Today I am talking about one of the most fascinating job role we have in today’s world: the product manager. In a world where there are millions of products, digital and physical, and where technology keeps moving fast, product managers are becoming one of the most versatile and attractive positions. Every medium-large company has product managers, it doesn’t matter if they sell products or services.

It’s also a very fascinating job role for me because you can become a product manager in many different ways. There is not a single specific degree, skills set or career path that brings you there. I’ve worked with product managers of all sorts of backgrounds. They all enjoyed how every day was different and was about dealing with a long list of problems, sometimes deeply technical, sometimes very strategic and other times simply related to a set of conditions out of their control (a nicer way to call stake holders).

PMs are working across many different departments and needs, this is just a good example of how in a tech company you usually work across business, tech and UX in your role.

Still, becoming a product manager is still not an easy path and reading 100s of job description of what a product manager does will not make things clearer for you.

What is a Product Manager?

A product manager is responsible for leading the development and success of a product, from ideation to launch and beyond. And when I say product I literally mean any type of physical or digital product: you can be a product manager working on a new digital feature at Facebook or a product manager in charge of the creation of wooden toys at a small company.

Watch this part from a product management class I love, it’s about vision and product managers:

By definition, a product manager wears multiple hats and his unique goal is to make his product succeed working with a variety of stake holders while taking care of all of sorts of constraints, business and economical needs and of course, of any technological limit you might encounter to build your product.

Product managers are usually involved in creating new products from scratch or taking over existing products and expand their functionalities or create variants (quite often in large organizations that happens for new regions or audiences).

There is an enormous amount of work to create or advance a product, so you should think of a product manager as someone that needs to leverage multiple teams across the organization and find compromises to reach the goals.

The PM (Product Manager) is also the most knowledgeable person about that product in many cases: she has spent weeks doing the market research, talking to customers, looking at feedback from the market and ultimately learning what works/doesn’t work when the product hits the market.

A last couple of words on what a product manager is. I think that “negotiator” and “innovator” are the two most important words to describe this job role. Product managers need to negotiate daily with deadlines, stakeholders and limitations, but they also get to create and innovate on their product, leveraging others’ people skills and using their vision to get to the finish line.

Some concrete examples of what a product manager does

If what I am writing about is still very obscure for you, let’s move into some real example:

Example 1: Customers are churning and the Product Manager needs to understand why and fix it

Your company – a medium large B2C company in the language learning space – is seeing customers churning much faster than before. You get tasked with this problem: you will need to understand what’s going on (where is problem) and then work with the resources you have to fix it and make sure churn gets back to normal levels.

This is an example of how product managers look at churn rates – this is ChartMogul, a famous tool used by B2C and B2B subscription to look at churn rates and understand what influences it.

Example 2: Build a new feature in the CRM to solve customer support’s issues, using AI

Inside your Enterprise CRM software company more and more customers are lamenting the lack of automation to deal with thousands of customer tickets. Guess who gets tasked with solving this? The product manager! And the PM now needs to build a new feature to solve the problem and understand how to do it with AI to make things scalable.

Example 3: Adapt the current onboarding process in the US region for EMEA as well, making it compliant with EU rules

If you run a large regulated company operating in the US and in the EU, some things will need to be adapted to the local laws. That’s exactly what your company asked you do to work on for a new product that collects users’ information and is now available for the EMEA region. You need to rethink and verify the onboarding process to be compliant

Example 4: launch a new electric car

If you are a product manager in the automotive industry you might get assigned the task of launching a new electric model in the market, maybe adapting an existing one running on a diesel engine. This is a big task, so think about something that could even be related to a single aspect: adapt the entire infotainment system for the new electric vehicle, working with various vendors and teams to get there.

Why product managers are so popular today

It’s due to several reasons. First, product managers became more and more important inside organizations in the digital age, with more traditional and digital companies launching new digital experiences for their products and services. Second, with technology accelerating rapidly in every industry, product managers took the responsibility of managing the introduction of technology into organizations through new products, new processes and adapting existing line of products.

