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What makes a good product manager?
To answer this commonly asked question, we decided to turn to the experts — thought leaders of the product management world. If anyone knows what makes a good product manager, it’s them.
The advice we collected spans the skills, mindsets, and even specific hacks that product managers need to excel at their jobs.
Without further ado, here are their thoughts.
Product is about customers, business objectives, and technology
Marty Cagan is the founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group. At productboard, we refer to him as the “father of tech product management.” His book, Inspired, considered a bible of sorts in the product management world, is required reading for our team.
When Marty was beginning his foray into the product world, the following equation was used to explain the question “what is a product”:
Product = Customer X Business X Technology
What does the equation mean? A successful tech product must solve for the customer, the business, and technology. To break this down in more detail, a good product manager not only needs to focus on solving customer problems, they must also understand how a product advances the business objectives of a company as well as how their technical decisions impact the workflow of cross-functional teams.
“So don’t let anyone try to tell you it’s all about the business, or it’s all about the customer, or it’s all about the technology. Product is harder than that. It’s all about all three.”
Earn stakeholder buy-in by showing your work
Teresa Torres is a product discovery coach, helping teams to drive product outcomes that benefit their overall business.
Product managers work hard to get to the “right answer,” represented by backlogs full of user stories and roadmaps full of features and release dates. However, these “right answers” are often met with pushback from stakeholders, resulting in frustration for PMs.
To prevent this, Teresa believes product managers must learn how ideate with stakeholders and show their work along the way. When the entire PM process is transparent — not just outputs — buy-in becomes a much easier task.
“What we don’t realize is that we are creating this stakeholder problem ourselves. When we only present the right answers — the backlogs full of user stories and roadmaps full of features and release dates — we are asking our stakeholders to give us their opinions on those outputs. And more often than not, they are going to have their own opinions about what you should build. They aren’t going to be aligned with your opinions because you haven’t shown your work. You haven’t shown why these outputs matter.”
Focus on the experience of everyday users
Until recently, April Underwood was Chief Product Officer at Slack. She now focuses her time on #Angels, an investment group for female-led companies.
Slack is hailed as a product that its users actually find delightful — something that is uncommon in the B2B world. Traditionally, enterprise software is purchased by higher-level employees who don’t actually use the product themselves. Because of this, day-to-day user experience is often overlooked by B2B product developers.
Slack has been spearheading the change of this paradigm. April explains that the Slack team takes cues from B2C companies that strongly emphasize the user experience.
“If you look at a lot of folks on our product, design and engineering teams, we have a lot of DNA here that comes from the consumer side. In the consumer world, you have to build software that is delightful and useful enough that people decide to use it. You have to earn every user one-by-one. In enterprise, historically those decisions don’t get made by the people who use the software day-to-day…The usefulness of the platform has historically been an afterthought. But these days that’s much less the case.”
In this day and age, it’s important to create a product that considers the needs of everyday users — whether you are a B2B or B2C company. Product managers take note.
Product managers should get involved in product positioning
Sachin Rekhi founded several startups before finding himself working as Director of Product at LinkedIn. He’s now the founder of an app called Notejoy.
Positioning is the frame of reference of which customers use to evaluate your product and make product decisions. While positioning is usually seen as the marketing team’s domain, Sachin suggests that product teams should also take part.
“Positioning is in reality a business strategy exercise and thus product managers need to be deeply involved as effective positioning ultimately defines critical elements of your entire product strategy.”
A great product can end up failing due to poor positioning alone. Product managers must get involved to prevent this from happening.
Avoid development purely led by sales
Rich Mironov has coached hundreds of tech companies on how to build better products and improve their product team’s workflow.
From his rich (ha!) experience, Rich warns about the dangers of spending too much time building for individual customers, often a result of pressure from the sales team. The end result can be frustration, uninspiring products, falling profitability, and an inability to grow the business.
