This is a very tough question as good product managers come in many different forms. I’ll try to give you a list of skills that I think all good product managers possess to some extent, in unique combinations. Please note that if you don’t fit this proposed mold it does not mean you can’t be a good product manager.
You might have been born with talents in some areas, while other areas you need to grow. There is always room to grow and stretch yourself (i.e. strive for “uncomfort zone”). All things aside, what makes you a good product manager is the unique combinations of many skills and the fit of that combination to the product, teams, and market you play in.
The areas I look for when interviewing are most commonly (and generalized to):
- Ability to speak engineering
You may or may not have an engineering background, but it helps a lot if you can ask the right questions, at least understand some of the complexity involved in solution options. Have insight enough to see which option proposed will better meet the needs of the customer and/or time to market – whatever is the most important in your company at that point in time. My personal recommendations based on observations are to be open, curious, non-judging, clear, precise, and steer back to a very clear and focused goal driven by a very clear and exact use case. This helps most decisions and conflicts. Be kind and show empathy, but also be firm in representing the customer and your company’s strategy. It is the product manager’s job to translate all that is going on, priorities, and customers’ needs into engineering teams, so they can successfully execute. Hence you need to speak engineering.
- A sense of value & sales skills
If you ever are going to launch a product that someone will eagerly pay for, you need to have a sense for distilling value. Which of the customer’s problems is where there is money attached to solving it. Where can there be value shown in a confident and proven way? You need to be familiar with the sales cycle, and how different styles of selling impacts how you frame the value of your product. You will also need to know how to help your sales teams’ mission in the most opportunity building way. Some product managers are building their careers on sales skills, and use them both internally and externally. They are useful skills indeed, for any role, but I would argue that you can’t just have sales skills to be a good product manager.
- A sense for the market
You have to figure out your way of staying connected with the trends and where things are going, before everyone else are already going there. This is a skill, but performed in many different ways. Some product managers have a vast network of trusted industry thinkers and do the verbal train approach. Others spend hours during commute to listen to pod casts or read interesting articles in the right type of forums. Some spend hours talking to customers (100s of them) to distill patterns – and some of these customers for the attentive person will show early indications whereto the technology needs to go next. And some product managers create markets where there are none. So this is a very non-scientific area, but a very important one to have to be successful. You have to develop your own style of figuring out what is the next big thing that customers will eventually start asking about, and be on track / on target at that point in time.
- Bigger picture / detail & quality oriented
You can be either a big picture kind of product manager, and will develop more and more wider strategies. Often product suite wide or company wide. Or you may find it easier to go deep into details, in which case a deep technical product management career is ahead for you. This is again a personal characteristic, so it is not impossible to grow into the other type, but people tend to stay with what they are really good at (comfort zone) and you can make a great career utilizing either your focused skills or wide-thinking abilities. Both fits a product manager, just different types of them.
- EQ – social skills
A lot of product management involves influencing other people. You don’t have teams reporting to you. You need to convince engineering teams what is the highest priority. If you are good at explaining the ‘why’ it makes it easier, but you also need to win their trust, show integrity, and be a trusted stakeholder when important decisions are made (which sometimes shortcuts a product if not aligned with the end goal). You need to have a ton of EQ to read people’s ability to join your cause, to stick through tough times, and still encourage and fuel the team forward. You need to entice teams that do not believe in the direction of the company sometimes. You need to work with a lot of different types of people – finance, support, legal, sales, customers, executives, and different cultures (especially here in Silicon Valley). You need to be a leader, a role model, an ombudsman, and a negotiator. You need to understand the people you work with to create successful products, as the product is only as good as the team behind it.
- Innovation / creativity
Especially for startup environment you have to be a self-starter, a problem solver, and an innovator. You have to envision what hasn’t been done before – to win. You have to be able to see how you can change or create a market. You have to innovate technology that does not exist yet, and then discuss this with your engineers what is possible. You have to aim high, think outside the box, and creatively solve any type of problem coming your way. You have to take risks and be willing to fail. All traits that come with a true innovator / entrepreneur.
There are things to do that doesn’t require a whole re-write from scratch. But you will need to take on a battle with innovative engineers. This will be easier if you show a well thought out strategy. If the ‘why’ is clear, there are much easier conversations to be held. E.g. can we reutilize some existing part to a lower cost, can we acquihire, can we drop something, can we refocus our mission, can we package things differently?
- Passion for what you do
You have to truly believe in what you do. You can never convince engineers, executives, customers, partners or others to spend the time a day if you don’t buy it yourself. You have to live breathe and feel your product and love/hate it in good and in bad times. It is what you are on a mission to educate others about that will change their world. If you don’t believe in the product, you will do it more harm than good. If so, do us all a favor and do the right thing: change jobs/product.
- Strategic thinking & data driven
Sometimes the sexiest technology isn’t the right thing to invest in. There is always going to be a new kid on the block, once you travelled down the path a bit. Think end to end and long term – I dare you, as this frightens many quarterly-based mind sets. It isn’t always about the technology, it is about the end game; and both fitting into a market as well as being able to disrupt it. But where and how do you do so, and when. These are the questions that should occupy your mind most often to realign the goals and mission to the strategy.
No good strategy comes out of thin air. You need to study and study hard. And think. Take time to think. Only then you can do a data-backed and clearly thought through plan and execute with success.
- Passion for helping customers
If you don’t like working with customers (external, internal, demanding, global, all kinds…) you probably should strive for a different role. You need to have a passion for understanding (or trying to understand) the customers’ pain and helping them to a better state. You need to put yourself out there and make it your mission to represent them in your organization. They are the key to your product’s and company’s success. Your responsibility is to make the right decisions and priorities on their behalf, once back at the design table or in engineering deep dives. And when making important decisions:
Where to invest resources first?
What is aligned with our company mission and all other customers’ needs?
What pain is more significantly impacting to solve?
What builds customer loyalty, success, and satisfaction?
Also, be humble and stay hungry. You will probably very rarely get acknowledged for what you do. Engineers deliver the code and innovation in the end, so they get rewarded for the delivery. Sales close the deal, so they get rewarded for the revenue they bring. Product management is a very thankless job. Your best grade, reward, and thank you you’ll ever get as a product manager is when a customer is using your product, in production, renews their contract with you, and tells the world how much they love the product you’ve built. This should be your fuel. If this is the goal you have in mind whenever you make decisions, you will be a good (if not great) product manager.
Hence, you have to love and desire to talk to customers – a lot. Someone once told me (if I remember who I’d give them cred here) that you can’t create a good product or solution until you’ve talked to a 100 customers. I have followed that rule very often. I think there is a lot of truth in that. The more customers you listen to, the more the real problem will crystalize. The pattern to solve for. And the more sure you can be that the ROI fixing that problem will materialize.
Last but not least, make sure you prioritize what the customers need over what they want. It has helped me deliver high ROI features and products. Which is the goal of any sustainable engineering: create a product that solves a problem that consumers are happy to spend money on to get solved and that is easy to support and cost-efficient to develop.
This doesn’t cover all aspects, but it is in big parts what I look for in a product management talent. In addition I look for people who complement my own weaker sides, so I know over time the team will be a really strong one. As I’ve mentioned before: winners hire different not the same.