Product Managers are APES

No, not this kind, read on…

Product management, as with any discipline involving human coordination, requires intangible skills that can be frustratingly difficult to quantify. I’m often asked what traits to look for in a good product manager, whether by aspiring entrepreneurs, or by engineers thinking about jumping to the dark side. So, in true product management fashion, I’ve decided to document the attributes I like to foster in myself, and to look for in interview candidates. They are:

  • Authentic
  • Passionate
  • Efficient
  • Sensible

This post is not about the day-to-day responsibilities of product managers, or the skills required to land a particular product management role. For that type of content, I recommend Josh Elman’s Let’s talk about Product Management post, or Martin Eriksson’s What, exactly, is a Product Manager? post.

On to the details:

Authentic

Great product managers rely more on influence than on any authority given to them by organization structure. Product teams will only be influenced, and in turn deliver their best work, by product managers they trust. “Avoid spin” should be a motto for any product manager. I will always respect that Authenticity was a core value of Yelp, a company I worked for previously.

The benefits of authenticity are captured well in Finding Your True North — A program to discover your authentic leadership:

If you want to be effective as a leader today, then you must be authentic. If you are not authentic, the best people won’t want to work with you, and they won’t give you their best work.

Passionate

Product managers need to be one of the most passionate members of a product team. Passion is the fuel that enables product managers to obsess over every detail, to track market developments and to ultimately put their team in the best position to succeed.

I’ve been lucky to work on a number of products that I’m very passionate about, Zillow (bringing transparency to real-estate), Yelp (connecting people with great local businesses), and GitHub (code better, together). If a choice between opportunities exists, and I’m humbled that it did for me at times, it is important to lean towards the problem space that ignites your passion.

Example:
Before I landed my dream job at Yelp I was already a member of the Seattle Yelp Elite Squad. While not all companies will have such an obvious yardstick to measure passion, I’ve no doubt that my passion for Yelp resulted in better products. Passion for a problem space becomes even more important when mundane, albeit critical, projects need to be tackled.


Efficient

In my head an inefficient engineer has a cost of 1 (since their impact can be quickly limited by code reviews), but an inefficient product manager has a cost of 1*n (n being the size of the product team they work with). By definition a product manager impacts the work others do, and the cost of inefficiency can quickly spiral out of control. The costs go beyond time and money, they also include reduced morale.

How a product manager treats meetings is my favorite yardstick for efficiency. Everyone knows a shitty meeting when they attend one, and the latest salvo against them came in the form of a Meeting Cost Calculator from the Harvard Business Review.

If meetings run by a product manager consistently remind you of the following comic, it’s probably time to talk to someone.

Example (with bonus picture):
I once arrived to work on a Monday morning to discover that the space between 12 and 1 on all the clocks had been colored red. A notice soon went out, informing the entire company that the five minutes at the top of the hour were now reserved. The problem being solved: the lack of bathroom break time between meetings. Needless to say, inefficient meetings was actually the problem, not the aesthetics of the clocks.


Sensible

The most difficult of all attributes to measure, and certainly the most difficult to spot in an interview. Sensibility is borne out in the judgements a product manager makes in high pressure scenarios, when incomplete information is available, and when inertia is taking a product team in the wrong direction.

Common sense is often only apparent long after a decision has been made, when a team realizes the correct call was made thanks to a product manager’s courage to take a step back. Teams need to trust that a product manager will make the right call, and sensibility plays a role in whether that trust materializes.

Example:
Late one night I noticed an engineering team, short on sleep, attempting to migrate an overdue product to a new cloud computing platform last minute. The approach was destined to fail. It wasn’t my responsibility to fix, or even fully understand, the problem. It was my responsibility however, to push for a simpler solution. The team ultimately found it and met their deadline.


Conclusion

Defining product management is a tricky task but hopefully this article shed some light on the personal traits that can lead to a successful product management career. In summary:

Product management is the Authentic, Passionate, Efficient, and Sensible leadership of a product team.