Instead, Rich advises this:
“Give product managers wide latitude to push back on the ‘everyone wants this’ arguments from executives and sales teams. In return, ask for market measures of demand (for upcoming features) and adoption (for shipped features).”
For beginner PMs, curiosity beats technical knowledge
Product leader Ellen Chisa is currently working on a project called Dark, which makes it easier to build backend web services. She is a vocal advocate for more diversity in the product management field.
Despite being fairly technical herself, Ellen is a firm believer that curiosity is more important than actually having technical knowledge.
“I don’t think it matters how far down the ‘technical’ line you are when you start. I think it matters how curious you are about the technical things. That curiosity will continue to drive you down the line. Someday, you’ll hit whatever place we’ve defined as ‘technical’ — or at the least you’ll hit the place you need to do your job well.”
In other words, you can become a good product manager without needing to know code. But, you need to be interested in learning and developing your skills if you want to succeed.
Overcome the “feature factory” through open, cross-functional conversations
John Cutler is a Product Evangelist at Amplitude and a well-known voice in the product management world.
John frequently warns product managers and SaaS companies about the dangers of becoming a “feature factory.” A “feature factory” means that product teams are focused on outputs over outcomes, and have focused their priorities and attention entirely to shipping features for the sake of shipping features.
To overcome the “feature factory,” John emphasizes the importance of building an environment of psychological safety that empowers product teams and encourages innovation. He also recommends that product teams familiarize themselves with their company’s mission via open, cross-functional conversations:
“Arrange a meeting with your company’s CFO and/or CEO. Have them explain the moving parts in the business model, and the assumptions that underpin forecasts and growth targets. How do you really make money, and what must remain true for you to continue to make money? What costs matter now? Why are sales goals what they are? Where does product performance fit into the big picture?”
Conversations like these help teams build products that actually advance business goals and solve customer problems rather than getting caught up in the dreaded “feature factory.”
Brandon believes that all high-functioning product teams must master the art of prioritization. “Not once a month, not once a week — but rigorously, and ruthlessly.”
“In my experience, the craft of making prioritization decisions is one of the most difficult skills to impart on teams because of how complex those decisions can become, and while it’s usually a core responsibility of product managers, I’ve found that the best teams are the ones where everyone is maniacally prioritizing towards the same goal, and doing so in a way that’s consistent with each other.”
Only when product teams get prioritization right will they deliver the most value to customers. Read Brandon Chu’s full framework for better prioritization here.
Don’t try to achieve all your goals at once, focus on the most important ones
Fidji Simo is currently head of the Facebook App. Previously, she was VP of Video, Games, and Monetization.
Fidji warns that there are so many possibilities in the tech world that it’s easy to chase after every single one of them. The result is a product full of features that don’t really fit together.
“It’s so easy, no matter how experienced and talented you are, to end up with ‘Frankenstein products’ because you’re trying to achieve all the goals at once, without a clear sense of what’s most important.”
To find focus, Fidji asks the following questions to both herself and her team:
See her full framework for staying focused on the right product goals here.
Talk to your customers. Actually, become obsessed with them
Hiten Shah, serial entrepreneur and prominent voice in product management, is obsessed with his customers. When developing new products, this means that he talks to them often and directly.
Hiten is notorious in the product community for his proactive approach to discovering customer pain points prior to building anything. For his startup Crazy Egg, Hiten conducted 51 interviews in 7 days. For FYI, his latest venture, he built an MVP in five days. The customer learnings saved him months to years of time, depending on how you look at it.
So, what is he looking for in these conversations and interactions?
“I’m looking for pain, looking at what problems people say they have, and then I’m also looking for stories (the why) that connect it all together. Stories translate into emotion. What motivates a person’s behavior? What causes them to take action? I want to hear about failures and how people solved them; I want those moments when people were motivated to start solving a problem and stopped.”
We’d love to hear from you! What are your product management tips and tricks? What do you think makes a good product manager? Let us know in the comments below!
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