There is a growing interest in product manager as a career; based on the Glassdoor report, product management has a high ranking as one of the best jobs in the United States, and the portal currently has 17,725 listings for it.
However, product management is a bit tricky. To be a developer, you likely will learn computer science and start coding; to be a data scientist, you will likely learn statistics and math. But there are no degrees in universities dedicated to product management, so what should one learn? What is a sound basis to have to become a product manager? Should I be business-oriented? Should I know how to code?
There is no one answer to these questions, and many product leaders will have different answers.
Though Product Manifesto made a good attempt to group product manager traits by collaborating with PM leaders from leading companies to create ten principles for building better products. The manifesto has excellent points, but it still doesn't answer all the questions above.
My simple answer is that what separates a good PM from the rest are those who follow two key components: manage expectations and achieve deep empathy with customers' problems
Let's break those down a bit further.
Managing expectations might sound lame and insignificant, but I’m surprised at how many PMs fall short in doing so. This is all about the ability to execute. A PM needs to manage expectations with the customers to build trust. This trust is the foundation for a great relationship, where customers see that their problems are well understood, and the product is moving in the right direction. Promising too much and not delivering will break this trust, create frustration, damage the product's reputation, and lead to high churn rates. Aiming too low will not be sufficient in a competitive market and will probably harm the customer acquisition rate. In addition, a PM has internal customers (all the stakeholders) such as engineering, sales, and marketing teams, as well as upper management. The balance of setting the right expectations with each group (which in many cases is not aligned) to deliver the best possible product is one of the most critical characteristics that separate the great PMs from the rest.
Now that we understand that managing expectation assures fast and efficient execution, we need to see that we prioritize the right things to be executed. Many books have been written on identifying the problems worth solving, but I would like to focus on the crucial role empathy plays in this regard. I have seen too many PMs visit customers, conduct interviews, document the problems, and then write a detailed PRD on the solution. This is NOT the way to build great products. It all starts with the ability to have genuine empathy with customer problems, or in other words, to "feel their pain". To achieve this empathy, a PM must have a deep understanding of the domain. This is a necessary first step to building a great product that can truly identify and address the core problem; this is the seed required to grow a creative and innovative solution. Achieving this empathy is not trivial and, as mentioned above, requires deep domain expertise and a good amount of curiosity.
When it comes to domain expertise, it is easier to divide it into B2B and B2C, whereas in B2B realms, domain expertise is harder for “outsiders to acquire" than it would be in B2C realms.
For example, in one of my previous startups, my company developed a self-served mobile app for radio stations (B2B2C). It is easier to "feel" customer pain in such a PM role as it is more graspable; something we could have experienced ourselves. In contrast, at my current company, we develop an AI platform for process optimization (B2B). As one can imagine, "feeling" the pain of a process or a control engineer in, let’s say, a chemical plant is not that simple.
Achieving this empathy within the product team isn't always that easy, and the deeper the domain expertise goes, the more challenging it is. One way to overcome this challenge is to add a product expert that is part of the product team to work closely with the lead PM and engineers to assure that such empathy is relayed.
Understanding and applying these two fundamental aspects will allow a smoother and more successful interaction with customers and, no less importantly, contribute to product improvement and better handling of complex processes.
There are many traits a product manager needs to possess; I believed it is important to focus on insightful key characteristics that might be overlooked rather than create a shopping list of traits required for a PM.
Written by Ran Rosin, VP Product Manager at Imubit