More generally speaking, product managers possess something every company needs: focus on the customer. They conduct customer research, analyze feedback, and make decisions based on customer needs and preferences. This customer-centric approach helps companies create products that are more likely to succeed in the market. In the Internet age this became exponential for companies, with more and more feedback and reviews coming from different places.

Last but not least, product managers are in high demand due to their ability to coordinate and talk to several people and departments inside the organization. If you think about that for a second, this is something more and more required in every company to put together engineering, sales, marketing and customer support to think about their products performance, customer feedback and expansion with new features.

The product manager core skills

There are so many skills a product manager needs to have. Like any other position, you will find product managers that are stronger or weaker in specific areas. For instance, technical product managers have usually a very strong ability to deal with engineering and product development but sometimes they are less effective negotiators.

Here is a recap of all the skills product managers need to somehow master:

  • Developing and executing the product vision and strategy, such as identifying new markets or customer segments, and ensuring that the product aligns with company goals.
  • Analyzing the market to understand customer needs, competition, and market trends, such as conducting research to gather customer feedback or monitoring industry news.
  • Creating and managing a product roadmap that outlines key features, timelines, and resource requirements, and ensuring that projects stay on track.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders, including designers, engineers, and sales teams, to ensure that the product meets customer needs, such as working with designers to create wireframes and mockups or working with sales teams to develop pricing and packaging strategies.
  • Communicating effectively with stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aligned and informed, such as creating presentations, leading meetings, or writing documentation.
  • Using data to make informed decisions, such as analyzing customer feedback, usage metrics, and other relevant data sources to identify opportunities for improvement or new feature development.
  • Providing leadership to the team, including setting goals, providing feedback and support, and motivating team members to achieve their best work.
  • Understanding business fundamentals, such as financial modeling, pricing strategy, and sales and marketing tactics, and applying this knowledge to support product decisions.
  • Focusing on customer needs throughout the product development process, such as conducting user research to gain insights into customer behavior and preferences or regularly seeking feedback from customers to ensure that the product meets their needs.
  • Set the pace of product development and iteration with the engineering team and with the other teams, the product manager is usually the one setting internal deadlines and dealing with the real constraints from a market or economical perspective.

If I have to highlight one skill for PMs: communication. The best ones are great at explaining things to all sort of stakeholders and that is their superpowers to convince other people to work with them on things, to talk to customers and to find alignment internally. If you think about what I told you before, PMs are negotiators and every negotiator is first and foremost a great communicator.

Soft skills for product managers

They deserve a specific chapter because product managers are among the few individual contributors inside the organization that get to use and master a variety of soft skills, even at advanced levels.

Communication

As mentioned above, it’s the most important soft skill for product managers. You can’t succeed in this role without becoming a great communicator.

Negotiation

Get comfortable with it, you need to negotiate requirements, deadlines, roadmap and …expectations! Like communication, this is something you can’t avoid in this role. Over time it gets easier and you will even enjoy it!

Ability to adapt

In most situations product managers need to take compromises. Sometimes it will be a deadline, some other times it will be a reduced number of engineers allocated to your project or simply a difficult customer that will drive you crazy for a particular feature. In all these cases great PMs use their negotiation skills to find a solution and they can quickly adapt to the next context.

Empathy

It’s the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your customers or of the engineers you are working with. Building a product is hard for everyone involved but working with a PM that listen to problems and does his best to consider everyone’s point will definitely help.

Positive mindset

PMs need to lead and drive people to build new things. In my experience it’s really difficult to do so if you don’t have a very positive approach in your job. Sometimes there are way too many things you have to compromise on to deliver a new feature or solve a problem, staying positive will not only help you, but it will motivate all the other teams working with you.

Be pragmatic and firm

Sometimes you will have to be the one pushing the org to move forward. Good product managers know when to be firm and just make a final decision while communicating why they had to do so. Especially in large organizations this is critical not to find yourself always negotiating something more with another stakeholder.

Career paths that lead to product management

This would require a dedicated article and I will work on one soon, but let’s try to think about the common paths to become a product manager.

