What Makes a Good Product Manager?

by Janey Zitomer
November 27, 2019

Good product managers understand the importance of time management and execution at a moment's notice. Great product managers are able to shift perspectives and understand the needs of users, as well as multiple stakeholders within a company. Aligning expectations cross-departmentally takes business acumen drawn from equal parts experience and empathy.  

We picked the brains of three local product leaders who shared which qualities they see in the most successful PMs and what specific professional development strategies have helped them get to where they are now. 

 

Cockroach Labs employees
cockroach labs

A quality that Lakshmi Kannan sees in the best product managers again and again? Resourcefulness. 

With the internet making information-sourcing so simple, current and aspiring PMs have no excuse not to hone their skills, she said. Kannan, who manages CockroachCloud, a cloud-native database and one of Cockroach Lab’s business-friendly applications, looks to social sites like YouTube for the latest technical development intel. 

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

As a PM, one of your primary responsibilities is ensuring that your stakeholders, department leaders and senior management are aligned on the problems you're solving and the strategy and implementation path to get there. A good PM can tailor their communication to the audience and is willing to do so as often as required.

We talk a lot about empathy to customer problems. I like to think of it as being able to understand the true problem a user is facing and being able to solve for that problem. Often, users complain about one thing but the underlying cause is something else. A great PM is able to get to the root cause of the customer problem and use a first-principles approach to address it.

As a PM, many people demand your time and attention. You can easily spend a week just in meetings and working through email backlog. A great PM is ruthless about prioritizing their time and calendar and then actually follows up on what they said they would do. 

Identify good documentation for your favorite technical product and start using it.’’

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

I read a lot for work, whether it’s academic papers, books, or essays on my Twitter feed. Find your people on the internet. YouTube, Twitter and Medium are all good places to start. Follow their work and engage with them. I have learned the most this way.

Nothing is better than getting your hands dirty. Identify good documentation for your favorite technical product and start using it. Many people write about their experience using specific software. Consider them resources.

As a PM building a cloud product, I also took certification programs that the cloud providers offer. While the precise certificate doesn't really matter, I found those courses to be the best broad exposure to topics such as networking, computing, storage challenges and security.

 

Stash
Stash

While Stash's Catherine Cornell helps clients see a clear path to success using their product, she wants her team to feel comfortable with ambiguity. We discovered why the director of product said good PMs need to be bold enough to work in environments “where there is no clear path to success.”

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

While hard skills like organization and technical understanding are important, I place greater emphasis on soft skills. We all know a good product manager needs to be empathetic. A good PM is also curious. Instead of blindly fulfilling customer requests, they question users until they find the “why” behind it. Lastly, a good PM needs to be bold enough to work in an environment where there is no clear path to success. At Stash, we see each failure as a learning opportunity. A PM’s boldness helps them embrace risk. 

The most valuable technical skill a PM can have is the ability to use resources like Stack Overflow...’’ 

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Familiarity with SQL or analytics tools are table-stakes for product managers. Feeling comfortable writing regular expressions helps track down bugs or create monitors from logs. The most valuable technical skill a PM can have is the ability to use resources like Stack Overflow or YouTube to self-learn new skills. Languages and tools are constantly evolving. Being empowered to teach yourself is invaluable. 

 

Disclaimer: BuiltinNYC is a paid partner of Stash. Investment advisory services offered by Stash Investments LLC, an SEC registered investment advisor. This information is for educational purpose only, and is not intended as investment, legal, accounting or tax advice.

 

Candid
Candid

While there might be no such thing as a stupid question, some are more beneficial to the management process than others –– an important distinction when time restrictions and client expectations are involved. 

Candid CIO Lilla Cosgrove told us that thoughtful investigation is a top priority when it comes to getting product work done at the orthodontic aligner company. 

 

What are the top three traits a person needs to be a good PM?

Great product managers are one-part business thinker, one-part technical thinker and one-part customer thinker. 

To me, the top three traits for success include the ability to zoom in or out at a moment's notice: One of the more difficult aspects of a product manager's job is that in one moment they may have to give the CEO a high-level rundown of their team's quarterly roadmap and in the next, they may have to help an engineer understand a specific feature requirement. They need to be able to zoom out, inspire vision and tell a narrative story while diving into the details to ensure flawless execution.

They also need to be able to prioritize systematically: Feature ideas are always being thrown their way. PMs need to help the business prioritize them objectively with a back-of-the-envelope impact analysis or by diving deep into customer research. 

PMs also must execute with grace, inspiring excellence across both their team and their stakeholders through stellar communication and no-excuses results. 

Great product managers are one-part business thinker, one-part technical thinker and one-part customer thinker.’’

 

From a technical perspective, what skills have you found to be most important in your role, and what steps do you take to continue developing those skills?

Though this might not obviously pop out as a technical skill, I've found asking the right questions to be most important trait in a product role. 

Being able to dig into data and understand technical architecture tradeoffs are in many ways table-stakes. But getting a misleading answer from that data or pointing your engineering lead in the wrong direction because you asked the wrong question can really sink a product over time. Developing this is really a matter of practice, so I'm constantly looking for new frameworks for evaluating problems and trying them on for size. 

 

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