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This past month we had the privilege of hosting 5 very talented Product Leaders on the Product School community channel:
The theme of September was soft vs hard Product Management skills. Both are important, but where do you start? Which are the most important? Here’s what these Product Leaders had to say.
Bonus: read on for their insights on breaking into Product, making decisions with limited information, Product Discovery, dealing with challenges as a PM, plus final tips for aspiring Product Managers!
In your opinion, what are soft and hard skills are important to be an effective Product Manager?
I believe as a Product Manager, one needs to have following skills:
I always divide this in to 3 types of skills at a higher level –
1) Soft skills. You learn them everywhere in your personal and professional life. You can carry them into any new role in future, including PM role. Then you can enhance particular skill as needed. (stakeholder management, communication, leading change, negotiation and expectation management etc.),
2) Hard skills. These are pure PM skills what you will have to learn to be a PM. (pure PM skills around strategy, vision, prioritization, market/industry analysis etc.)
3) Functional. Generally you acquire these skills on the job. If you have prior experience outside PM, then try to find PM role into functional/technical skills that you acquired in past. That can give you jump start because you will be able to reuse part of them. (like retail, ecommerce, banking, supply chain etc.) and/or technical skills – one of these two skills is definitely important to thrive as a PM; both would be a big plus!
Soft skills: it’s definitely important to be good at communicating and building relationships with others. Building a product is a team effort and it’s important that you’re communicating effectively with both internal and external stakeholders. Empathy is key.
Hard skills: it all depends on what kind of PM you are, but data analysis skills will come in handy for most roles. It’s important to be able to crunch numbers in order to gather evidence for your hypothesis and then later track the usage of your new feature.
Soft Skills: Most important is Communication, the ability to easily convey your thoughts. Next are negotiation, convincing skills, team player, presentation skills, prioritization skills, good judgement skills…etc
Hard Skills: Data analysis so that you can see the metrics and performance of your product, little bit technical knowledge of your products… knowledge of Product Owner responsibilities and agile mindset.. etc
Soft skills: I think it’s important to understand how to put presentations together. This took me a while to learn. Putting together a presentation requires having a vision and data to back that up, storytelling, and succinct plans / proposals. I started somewhat recently building decks rather than docs even at the beginning of the process to help myself think strategically and in a way that can help communicate to stakeholders.
Hard skills: I do think it’s important to know at least at an intermediate level about data – analysis, structure, etc. I think you should know at least at a high level about a full stack of technical concepts (back end dev, front end dev, some understanding of ML/AI – you don’t have to go crazy on it, but it’s good to know).
Tips on how to transition into Product?
I slowly transitioned in PM from Data Analyst role within same company by showing the leaders that I have/gained the PM skills. I would recommend to switch internally as it is the easiest way to transition into PM… But if this is not possible then, APM programs, PM internships and PM certifications are good resources that can help some for this transition.
When breaking into Product:
I understand that transitioning into PM from different roles are tough because of lot of competition in the PM job market. I remember it was really exhausting and sometime heartbreaking process for me.
In my opinion, having your own startup is a better way to become a PM than even those other routes! I talked about this in my webinar for Product School. (This is one person’s opinion, so grain of salt, of course).
But being a PM is about building product and business solutions for users. You need technical skills of course but building your own company is super relevant to becoming a PM! There are also a lot of paths into PM – I know it’s not direct, but you can do it however works best for you. My main advice would be to do what you’re doing and to build your own product so you can really get experience and understand if you like the type of work PMs do!
How would you make product decisions with incomplete or very little data?
What’s your approach to dealing with ambiguity? How do you make product decisions in a timely manner in the face of uncertainty?
It’s always good to make decisions based on objective data points. If it is not handy, try to capture them quickly if possible.
If there are no data points then best thing is to reach out to key stakeholders and see if you can learn something from them quickly. If that is not possible and you still need to make decision then see if you can delay it or delay part of the decision. Basically you may need to buy some time for that part of the decision where risk is high.
In the worst case situation, if you need to make decision quickly, right now, then ensure that you rightly identify the risks, convey them to key stakeholders and bring everyone on same page upfront to avoid more conflicts later.
How do you come up with ideas for what to build?
I love this question! I keep a running list of all the product challenges/ ideas that I hear about from all the sources.
How do you reach users for feedback before you start Product design/development?
At Twitter we have teams of folks to help us with recruitment, setting up the plan for the research, execution of the research, and follow-ups/proposals from what we learned. On teams when I didn’t have dedicated research or design folks, I did this myself.
I really liked Tristan Kromer’s resources around user research – starting with the experiment outline (hypothesis, learning goals, etc.) and then getting creative about approaches to answering our questions. In terms of how you get to them you sometimes have to get super creative!
What do you do when leadership asks you to work on something that’s not on the roadmap?
We as PMs face this challenge all the time! If not from leadership member then from other key stakeholders. What is important is to define objective prioritization techniques (like ICE, RICE, MoSCoW, Lean etc.) during early phase, communicate the same upfront (ensuring that stakeholders understand that) and then follow the same throughout the lifecycle.
If someone is pushing for the feature that does not meet the prioritization technique’s criteria then explain it to him/her and ask for more details to justify the priority.
If you can’t crack the individual yourself then try to involve other key stakeholder (like sponsor, chief architect, scrum master etc.) who can support you with the defined process.
What is the most difficult part of being a Product Manager?
I think the difficult parts are stakeholder management and finding creative solutions to building projects. I think the most important part is having empathy for the customer. It’s often hard to triangulate what the customer needs with what the stakeholders want with what’s actually feasible. But I do think that if you keep the customer in mind and have empathy for your team, you can create great product!
What are your thoughts on efforts and roadblocks for Product Managers when working on bottom up vs top down (Leadership initiated) product ideas?
Thanks for the question! I’ve been on two different teams at Twitter. The first team was more bottom-up and the second team was more top-down. I think honestly the reason the second team is that way might be related to larger things happening at the company and leadership needing to be somewhat careful.
In terms of bottom-up vs. top-down, I think both can work! When it’s bottom-up, you have to gather a TON of information and get a lot of people in on your strategy and working with you to spread the news. When it’s top-down you have to work with leadership to find a sweet spot for being bought in to what they are looking to achieve — and then leading the team toward that charge. You have to ‘disagree and commit’ more. Either way can be effective.
Any final tips for aspiring Product Managers?
I would recommend building a Product mindset. For ex: When you are using any product, from ordering a coffee in an app to buying a movie ticket, think about what would you do as a PM to reduce friction for the end-user. If you have multiple ideas, which one would you prioritize and why.
Network, Network, Network. Reach out to internal and external PMs in your community. When you send a LinkedIn connection, mention that you want to break into the PM role and want to learn from them. This is a wonderful community and most folks want to help to shine!
It’s always easier to learn something through practice.
At work, practice being a PM by asking current PMs for extra work or creating your own side projects.
Outside of work, try creating your own side projects through “no-code” tools so that you can go through the entire product development lifecycle & practice acquiring users. These can be really simple apps.
Also outside of work, try volunteering to be a PM at a nonprofit. DemocracyLab & Angellist always have openings. You can also look for local nonprofits in your area and offer to help them with their website or app that they’re trying to launch.
My final advice is to 1) build your own app! 2) try to get a PM job anywhere to start – there are a million interesting problems to solve and customers to help; just start somewhere! 3) keep trying! it’s not easy to break into a PM role, but you’ll be able to do it if you keep working at it. Good Luck!!
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