What to look for in a Product Manager

I’ve spent years working as a Product Manager and building Product teams. Because of this, one of our VCs asked me to pipe in on a private thread about what makes a good Product Manager. I thought I’d share that response here:

Qualities that every product manager needs in order to build great products:

  • Think wide: Great PMs start at the beginning. The very beginning, like who the user really is and how they discover your product and what mindset they are in when they first see a product ad. They think about experiences, not features. They look at a product from the very beginning and think it through to the very end. Note: PMs coming from larger companies sometimes focus on just a narrow sliver of the larger end-to-end experience.
  • Think deep: Notwithstanding the above comment, great PMs go really deep into specific functionality. They can uncover hidden corner cases and evaluate their relevance. For example, when looking at funnel conversions, great PMs go into exhaustive interaction detail — “what was the last field the user filled out before abandoning?” “where was their mouse hovering?” “what was the scroll position of the mobile view?” Note: PMs who are good at thinking deeply about functionality sometimes have a hard time keeping the functionality simple.
  • Zoom control: PMs need to be able to talk about the nuances of color-blind-friendly UI schemas with your UI person as well as talk about your company’s high-level conversion KPIs with execs. Note: Engineers-turned-PMs sometimes struggle to articulate the big picture.
  • Data-driven: There will always be big questions around the right way to build your product. If you are a hypothesis-driven company, you’ll need a PM who is good at picking the right hypothesis and testing it with data. And understanding stats and confidence intervals. Note: If your PM can run multivariate regressions, that is gold.
  • Product gut: Data-driven product iteration is great, but it is really expensive if your starting point is a long way from your optimal endpoint. So experience, a visceral understanding of the target segment, and good product intuition go a long long way. Note: This is really really difficult to interview for; use a case study in your interview, but get backup from references.
  • Customer-focused: This really goes hand-in-hand with product gut above. Your PM should be good at finding and interacting with customers. They should want to take inbound calls or operate chat sessions. Watch out for PMs who are only good at building products for themselves; it could hurt your company’s growth as you look to expand into additional segments.

Qualities that indicate your PM can be/grow into a leader in your organization:

  • Visionary: Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs, right? Do they have a greater vision for your product, and are they passionate about it?
  • Creates metrics to rally the company around: Ask your candidate how they would measure themselves. This is a good answer: “What matters at this stage of the company is acquisition conversion. We need a metric for this on a big screen monitor that everyone in the company can see at all times.”
  • Can own a bottom line: A PM can really turn into a GM when they tie what they do to the company’s profitability.
  • Good at segmenting / targeting: This is a marketing role, but the importance of focus at a strategic level can’t be underplayed. Leader-PMs can identify who they are and are not going to target.

PM qualities that help very small companies get stuff done:

Technical: There’s a good reason for the trend toward more technical PMs. Coder-PMs:

  • Can just build what they are envisioning.
  • Can mind-meld with your developers to reduce communication overhead.
  • Are particularly good at building tests and then extracting the data necessary to evaluate those tests.

Helpful links

I should point out that there are some excellent thought leaders on this topic. Here are some useful links are here if you want to go deeper:

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