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11 skills for product managers

November 11th, 2020

6 min read

Image showing number eleven painted on the road.

Written by

Ben Long


Product-Led Growth

Product managers are highly sought after by a growing number of tech companies, with the most exciting opportunities going to the most skilled product managers. But what skills do you need to get picked and succeed in your role?

As a product manager, you sit across three key areas: the customer, the technology, and the business. You lead the team in planning, monitoring, executing, and finishing projects. And you’re responsible for any product-related decisions, meeting business objectives, and solving day-to-day problems.

To be successful, you need a broad range of soft and technical skills - and you need to know your product inside out.

So let’s take a look at some of the essential product manager skills to help you, your team, and your product succeed!

1. Strategy

Product managers need to be skilled in strategy - understanding the company’s vision, setting goals, and making plans to bring that vision to life. As a product manager, you’ll need to take a strategic approach when planning the product roadmap so that you prioritize the right features.

2. Industry awareness

Product managers need to know what’s going on in the market for two reasons:

  • Ensuring the product meets customers’ needs and evolves as this changes
  • Benchmarking to compare acquisition costs, conversion rates, churn, and other stats to set KPIs and compete with others that operate in the same space

It’s important to stay on top of trends and data so that you can be confident you’re building something your customers want - and will stick with, long term.

3. Leadership

As a product manager, in some ways, you’re responsible for leading your team. As a leader, you’ll need to:

  • Take responsibility for the outcomes (good or bad)
  • Make sure your product/feature solves a problem
  • Define and share the vision
  • Lay out the roadmap
  • Ensure you have understanding and buy-in from the team
  • Inspire people to do great work

Building on your leadership skills takes practice, but you can also learn a lot through mentorship, books, and podcasts.

4. Communication

Communication makes up 90% of the product management role. As the spokesperson for your product, you’ll need to talk to your team, your customers, other teams, other departments, and external stakeholders every single day. 

To build a great product, you need to communicate your vision for the product and your customers’ goals. You also need to be able to build trust and understanding between team members and other teams to help them see other perspectives and work better together. 

If you can communicate with diplomacy and empathy, your requests and feedback will go down a lot more smoothly, too. And if your team is distributed globally or working remote (like so many are right now), you can avoid misunderstandings with clear, descriptive language. 

5. Broad technical competency

Unlike other roles, you don’t necessarily need deep technical knowledge in any area to be a skilled product manager. It’s actually more helpful if you have some knowledge and understanding within each discipline, including customer service, marketing, sales, design, and engineering. Here’s why:

  • You’ll have more empathy for your team members
  • You’ll understand the challenges they face
  • You’ll get a better idea of the actual work (and time) involved in completing a task or delivering a feature
  • Your team will respect your willingness to get involved and appreciate your efforts to understand them
  • Your team will be more likely to trust your decisions and get on board with your strategy

The best way to broaden your competency is to try different things. Shadow your team members, particularly in those areas where you are weakest, and do the work alongside them. You don’t have to be good at it, but you should at least have a general understanding of what’s going on, what tools/techniques they’re using, and how they work.

6. Time management and prioritization

One of the biggest challenges for product managers is delivering on time. There are always more items in the backlog, so you need to be able to prioritize what’s most important and most valuable to users first (which in itself is an important skill for product managers). You also need to be ready to back up any prioritization with research, expected benefits, and reasoning.

You need to have an idea of the technical skills and time that goes into delivering each feature or fix so that you can manage your team’s time and manage stakeholder expectations. And you need to be ready to adapt and reprioritize as bugs come up, team members take sick leave, and other factors influence your team’s capacity to deliver. 

6. Agile practices

Agile has become an increasingly necessary skill for development teams, but especially product managers, who play a key role in many agile practices. As a product manager, you should have a clear grasp of agile concepts like:

  • Sprints and sprint planning
  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • Roadmaps and feature prioritization
  • User stories and story mapping

Plus, you’ll need to be comfortable using popular project management software like Trello or Jira.

Done right, agile practices will help your team deliver value (aka features) to customers and respond to changes more quickly.

8. Data collection and analysis

As a key decision maker, product managers need to know how to read and interpret data. You might need to:

  • Interview customers
  • Survey users
  • Review usage analytics

You also need to be able to identify what data you don’t yet have but need to gather. 

Understanding what the data means can drive better, customer-focused decisions and help you measure progress over time. 

9. Design and UX

While many teams have dedicated UX/design specialists, the product manager role is largely cross-functional. If you have at least a basic understanding of UX, you’ll find it much easier to have those conversations with specialists, make better decisions with UX in mind, and as a result, create a better product.

10. User testing

Many product managers are responsible for user testing and customer interviews. This skill involves:

  • Engaging the right customers/users
  • Knowing the right questions to ask to get useful feedback (not just the responses you want to hear)
  • Empathizing with customers
  • Extracting useful insights from the data

11. Passion for the product

Okay, so this isn’t really a skill. But it is important for every product manager. Your role as the product manager involves telling your product story to your team, your company, and external stakeholders. If you’re passionate about your product, this will help bring your story to life and help get others on board with your vision to build it, invest in it, share it, or buy it. Excitement is contagious!

A graphic showing a flatlay of a desk

As a product manager, it’s clear that you need a blend of technical and soft skills. But increasingly, soft skills are becoming more important as nearly all of the work involves people. 

You can’t just go to university and study product management (not just yet, anyway). Whether you’re already a product manager, or you’re hoping for a promotion, most of these skills will come while you’re on the job. 

To set yourself up for an amazing career in product management, you’ll need to:

  • Seek out feedback from peers
  • Welcome challenges that will improve your skills
  • Look for opportunities to broaden your knowledge
  • Always keep improving

With huge potential for career growth from the product management role, it’s worth investing time in honing your skills, seeking feedback, welcoming new challenges, and looking for opportunities to continually improve. 

Any other skills you’d add to this list, or tips for anyone looking to build a career in product management? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter @joinTiny!

Product Development
byBen Long

Computer scientist, storyteller, teacher, and an advocate of TinyMCE. Reminisces about programming on the MicroBee. Writes picture books for kids. Also the wearer of rad shoes. “Science isn’t finished until you share the story.”

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