7 essential characteristics of a product manager

What does a person need to have in order to be a good product manager? There are some important characteristics and I’ll talk about them here. But the most important of all is, certainly, the one that illustrates this article, empathy.

Empathy is the ability someone has to walk on someone else’s shoes in order to understand her aspirations, motivations, needs and problems. This characteristic is important to understand customers and users of the product, to know how they relate to the product, and what problem they expect to be solved or what needs they want to fulfill. This will help the product manager to better understand his user in order to design the best product along with UX and engineering.

However, empathy must not be used only with the customer or the user. The product manager must use it also when relating with other areas of the company, and must understand the impact the product has on their work as well. Did legal problems increase because a feature of the product was launched or changed? What is the impact on the sales team, on support, operations, finances and marketing? Regarding the product team, engineers and UX analysts, how does the product interfere on the work of these professionals?

The second most important characteristic is communication. In order to be empathetic, the product manager needs to communicate with people in several scenarios: in one-on-one conversations and in small groups, or making presentations for small and big groups of people, internal (inside the company) or external communication (in conferences, user groups, etc.).

The product manager must also be good in written communication (e-mail, blog, documentation, chats, social networks, etc.) and be able to distinguish about what is the most appropriate way of communication in a given moment, to given audience and using a specific media; and communicate in a way he get understood by different audiences: technical and non-technical.

As if all this was not enough, the product manager must also be able to communicate with confidence and believing in what he’s communicating; after all, the product manager is the spokesperson of the product.

However, talking is not the only communication task of the product manager. Communication is a two-way street, in other words, the product manager must be very good at listening and understanding what others are saying, and understanding their aspirations and needs; and this has everything to do with the first characteristic, empathy. 

The third most important characteristic is time management. The day-by-day of a product manager can get quickly filled with tasks and he needs to be able to notice and distinguish what is urgent from what is important to guarantee that he will always have time to know more about the customer and the user of his product. It is very easy for a product manager to face his daily schedule full of meetings, with people from different areas to discuss several subjects: product backlog, customer support, marketing communication, operational problems, forecast review, legal matters, collection, etc.

The product manager has to take care of his product as a whole. For the user, there’s no engineering, operations, finance, legal and collection departments. He sees all as part of the product that the product manager takes care of; and he does have to care about all that. However, caring about does not mean that he should go to all these meetings. If he does so, he can take the focus off from what is most important to his product.

As a product manager, he must focus his time on:

  1. With how many clients and users did you talk this week?
  2. Do you have a long term strategy and view for your product?
  3. How is it going and what are the last changes in the competition scenario of your product?
  4. Which insights did you have about your product this week?
  5. Do you know which is the motivation and the metrics for each item of your roadmap?
  6. What new technologies do you see coming up that could influence or even compete with your product?
  7. Which new skills are you trying to learn?

Some meetings are important, and I advise you to participate on them when it’s possible. In spite of that, you won’t have much to contribute in these meetings if you don’t focus on the 7 items I’ve just listed. Do save some time in your schedule to focus on that, and you will see your participation in meetings get more useful and productive.

Aside these three characteristics (empathy, communication and time management), there are four other ones that will help the product manager to do a better job:

  • New technologies: the product manager must be aware of new technologies to know how they can impact her product. How does mobile access impact the product? The user wants to access via smartphone? To do what? Social networks, how can the product take advantage of them? Non-relational databases, what are the benefits and shortcomings? Go, Google’s new programming language, where is it better than the language used in the product? And where is it worse? Smartwatches, smartglasses, how does this impact the product? How do you expect to interact with the product on these new interfaces?
  • Business skills: every product exists to fulfill the user needs while reaching the company goals for the product. The product manager needs to understand what are these company goals, and needs to be sure that the product is evolving toward these goals. If it is margins, revenue and costs are under control? If the goal is revenue growth, is it evolving as expected? If the goal is number of users, how is the product compared to the target? Besides being concerned about company goals for the product, the product manager must understand how each area of the company works and how the product affects these areas. How the legal department works? How the product impacts it? And how the legal department impacts the product? These questions can be asked for every area of the company: support, operations, finances, human resources, marketing, sales, engineering and UX. 
  • Keen curiosity: the product manager must be able to learn fast in order to have insights and make judgments on the product. He must be able to learn both the soft side of the product (what is the motivation of the business, what is the problem of the client that the product solves etc.) and the more technical side (which technology do we use, what is the impact of this technology, what metrics can we obtain etc.).
  • Product theme: last but not least, the product manager must know the theme of the product. It it is a medical product, the product manager must understand a little about medicine. If it is a financial product, he must know a little bit about finance. For instance, at Locaweb, we have more technical products (such as Cloud Server) and less technical ones (such as Virtual Web Store). The need for technical knowledge is quite different regarding the two products. The product manager from Cloud Server must have a good technical knowledge while the product manager from Virtual Web Store does not have to know about technical questions, however he must have knowledge on online sales matters.

We can see that this list is a set of characteristics that not all people have. It is common people from other areas that decide to try the product manager career, but after a while they realize that they don’t have all that it takes.

If you are a product manager or wish to be one, do a self-analysis on each one of these characteristics. And if you are lagging behind in any of them, then focus on developing it. If you are responsible for identifying and hiring product managers, use this list as a guide to know if the candidate has the necessary characteristics for succeeding as a product manager.

Product Management: how to increase the success chances of your software

In 2015 I wrote a book on Software Product Management in Portuguese. In the beginning of 2016, Paulo Caroli talked to me about how he enjoyed the book and how this book could be useful to people in the software industry not only in Brazil but anywhere in the world. For this reason, we decided to create an English version of my book.

The book is organized in 5 sections:

  • Definitions and requirements
  • Life cycle of a software product
  • Relationship with other areas
  • Product portfolio management
  • Where to use software product management

This book is suitable for anyone working with software. Even companies that do not have software as its core business use software in their day to day and often have developed some software that interfaces with its customers such as a website or a mobile application. It is important for these companies to understand the software product management role and responsibilities, so they can better manage this software and increase its chances of success.

We are working on the translation but as we progress we are already releasing the content. If you want to see the work in progress, please visit the book page at LeanPub. Still in beta but already with valuable content. Feedback is always welcome!

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