It’s important to note that successful product managers often have a mix of experiences and skills from different domains. Read this list thinking that each profile has strengths and weaknesses as a product manager.

  1. Software engineers and developers: Professionals with a background in software engineering, programming, or product development can transition into product management. In the tech industry some of the best product managers have a computer science degree and have been software engineers: they simply understand how to build products and accelerate things more than others. They also get a ton of respect from technical people and engineers due to their knowledge: it’s easier to get things done when your team believes in your abilities.
  2. Business Analyst or Data Analyst: Analyzing user data, market trends, and customer feedback is a critical part of product management. Individuals with experience in data analysis or business analysis can leverage these skills to identify opportunities and improvements for products. This career path is definitely a way to become a product manager, but it’s more difficult in my opinion and many people that have been just in data analysis need to learn a lot more to become strong product managers.
  3. Marketing professionals: they often possess a deep understanding of customer needs and market dynamics. They can apply this knowledge to develop product strategies and collaborate with development teams to create products that resonate with customers. I worked with a few marketing people that could easily do product management: sometimes they did as well, once they had to launch something new on our website, build a way to attract users and or simply mock something together to test an idea with some minimum viable product. We don’t have time here to talk about Product Marketing, but a lot of great PMs have a strong product marketing background.
  4. UX/UI Designers: easy one, some of them, like software engineers, are really the best product managers to build digital products. They understand the user, the problem and compared to everyone else, they know how to translate that into design.
  5. Project Managers: Project managers who have experience leading cross-functional teams and managing resources can transition into product management. Their skills in coordination, communication, and organization can help ensure product development stays on track.
  6. Customer Support or Success: they know the customers and know how to deal with them. Some customer success people dream of being able to change and modify the product the way customers keep asking for! I’ve seen it for real and some of them can really be great communicators in a PM role.
  7. Sales executives: it happens, not the easiest path, but sales people are great negotiator and communicator and sometimes the best ones are also experts of their product and market. It’s easy for them to step into a PM role where they get to inspire their teams on how and what to build to solve a problem they really know well.
Sometimes they are just great domain experts

Last but not least, sometimes product managers are simply domain experts. They know everything about a specific market or set of products and they have none of the titles above: it’s a great reminder to spot people that could perform in this job role and you will not find them looking at their current title.

Think about someone that has been dealing with the travel industry in various roles for two decades, that person might be the best one to launch a new product in that industry.

How to become a product manager

I am not talking about courses or studies in this section, the next one gives you a bit more related to that.

Start with a job role that naturally leads to product management

Let me start with something obvious but helpful if you are considering the product manager role as your ultimate goal. I think the best to become a product manager is by working in roles that involve product development or product-related responsibilities, such as project management, business analysis, sales and customer support, software development, or UX design.

In many organizations there is a path to product management and knowing the domain and product it will be helpful to be considered for this role. It’s also easier to show you can be a great PM just working with that department and showing them how you can solve some of their problems.

How to experiment with PM skills if you can’t in your job

Now, I think that becoming a product manager, besides your current title, is mostly about learning about all the skills we talked about and get to experiment with them in the real world. Sometimes this is difficult if you already have a full time job, so my proposals are:

  • Get closer to PMs inside your org and find a way to work with them – it’s not always easy but reach out to them and try to shadow them if you can. If you are in finance there will be limited possibilities for you to work together with a PM, but if you ask and try to find a way to be helpful, it can be done. And product managers are usually great at making connections.
  • Put yourself in charge of a new product/project inside an association. Think about how many associations need people to manage projects, sometimes even at big scale. It might be even a digital initiative (a digital event?). Come up with a proposal to re-build something in their org and do that for free.
  • Offer free work to improve a product you use or for a company you know: you might do this even on weekends, but you can reach out to a small company you know and show them what you could do for them with some examples. It might be building a new part of their website, put together a small new MVP or even ask them what are some of their biggest problems and pick one to work on. I love this approach because it’s also the best way to find yourself a full time job – so few people have the courage and dedication to do it.

