What Skills Does a Product Manager Need?

By BrainStation February 28, 2019

Product Managers have the enviable job of taking a product from its roots as an idea and steering its lifecycle through launch and beyond.

Often referred to as “mini-CEOs” of a product, these specialists must possess a wide variety of skills and competencies to propel a product to success. It’s no wonder Product Managers are so well-compensated; Hired’s 2017 Global State of Tech Salaries survey found that Product Managers’ average salary of $138,000 was the very highest of any tech role. Unsurprisingly, LinkedIn now lists Product Manager as one of the most promising jobs, s these roles saw a 30 percent year-over-year growth rate in job openings.

If that sounds appealing, here are some of the skills needed to break into and thrive in this rapidly growing role.


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Personal Skills Are Essential for Product Managers

According to BrainStation’s 2019 Digital Skills Survey, 88 percent of Product Managers polled began their careers in a different field, a number higher than any other discipline.

It makes sense then that the most crucial skills for Product Managers are intangible people skills – otherwise known as soft skills, but we’ll discuss that later – which tend to be more transferable from position to position and industry to industry.

In BrainStation’s survey, Product Managers ranked communication (71 percent), leadership (65 percent), and empathy (58 percent) as the most important skills for a Product Manager, ahead of research and project management, and far ahead of design (selected by only 20 percent of respondents).

The survey also found that 62 percent of respondents worked on teams of 10 or fewer, and collaboration is a constant; in fact, Product Managers polled reported that collaboration was the second-most time-consuming function of their job, behind only developing specs.

“What I wish somebody had told me when I started working as a Product Manager is: ‘Don’t be a hero,’” wrote Matt LeMay, Partner at Sudden Compass. “Self-styled ‘visionary’ Product Managers are dangerous – which is why I advise against hiring PM candidates who fire off (Steve Jobs) quotes during job interviews.

“Product management is fundamentally about making connections and creating understanding across different roles, not about telling people what to do. It’s a supportive role, not a visionary role.”

Interestingly, BrainStation’s survey found that the most-used tools for brainstorming and ideation among Product Managers do not require a high degree of technical expertise: whiteboarding sessions (66 percent) and pen-and-paper (53 percent) were most popular.

Given the emphasis on “soft” skills, it’s possible Product Managers are looking to professional development to fill in the gaps in their skill sets. 71 percent of Product Managers reported participating in workshops, roughly 65 percent in both online and in-person courses, and 55 percent in webinars.

Meanwhile, the emotional intelligence – or “EQ” – that seems so crucial to a good Product Manager is much harder to teach.

“EQ is more important (than IQ),” said Sam Lessin, former VP of Product Management at Facebook. “Product Managers get huge value from being highly empathetic with a team, not just with users. There are plenty of smart people, but not enough with EQ.

“I have never successfully trained empathy, so you have to hire for it.”

Technical Skills for Product Management

A question that comes up often among would-be Product Managers is: “how technical do I have to be?”

Lulu Cheng, Product Manager at Pinterest, wrote about what it means to be “technical enough” to perform her role. Ultimately, she determined that all Product Managers should be able to: trace user issues back to the underlying problem; estimate how long different options will take to build; anticipate implementation issues; brainstorm technical solutions; and identify opportunities that arise from new technologies.

Taking a deeper look, some competencies do seem to be a near-requirement across the industry.

The question of whether a Product Manager needs to know how to code is controversial, but Product Managers should at least learn about code.

At Google, the final stage of Product Manager interviews requires candidates to whiteboard coding questions with a senior engineer on-hand to evaluate.

Other companies might not require such a high degree of coding competence, but most agree that in order to communicate effectively with developers and engineers, a Product Manager should have a solid grasp of the fundamentals.

“Product Managers don’t need to be able to write code. But they should be able to speak the technical language of their industry – and translate that language to the less technically inclined,” said Latif Nanji, Co-founder and CEO of Roadmunk.

Other technical skills or competencies are similarly viewed as required at most companies.

An often-shared Venn diagram positions Product Managers at the nexus of technology, business, and user experience – or, as Marty Cagan wrote in his book Inspired, the goal of a Product Manager is to “discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.”

It follows, then, that Product Managers are expected to understand data analytics, including product launch metrics, A/B testing, and standard measurement platforms such as Google Analytics. Similarly, all Product Managers should be comfortable drawing out wireframes and evaluating UX. And Product Managers are expected to understand software development lifecycle methodologies, such as the commonly used Agile methodology Scrum. You will also be expected to produce competitive analyses and status reports.

Still, experts are emphasizing a shift away from the differentiation between “hard” and “soft” skills. LeMay writes instead about the importance of “connective” skills.

“I’ve often been asked how to balance ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills’ when hiring a PM. Frankly, I think this very distinction is often what stops companies from identifying the best potential PMs, and what stops PMs from feeling confident in their work,” he wrote.

“At its worst, this idea compels companies to hire the candidates who are the most like engineers, not the candidates who will make the best Product Managers,” he added.

“The differentiating factor between success and failure is not being ‘technical enough,’ but rather being adept at making connections between different sets of values and expertise.”

A Product Manager Will Depend on Critical Thinking

Beyond the intangible skills we covered, a good Product Manager needs to develop a skill set for curiosity, intellectual rigor, and being able to stay tightly focused on an organization’s broader goals.

Product Managers need to be adept at identifying problems worth solving, both within the broader marketplace and the product they’re developing. They need to understand which products their target customers will buy, and they must learn to ideate and test a minimum viable product to ensure a product idea will meet customers’ needs. They also need to be able to assess how best to utilize their team members’ time and skills – not to mention how to run an efficient meeting.

Another secret to being a successful Product Manager? Staying modest and developing a thick skin, writes Cheng, since scrutiny and criticism are crucial to creating a valuable, viable product.

“It’s your job to come up with the initial spec or Google Drawings mock that everyone else then picks apart,” she wrote. “The point isn’t that you proposed a crappy strawman (most first drafts are), but that this gets the conversation started.”

Find out more about BrainStation’s Product Management Certification Courses.