Starting my journey as an engineer to doing my MBA and getting into product management has been a gradual and coherent move for my career. Having started my product management career with Yatra.com and building their holidays line of product as an individual contributor, I moved to Paytm where my journey evolved from being an individual contributor to one where I became a product head and a large part of my time was spent in mentoring, coaching and honing the skills of my team to set them up for success. Soon, the realization dawned that I could only be as successful as the PMs on my team; the larger responsibilities I was confident they could take and scale with, the more time I had at hand to think forward and spend time more strategically. I made some choices which I thought were correct and some which not so correct.
Sometime back, in one random conversation, one of my seniors in this industry asked me how I make hiring decisions. The question forced me to think and come up with the list of the skills I wanted to evaluate each candidate I ever consider hiring for a PM role against.
Here is what I look for in an ideal product manager when hiring for my team/company:
- Ability to think long term — As product managers, we cannot afford to build something for the short term. A PM needs to have a long term point of view of the product, definitely an year (if it is a small startup) or 5years if it is a well established large scale product. When one builds without having a long term view, it leads to a lot of churn, for the tech as well as what comes out is a patchy product than a well thought out longer term product which is more stable. The more senior the person is, the more critical this skill becomes. I don’t expect an associate PM to have this skill, but definitely anyone beyond that.
- Data Driven Insights — Good product managers believe they know their customers. They build products which we are convinced will solve their customer’s pain. Great PMs derive insights on consumer behavior from data, from speaking with customers. They believe they don’t know much and let data drive their thinking. When forced to chose between what they think is right versus what data tells, they are able to have a solid point of view. This is one quality which is non-negotiable for me. I often ask the candidate how often and through what mechanisms they get customer voice and how do they use it. The more convincing the answer is, the higher the candidate’s success potential is for me. Even if you don’t know how to get the data, knowing what data you want and who can help you in getting it works.
- Insisting on high quality — Product managers live under the constant pressure of business team asking them to deliver quick versus technology teams insisting on complex builds. There is just so much temptation to deliver results that the insisting on high quality dimension is the first to be thrown out of the window. When working in the first stage of the product, when you want to learn fast and fail fast, where releases are two way doors and can be pulled back, when hypothesis are to be tested, or when there is a business critical deadline that has the potential to shut the business down; this may work.But if this becomes a behavioral pattern than a one-off decision, the PM is likely to ship fast in short run but products which are likely to break, fail and not sustain scale. Depending on what stage of the lifecycle the product is at, this skill becomes extremely relevant.
- Technical skills — I have had both kinds of PMs on my teams so far. I have worked with many senior PMs in all my roles, some of them coming with no tech background and thriving. I have met PMs who were so technically inclined that they always thought tech constraint backwards and PMs who were so technically disconnected that earning trust of their technology stakeholders became a challenge for them. I am personally for a healthy balance here. I myself belong to the middle path cadre. While technology has been my bread butter as a software developer for seven years and helps me earn trust with my technology teams, I always have had a fair tussle with the technology teams when I don’t think and build tech constraint backward. This thus for me is a good to have, not a must to have skill. If all other things work, I am open to hiring someone without any tech background.
- Program management — With so many feature docs to write, releases to manage, stakeholders to engage with and bring on the same page; a person’s program management skill is critical. When a PM can bring stakeholder alignments, call out risks early, plan well; there are less last minute surprises for everyone. When a PM owns not just the tech feature but an overall launch of the feature from an operations and business perspective, his program management skills ensure he delivers. A must to have skill for mid level PMs. I have seen organisation structures having separate program PMs but my two cents is that it dilutes ownership and slows people down.
- Managing through influence — PM is one role in the organization where one needs to work with all stakeholders, get them to align and influence their roles and responsibilities. A PM needs to be able to manage through influence. Earning everyone’s trust is easier said than done. Especially with tech teams, a lot of the success of a product is dependent on how well the PM can manage through influence. This one is a non-negotiable skill for all levels. It needs you to keep everyone informed of what you are thinking, why you are thinking and how does it impact them. It needs you to speak their language at some point and at certain others, push back hard. Every internal stakeholder looks up to you to be the bridge with technology. Every technology counterpart sees the other way round. This skill has a potential to make or break you. The ability to not have anyone report into you but still deliver results needs you to earn trust and have a really thick skin. Calling wrong out without impacting relationships, pushing back when needed is a tough and constant challenge in this role.
- UX/Design inputs — As a PM, if I can draw the flow in my mind before the designer designs it for me, it helps. As a PM, if I can challenge my designers through their design outputs, the overall quality of the product is elevated to a very different level. I would call this skill as a good but not a must to have skill. If a PM does not have this, by being able to deliver on some of the other skills and with the support of their design team, they can live with this shortcoming.
- People management — This is more relevant for senior PMs and product heads whom I foresee managing their own teams. Just as I hire, I expect the person to have a list of clear skills they wish to evaluate against, what they think of leading another team mate and how they make their choices. If you cannot manage your people, you will always micromanage them and not do any value add either to yourself or to them. If your people do not feel inspired by you, if you cannot develop them into great PMs, you may not fit and very soon get drained yourself. A must to have skill for senior product leaders.
- Business acumen — Being close to the business, understanding their challenges helps one set the right prioritization framework and provide solutions to help the business meet its objectives. Ability to work with the business constraints and taking a business problem and coming up with a product way of solving it is an imperative quality for PMs at mid to senior levels. While the junior PMs may not directly be able to come with product solutions, having the business acumen helps them grow into their own career. PMs are the bridge between business and tech and by speaking the language of business with tech and tech with business, they can do their job really well.
- Prioritization — Every stakeholder wants to prioritize his feature request. As a PM, how do you prioritize? Can you deliver in phases? Can you quantify impacts or do you let the loudest voice in the room determine your priority? Can you find an operational solve/workarounds for some of the tech problems so you could de-prioritize some otherwise seemingly tech problems? When tech tells you they have hit a roadblock, when business changes direction ; how well can you re-pivot? A must to have quality for all PMs. Any PM who makes subjective prioritization calls cannot build great products. Period. I, for one, have been known in my organizations to be someone who could tell the CEO why I prioritized the way I did. The CEO may want you to do a thing. But he is not on ground. It is you who is talking to the customers, it is you who understands the tech constraints. It is you who needs to be empowered to prioritize and be able to convince the CEO through quantified impact and data insights. Just because his wife faced a certain problem should not be why a feature should be built. Period. A non-negotiable skill.
- Documentation skills — One of my greatest learning as PM has been, if you cannot document your thoughts, all use cases, scenarios for the tech; the tech will not understand even the most obvious assumption and things will break. If you don’t like to write, don’t become a PM. If you can’t think of all use cases, you will not succeed. If you cannot document your thought process, tech will not read your mind and code. A must to have skill for all levels.
Even in a world today when I get almost 10 LinkedIn requests every week from people seeking job opportunities as a PM, finding a great PM is often hard. Finding one candidate with all these skills is easier said than done. Depending on at what level I am hiring for, I give more importance to some of these skills than others.
Hopefully, this article helps people in knowing what does it take to be a PM, what does it take to hire a PM. For the PMs on my network, what do you think? Is there a skill I have overrated? Is there a skill I have missed? Wish to add anything? Would love to hear your thoughts/criticisms/applauds.
To read the life of a PM and learn from my corporate experience as a PM, checkout my recently launched book, ‘Corporate Avatars’
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