On a January day fresh out of grad school, I was transitioning into the world of work. I had accepted a role overseeing a B2B video web series run by a small consultancy. I was this project’s first full-time hire, which involved everything from growing subscribers and HTML editing, to scripting interviews and analytics management. When it came time to figure out a title for my new role, I suggested that I be a digital strategist.
The boss considered my idea for a moment. “How about ‘product manager’?” he concluded. “Because AppBeat is the product.”
Without a clue about what product management was, I had suddenly become one. My story is not uncommon; product management is a career people often fall into, without formal training or education.
And yet, it’s one that suits more people than the abstract name lets on. Jackie Bernstein, product manager at Kiva, told The Muse that after taking almost every college course she could, she settled on a major called Science, Technology, and Society. This major, she insists, is ideal for would-be product managers.
“It’s basically like training you to be a product manager,” Bernstein explained. “To be just technical enough to understand deeply technical people, and…to look at things through a historical perspective, an ethical perspective, a design point of view.”
The best product managers are advocates. They successfully explain why their product will accomplish the right goals for both the customer and business.
What other attributes do you need to be great? The best product managers are:
Product managers can be technical or non-technical (as I was at AppBeat). You don’t need a degree in Engineering — but you do need to know how to “speak” engineering. Product managers rely on the work of many diverse teams. As a result, they spend most of their time communicating. Doing so successfully requires sensitive insight into the mores of these very different groups, from engineers to stakeholders.
Product managers must be adept at understanding social cues. This perception helps you acknowledge what’s important to each team, and position requests according to their unique values. Empathy — both for fellow collaborators as well as your product’s end users — is key to success as a product manager.
Product managers have a lot on their plates. They’re tasked with total success of a product, and have endless people to please. There is no way to succeed in product management without prioritizing. To manage products on time and budget, their leaders must focus on which smaller actions will achieve the big picture.
Great product managers successfully process constant streams of information, and respond to requests as quickly as possible. They understand how each request will or won’t contribute to the end product, and if “No” is the answer, they always explain why. This invites conversation and allows them to see where they might be missing something.
The best product managers don’t work in a vacuum. To them, they aren’t simply working towards another release; they’re bringing a new vision to life. When Aha! was founded in 2013 by Brian de Haaff and Chris Waters, their vision was to help product managers build better software and be happy doing it. Every action that we take as a team aligns with that vision. It serves as our north star, and helps us remember that every small action we take at work serves a purpose greater than ourselves.
The best product managers inspire this same sense of vision. They help every team they work with — from marketers to end users — understand their product’s unique vision. This helps each team see that their own contributions enhance a larger goal.
Great product managers are straightforward. If something isn’t working, they tell their team(s) and offer guidance about how they can improve. They also share victories, letting everyone feel the joy of working on something exceptional.
The best product managers know how to deliver feedback and explain changes in ways that resonate with all co-collaborators. They want to keep everyone on the same page, and value their teams enough to be honest with them.
Product management can be hugely rewarding. You have the chance to oversee a product from conception to release, and champion its growth to diverse groups of people. If you love to communicate, are process-oriented, and strategize about how to achieve long-term goals, then you may have just found your dream career. Think of yourself as a mini-CEO — and go make your product prosper.
Interested in learning more about product management?