3 Industry Leaders Share What it Takes to Be a Product Manager

By BrainStation May 7, 2019

Product Management has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason – often called the ‘mini-CEOs’ of product, Product Managers (PMs) have a unique yet critical role in many organizations. What’s interesting about PMs is that most come from diverse professional backgrounds, in fact, The Digital Skills Survey found that 88 percent of product professionals started their careers in a different field.

To find out more about the role of Product Manager and what sets apart successful products, BrainStation held a Product Management Panel at our New York City Campus last week, which featured panelists from The Wing, Spotify, and Oscar Health. Here is a recap of some of the things they had to say.


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What Does a PM Do?

Despite its rise in popularity, (Product Manager is now listed as one of LinkedIn’s most promising jobs) many people still don’t have a clear understanding of what a product management role entails.

At its core, the role of Product Manager means you are responsible for every stage of the product development, from ideation to release, and beyond. Depending on the organization, industry, and type of product, the details of a PM role will vary. Our panelists confirmed this – as all are working for different organizations, occupying different industries, and creating products for different users.

“I’m responsible for helping to build the overall website experience as well as the infrastructure that powers the site, the CMS, and all of the analytics,” said Erica Tsai, Product Consultant at The Wing, a female-only coworking space. “So I help to plan releases, and work with our development team and Designers.”

“I’m a Product Area Lead on our creator side of the business – essentially our supply side,” explained Justin Belmont, Senior Product Manager at Spotify. “We have a product called Spotify for Artists where we give them insights about who’s listening, what other artists they listen to, and in what contexts they’re listening.”

Belmont went on to highlight that not all products are aimed at consumers. “My role includes building a lot of B2B tools – we have tools for major labels, management companies, and publishers. So building this suite of products that we have on the creator side of spotify.”

Apart from B2C and B2B products, many PMs also work on internal products that help teams within the organization perform better.

I work with a team of about 8 engineers, two designers, and we build internal tools for our customer service team,” said Amanda Durham, Product Manager at Oscar Health.

The Product Management Process

Chances are you’ve heard of Agile Development, a process for software development that is based on an iterative approach. Many organizations, particularly those involved in technology, use Agile Methodologies in their digital product development. We asked our panelists about their process, and how they approach building products to ensure their success.

At Oscar Health, they focus on the user to drive their product development. “What we do is make sure we’re tackling the right problem,” said Durham. “Often you might think you know the problem, but you have to really sit down with your users and make sure you’re tackling the right things. We do this through shadowing, 1:1 interviews, or group user research sessions.”

And how do you know if the products you’re building are the right ones? Erica Tsai shared her strategy:

“We try to always be working on things where the impact is greater than the effort. And sometimes things are necessary and that’s not the case, but I think it’s a good testing ground for everyone to sit down and talk about.”

Justin Belmont explained that the important thing is to define the problem that the product is going to solve for.

“At a larger company, there’s a lot of focus on process,” said Belmont. “We use OKRs (objectives and key results) at every level of the organization. OKRs are a really good tool because they don’t specify how you’re going to solve the problem, but they specify the outcomes that you’re driving towards.”

“If you’re doing Agile correctly,” Belmont added. “You should be getting feedback all the time.”

The Future of Product Management

As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, products are impacted, and it’s important for professionals working in the product space to stay in the know about new technologies and trends. We asked our product experts to share what they think the future of product management holds. Across the board, there was talk about artificial intelligence and data.

“I think the future is going to be a much more customized experience for your user based on data and insights that you’re getting,” said Tsai. “I think that having comfort with data analytics will be critical.”

As for managing products that incorporate new technologies, it’s a difficult position to be in as a PM. You want to ensure that you have a solid comprehension of the technical side of things so that you can better manage the people who are experts in the topic – in the case of AI this might be the engineers.

“AI is something that is really interesting from a product perspective because you’re not necessarily the expert in AI, but you’re in charge of defining the problems, making sure you have the right training data set, and establishing what level of risk you are willing to take on in the AI product you provide to consumers,” Durham explained.

What it Takes to be Successful

Across the board, our panelists explained that being successful in a product management role requires a technical understanding, strong leadership qualities, and the ability to communicate cross-functionally to move teams toward a common goal.

“I think in the early days of Product management, it was just folks with computer science or engineering degrees that were learning the business side,” said Belmont. “It’s changed quite a bit and it’s increasingly becoming people who can communicate and get teams excited about a vision while working across the organization.”