The Product Management Stack

In a role where the work is often vague or intangible, involves a lot of uncertainty, and varies greatly between companies, what are the actual skills required to be a good Product Manager?

There are tonnes of great blogs and articles on the role of a good Product Manager, but many I’ve read focus on traits or habits. They define good PMs by qualities rather than specific skill sets, probably because skill sets tend to vary quite a bit amongst the PM community.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve had to really up my design game in the last month as we’re currently without a product designer. The other day I was going through some designs I had created with the developers on our team and about half an hour prior to that, I had deployed some basic code changes (…to a headline). A teammate cleverly observed that I was being quite the ‘full stack’ Product Manager. But design and engineering aren’t usually core skills sets for PMs — are they?

Different products make different PMs

PMs often get called the intersection between UX, design, and development. Different companies are set up, both structurally and culturally, and resourced quite differently in those areas though — which I suppose accounts partly for why the PM role can really vary. Based on my own experience at both large and small companies though, I would argue that some skills are core to a PM role regardless of your setup or your company.

A jack of all trades and master of some?

Design isn’t a core skill of a PM; that’s what UI / UX / product designers are for. Neither is software engineering. That’s why we work in teams to get great products built! But I’ve recently found that furthering my design and development skills has pushed me to be a better Product Manager. So maybe it’s about having those strong core PM skills, but also working on the non-core skills or having enough knowledge of them to step in when it’s needed. I also think that by expanding your stack, your core skills will improve and you’ll be able to adapt better to different PM roles in future.

The Product Management Stack:

Caveats:
1. I would actually like to argue testing is a core skill of a PM but there are lots of different kinds of testing, some of which I have no business being a master at, so I’ve left it as non-core.

2. I’d be slightly worried about a PM who couldn’t whip up a decent wireframe, but it is technically a UX skill.

3. I’ve probably missed something — Please comment and tell me if there’s something you do that’s not represented!

The case for spending time on non-core skills

I’ve found that improving my design and technical skills has not only been quite fun, but has also given me a much better appreciation for the work we do and has led to product ideas I wouldn’t have come up with before.

Recently I was using my newfound Sketch and Invision skills to create a mobile prototype. That work led to an idea for a simple product feature that wouldn’t necessarily have come up otherwise.

On the development side, completing a front end development course helped me hugely. I’ve recently learned how to write integration tests, which saves us time as a team. Getting more involved in the dev work has enabled me to estimate work better, investigate bugs without interrupting the developers, quickly illustrate tasks using dev tools — and sparked several product ideas too.

Whilst a combination of evening classes, meetups and trawling through blogs has improved my design & technical skills hugely, I will never equal a great designer or developer (cue team breathing a sigh of relief). But I think PMs can and should push themselves to develop their own skills in the ‘non core’ areas of UX, UI and engineering — even if all you gain at the end of it is a deeper appreciation for the skill and a recognition that you really, really, need to consult a designer.

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