So you want to be a product manager

May 18, 2018 · 6 min read

Key skills that any aspiring product manager can improve

For many professionals looking to advance their careers, the role of product management has broad appeal. Some PM candidates are fresh out of business school, others are engineers, designers, or analysts that want to move into a more strategic role at their company.

I’ve coached plenty of up-and-comer product managers over the years. This post is a summary of things I hear myself saying frequently. The skills mentioned here are, in my opinion, skills that any PM candidate needs to sharpen if they want to interview for a PM role.

What is product management?

Product management is, by definition, the art of deciding what to build and when to build it. It is, quite frankly, the role of defining a product strategy and product experience. When you are a PM, you are, as the cliche goes, the “CEO of the product.”

The irony, of course, is that many product managers aren’t actually doing product management. I’ve met plenty of junior product managers who run around escalating bugs, talking to customers, and checking in on engineering. But some companies lack even the basics of a ‘product management framework’ like maintaining a product roadmap, writing customer requirements, competitive landscaping or doing usability studies. The reality is that the term product management can mean many things to many companies.

Product management at small vs large companies

Yes, there are a core set of PM skills across all companies, but the actual PM role can vary greatly across small and large companies. A PM at a small startup wears many hats, has an entrepreneurial mindset, and is constantly running experiments. They focus on the high level problem their startup has set out to solve. Changing anything and everything is fair game.

A PM at a larger company, on the other hand, focuses on optimization, iteration, and detailed program management tasks across complex cross-functional teams. At a large company, the product itself may already be defined for the most part. The role of the product manager is to iron out the details, align the product with the rest of the company, and ship it.

Think about the differences between small and large companies and which one is the best fit for you. Are you more of an entrepreneur or an operator?

What are core product management skills?

Aspiring PMs often ask how they can qualify to move into a product management role. What skills do they need to build? And how do they prepare for a product management interview? Here are a few skills that every PM should hone:


PM candidates need to able to tell a compelling story around what they do, why they do it, and where they want to go. A good story shows humility, core values, and the skills and mastery you’ve learned over time. Every PM candidate has a story to tell, but most lack core storytelling skills that draw out emotion and make an impact.

Here’s an example of a storytelling workshop that we lead at BigTalker.

Think like a product manager

To think like a product manager, start with some high level questions

  • Why does your product exist? What problem does it solve?
  • Who does your product serve? Who does it NOT serve?
  • How is your product different than competitors?
  • What features does your product have? What features does it explicitly NOT have?
  • What emotions does your product evoke in customers?

The “cracking the PM interview” video is a good example of how Google has framed the PM hiring process. But look further into how PMs think about the market. There is a big difference between thinking like an engineer and thinking like a PM.

Be an industry expert

If you are excited about ecommerce, for example, become an expert in all things online shopping

-Why is Amazon winning?

-Know all about key success metrics, is conversion rates, ARPU, etc

-Know all about ecommerce flow optimization, ie A/B tests, friction in the check out process, etc. and related analytics platforms like Google Analytics, Mixpanel

-How does mobile commerce enhance the experience?

Lack PM experience? The DIY approach

It’s tough to break into product management is you’re never DONE product management. Why would a company let you be in charge of their product if you’re never been in charge of any product?

The key is to identify any experience you may be lacking and literally go out and do it. For example it’s very common for a PM candidate to have never managed a product roadmap, written a product specification document, wireframed a customer experience, or collected customer feedback. Look up how to do these tasks and do them.

Be the PM of your own personal project. You can literally mockup or build a small side project just for practice.

-what is customer problem?

-what is proposed solution?

-what does the competitive landscape look like?

-build a wireframe — what to customers think?

-design a mockup — what do customers think?

-build a prototype — what do customers think?

-prioritize features based on your customer conversations

-build a product roadmap

Be a full-stack product manager

It’s a myth that product managers in tech HAVE to be engineers, but there’s no excuse for not building out your skill set so you can be as well rounded as possible. Identify any blind spots and learn new skills. All of these skills are highly accessible and only require some commitment and discipline.

Any product manager in the Internet space should have basic coding skills, like HTML / CSS / Jquery. Product managers aren’t expected to code products themselves, but he more you can look at your product’s code and see what’s going on the better.

Have a design mindset

If there’s one thing Steve Jobs taught us it’s that design is critical. Every PM should have basic design skills. And that doesn’t just mean competence in Photoshop, it means core design skills. And this advice is not only for consumer-facing products. It’s for B2B products as well.

Build team communication skills

90% of your career mobility comes from your emotional intelligence skills, not your IQ, especially at higher levels. Building up your communication and collaboration skills is critical to your success. A product manager needs to be master teammate and empathetic people person. The good news is that soft-skills can be learned.

Certainly, just identifying and practicing these skills is not enough. But it’s a good start. The ideal way to improve your chances of getting a product management role is to find a mentor who can guide you through any blind spots you may not know you have. Be open to feedback, do your research, and crush your next PM interview!

Amazing content for Startup Founders, by Startup Founders.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store