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Product Managers: What Would You Say You Do Here?

It’s my favorite dinner party game: hearing what my husband tells people I do as a product manager when he thinks I’m not listening. Top winners include “she’s the boss of the internet,” “she talks to engineers so other people don’t have to,” and “I don’t know, she’s a neeeerd.” (He’s mostly kidding.) When pushed a bit further, what usually comes out is a long list of things that he’s heard from me like “talking to customers,” “working with engineers,” or “being in a lot of meetings,” and that’s a more accurate, albeit abstracted, representation of the role. Product management is a job that requires a broad set of skills to be successful, but what exactly are they?

I often joke that product managers don’t really do anything. And what I mean is that we don’t do anything in isolation. So much of our role is facilitating, organizing, and communicating to and on behalf of others, but there’s very little that we produce on our own as actual output. That makes it hard for those who aren’t in the industry, and those who don’t interact with product management, to really understand what we do and what skills are needed in the role. At a high level, it looks like we are responsible for doing a little (or a lot) of everything.

The product team at Fractal has a strong commitment to continued learning and developing our craft; it’s one of our core values. We decided that the best way to identify how we want to grow and learn as individuals and as a product organization was to evaluate our own skills. And that meant we needed to start with a list of them. We ideated, voted, debated, prioritized, and finally settled on a set of skills that we felt represented the breadth of the work that we do. So, here they are, loosely prioritized, but by no means exhaustive. (I’d love to hear what other skills you’d consider critical for a product manager to be successful in the comments.)

Product Strategy: understand the business goals and market needs to determine how a product will be successful, and define the product vision and how it fits into the company vision.

Stakeholder Engagement: communicate “up and out” (to executives/leadership), determine the relationship between a set of initiatives, and release management.

Prioritization: drive prioritization conversations for teams and present clear frameworks for making prioritization decisions

Business Literacy: awareness of the business implications of what you’re doing, analyze a market for a product/business, and knowledge of relevant products and internet trends.

Technical Literacy: talk about technical concepts in a meaningful way, and interact and communicate with technical teams.

Visual Design Literacy: an eye for visual design, an ability to talk about visual design in a meaningful way, and a knowledge of design tooling.

Communication: communicate clearly and appropriately for the audience, as well as collaboration and bringing people together.

Organizational Skills: organize yourself across multiple initiatives and priorities, and organize work for teams of any level.

Agile product ownership: use the rituals of Agile in appropriate and meaningful ways, including user story writing, backlog management, Inception, Scoping, and Scrum activities.

Design Thinking: facilitate teams and organizations through design thinking processes for the problems they’re trying to solve.

User Research: design and execute interviews and surveys of users to (in)validate a hypothesis about a current or future feature or product

Metrics: determine the right metrics to measure for a given initiative, and an ability to analyze metrics to determine areas of improvement, issues, or opportunities.

Lean experimentation: identify questions to answer and the quickest way to test that hypothesis

Prototyping: quickly “build” something to demonstrate a concept/value and generate meaningful feedback

UX Strategy: understand and utilize Information Architecture, User Experience Design, and Interaction Design in your process.

After we listed the skills, we rated ourselves on each of them, based on the following scale:

0 — I don’t know this.

1 — I’m beginning to learn this.

2 — I can practice this.

3 — I have mastered this.

4 — I am an industry expert on this.

And then we identified a target score for each skill. The end result looked like this:

The goal of this exercise was two-fold. First, to identify where the biggest gaps in our own skills were between our current self assessment and our goal. Second, to see if there were any patterns or areas that would be valuable for the entire team to focus on as a group. (A third use that I see, but we’ve yet to implement, is to hire for skills that your team does not currently have so you can better round out your organization.)

If the debate our team had is any indication, it’s tough to decide which skills are most important for a PM, or to limit that list of skills. (We ended up with 15!) But one thing is clear; we can all agree product management is a very broad discipline. I’d love to hear what other skills you’d consider critical for a product manager to be successful in the comments.

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Kaelin Burns

VP of Product @ Artium; aspiring nerd, lifelong learner, endorphins addict, dance music aficionado, Trojan for life, in pursuit of the best burger in LA.