from developers about unexpected technical challenges, you need to constantly make big decisions. As a competent PM, it’s important to absorb and process a lot of information and apply the details provided to you at any given time in an appropriate manner.

 

Ultimately, the bread and butter of any company are its products; helping to build those products as a product manager is a high-responsibility role. If you think what’s described above matches your strengths – and what’s expected of an A-Player PM makes you tick – then you may want to explore product management opportunities. We also recommend that you read “What Distinguishes The Top 1% of Product Mangers From the Top 10%”. If you are a PM, please share your view with us. If you are considering the PM career route, let us know if this helped shed some light on the PM’s role and responsibilities.

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Here are the links to other relevant article/sites.

“Software is eating the world” links to:

//online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111903480904576512250915629460

 

“Steve Blank” links to:

//steveblank.com/

 

“fabulous online sources” links to:

//venturebeat.com/2013/10/31/the-7-best-ways-to-learn-how-to-code/

 

“What Distinguishes The Top 1% of Product Mangers From the Top 10%” links to:

//www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/06/07/what-distinguishes-the-top-1-of-product-managers-from-the-top-10/

 

There is an image we used in this article which you can find in the document below. We need to get the official permission of Tom Fishburne if this article gets approved for publishing.

The Product Management (PM) has become an increasingly important role in tech and healthcare companies. There is a significant demand for PMs and lack of very good ones. The goal of this story is to help readers better understand what makes a rockstar PM and to enable those interested in the field make more educated decisions about their careers.

 

Yasi Baiani is currently a Product Manager at Athenahealth. Prior to that she was the Co-Founder and CEO of a health and fitness mobile company and a venture investor in tech and digital health startups. Yasi received her MBA from Harvard Business School.

 

Matthew Jaffe is currently a Product Manager at Dropbox, focusing on mobile. In previous roles, Matthew worked at Microsoft and was then a founding employee at Livestar, a mobile recommendations app acquired by Pinterest in March 2013.

 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the two authors and do not reflect the views of either Athenahealth or Dropbox.

April 3, 2014
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