Product management is a demanding job. On any given day, a PM at a company like Google, Amazon, or Facebook might plow through a range of tasks, including pulling user engagement data via MySQL, triaging a production bug with the engineering lead, and deciding which features to build in the next month. If it sounds like a dizzying array of tasks, that’s because it is. As a result, leading tech firms look for extremely strong competencies across a key basket of skills. Below, we focus on four core “hard” skills that top companies want in PMs.
1. Analytical chops
To succeed as a PM, you’ll need an analytical mindset and be ready to jump into data analysis when the decision calls for it. While not every decision requires intense analysis (that would slow all product development to a crawl) many do. Thus, PMs need to be comfortable acquiring data (e.g., pulling it via SQL or utilizing the tools the company uses like Tableau, etc.), manipulating the data and teasing out the necessary insights.
For example, imagine a fairly routine decision that a PM might face: a minor bug is affecting all users on version 5.2 of your mobile app. Your engineering team indicated that it will take three days to fix it. Should you fix the bug? You could flip a coin to make the decision. But that’s risky. Ideally, you should figure out what percentage of the user base uses version 5.2 so that you can weigh the trade-off between fixing a minor bug for x% of users vs. losing three days of dev time. There’s only one way to do that: acquire the right data and run an analysis to figure out what X is.
In many ways, the art of product management is the art of prioritization. Will you fix bug A or bug B first? Do you want to launch feature X or Y first? Should your product solve customer C’s problem or customer E’s problem? One of the tough part of the PMs job is simply making numerous decisions about what to prioritize. Many of the other skills mentioned in this post (e.g., analytical chops, technical fluency) will feed into this skill, but prioritization is a skill in and of itself. Knowing when to dig in, when to do more analysis versus make a quick decision and move on is tough.
For example, in the next quarter, you have enough engineering bandwidth to fix the #1 customer complaint or launch a game-changing feature that you believe will put the product significantly ahead of competition. How will you prioritize the team’s time? This decision isn’t clear cut: you can’t run a simple analysis nor will any level of technical mastery automatically give you the answer. Instead, you must use all your knowledge of the competitive landscape, customer knowledge, team dynamics and more to make the right call.
3. Technical fluency
PMs rarely, if ever, write code on the job. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be technically fluent. Why? Well, if a PM can’t effectively communicate about technical concepts and decisions with the engineering team, it’s going to be awfully hard to navigate all the minor (and major) decisions needed to build, launch and grow a product.
For example, imagine if your engineering lead approached you and said that the team wanted to switch database technologies from MySQL to MongoDB. What would your opinion be? A PM without any technical fluency often defaults to letting the engineering team do whatever they think best. After all, it’s a technical decision right? Wrong. This decision will impact where the engineering team spends it’s time (on new features or fixing bugs vs. a technology change) and have future product implications (maybe Mongo could deliver on your product promises better, maybe not). It’s a discussion that you need to lead as a PM and without technical fluency, that will be a struggle.
4. Product strategy
When many aspiring PMs think about the role, setting a grand product strategy and achieving massive success is often one of the things they dream about. The good news is PMs do get to ruminate on, define, and set the product strategy. The bad news is this is also a tough skill to master, which requires thinking on many dimensions. Creating a successful strategy will require a deep understanding of the customer, knowledge of the marketplace and competitors, an understanding of what your team is capable of, what unique advantages you could leverage from your company, and more.
For example, you’re planning on launching a new to-do list app at the end of this year. Should your to-do list app be targeted toward a general, mass market of consumers or a more specific niche? If you choose to pursue a niche market, what does that mean for your feature roadmap, pricing strategy, and marketing plan? Or vice versa if you choose to go the consumer route? What strategy fits best with the long term goals of your product org, division, and company?
A final note
Today’s PMs need to possess a wide variety of skills. While it may seem daunting to those looking to break into product management, the good news is that all of these skill sets can be learned over time with practice and repetition. Every PM needs to start somewhere, and it doesn’t need to be fancy. Even simple mental exercises like thinking through which features you’d prioritize to build next on your favorite apps can start building your PM skills. If you’re thinking about a career in our product management, check out RocketBlocks' Getting Started Guide for advice on how to kick things off.
Kenton Kivestu is the Founder and CEO of RocketBlocks, an online platform that helps candidates prepare for interviews. Prior to RocketBlocks, he launched online ad platforms at Google, led the Zynga mobile poker franchise, and was a consultant at BCG's SF office. He started RocketBlocks to help candidates hone their skills and land their dream job as a PM or management consultant. Kenton graduated as an Echols Scholar with distinction from the University of Virginia and holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
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