What to study to accelerate your path into product management

A curated list of resources, free and not free, to start learning a bit more about product management. I am not talking about the thousands of courses on Udemy, YouTube and other platforms because it’s a different approach and I think you are smart enough to go and find them yourself.

I selected two well-known companies that have been active in the product management training for a while.

Product school

I met Carlos (CEO/founder) many years ago and I always thought ProductSchool is a great way to start your journey into product management. They have tons of online free content on their YouTube channel and have dedicated certifications you can study for with a commitment of a few months.

I did not have any indirect/direct experience with ProductSchool, so as usual I think it’s worth asking some references to people that attended their courses.

Reforge

Reforge became one of the most famous training vendors in the product management space in the last few years. Compared to ProductSchool, they offer a variety of courses for several aspects of product management, with a strong focus on growth.

I had a chance to use Reforge for some of our product managers in the past and everyone have always been very satisfied with them. I definitely feel Reforge is designed for product managers that already know the role well and have been performing it for a while (like in the case of my colleagues) more than for people that are transitioning into the product management world.

Their programs are not cheap, so I would definitely talk to people that have attended them (you can simply find them on LinkedIn) before signing up.

Find a mentor with product experience

This could be an additional step once you have found a course you like or you could find a mentor to help you put in practice what you are learning with an online path.

My approach would be simple, I would try to find people that are PMs and have been in the role for 3+ years and ask them if they are interested in sharing their knowledge and learnings with you as you get into this role and study it a bit more. Finding a mentor takes time, so you will likely need to meet 3-4 people before finding the right one for you, but then you can build a relationship and ask her for guidance and suggestions based on her experience.

There are a lot of professionals that will enjoy this and they will absolutely commit to an hour or so every two weeks where they can give you some useful advice.

Cons of becoming a product manager and my experience with that

Let me close highlighting some of the cons of becoming a product manager I’ve personally seen. We have hired, promoted and coached product managers in different functions (from junior PMs to Directors and VPs) at my previous company and I’ve have learned a lot from those experiences and from talking to other CPOs and leaders in this space.

The PM role is a challenging one inside the org. It’s almost never a 9-5pm job in my experience but you will learn a lot not just about product but about doing business, negotiations and sales. It’s probably one of the most complete career paths when it comes down to skills and one that will challenge you a lot, on a daily basis.

It’s stressful: PMs are usually dealing with all sort of problems and they get pressure from multiple people in the organization. It can be very stressful, especially when things are not going as the company expected. This is not a job role where you get to rely on other people in your team, product managers are usually surrounded by other teams but have no direct reports.

It’s lonely and you don’t have your team: for the reason I explained above, sometimes you just feel like the one that needs to do everything and figure out how to do it. Product managers are often individual contributors, they don’t manage their team and don’t have reports.

You will feel powerless at times: simply because you can’t move things or change them when they are tied to other departments or people decisions. There is always someone you need to convince. Some PMs I worked with are excited by this as they become more creative at solving problems and convincing people, but keep in mind you often orchestrate the work to build a product but have little power to move things.

It’s not your product: I’ve seen many PMs falling in love with their products and fighting to introduce things that were far from the company vision. It happens and the best PMs will be true owners of their products, but in the end, they need to follow sales, the CEO’s vision and sometimes even economical constraints. All of that can be pretty brutal sometimes when you have a different roadmap for that product. Sometimes PMs that suffer this end up becoming founders and starting their own venture.

It’s sometimes political: in medium/large organizations PMs need to deal with politics. It’s not fun, but it’s definitely part of their job on a daily basis. You will need to push in directions that others don’t like and there you get into politics.

Conclusions

Product managers are in high demand worldwide, and not just in the tech industry. It’s also one of those roles we will prioritize as we build Anthropos because people can get into it in way too many ways and it’s difficult to understand what you will do exactly. It’s even more difficult than that because every single company has its interpretation and definition of the product manager role!

I hope you enjoyed this long intro to how to become a product manager, I will back soon with a dive deep into some specific aspects of this job role.

Steven

 

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