What does it mean to be a great Product Manager?

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

You may have heard of Product Sense, Execution, and Communication. But what does that really mean and how does it make someone a strong product manager?

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Hi everybody, my name is Archer and I love building innovative products.

I have always wondered about what could be a meaningful contribution to the product management community from my own experiences as a PM. Many of the articles that I have read on Medium or Substack are often from experienced product leaders that have years of experience at FANG or have taken their tech startups to successful acquisition, so I have always thought to myself

“What knowledge can I offer that will benefit those aspiring to be successful PMs that is not already available?”

I have given this a lot of thought and, to be honest, it is one of the largest challenges for me to start writing about what I love doing most, building great products by combining innovative technology and elegant design. What I eventually zeroed in on is that my honest experiences as a growing PM is what I can best offer to people looking to become a product manager or growing in the role.

For context, I am currently a PM at a high-growth tech startup in Silicon Valley but started off in a Product adjacent role and learned the ropes by being the stand-in PM whenever the situation called for it. Through this experience, I was able to transition to become a PM and it allowed me to work on 1-to-N and 0-to-1 products spanning across consumer-facing hardware products and software internal tools. Before working at the current startup, I had the chance to run my small-sized (non-tech) company for a few years before finding a mini successful exit. I studied engineering back in university, so I learned most of my business and strategy skills from hands-on experience running my own company.

Most of the folks reading this article may have already read through countless How to Break into Product or What it means to be a Great PM material, so I am sure that we all already have our personal favorites. What I hope to do here is to offer my personal experiences in the product management so that:

  1. You have access to a different PM perspective as a supplement to the other great PM material out there.
  2. You can use these material to get into your dream PM role or grow to be the PM that you want to be.

So, from my experiences as a PM on the job and also interviewing for countless PM positions over the years, I believe that these are the three key areas that every great PM is skilled at. Not surprisingly, many tech companies with talented product orgs have always broken their interviews this way. These three key areas are: Product Sense, Execution, and Communication.

Ok Archer, this is nothing new. I have heard of these three areas countless times. What is your point here?

So, when I was learning (and still learning) on how to be a great PM and how to interview well, I had to go through this iterative process of understanding what attributes the most coveted product orgs look for so that I can take concrete steps on building up my product skills despite not having the chance to be a PM at the time. Through this journey, here is what I have learned and would like to share:

Product Sense — User Empathy, Design Thinking

Execution — Problem Solving, Decision Making and Prioritization

Communication — Stakeholder Management, Leadership Style (especially with Engineering and Design)

Now that each key area is broken down to be more specific, let’s go one level deeper and really peel back that product management onion.

User Empathy — Can you quickly jump into the body of your target user(s) and have a strong understanding of the user journey, needs, and pain points? Can you understand what your user(s) care and do not care about?

Design Thinking — Can you creatively think about potential solutions for your user(s) problems with a focus on the solution’s usefulness, usability, and aesthetics?

Problem Solving — Can you break an ambiguous and complex problem down methodically? Can you identify underlying assumptions?

Decision Making and Prioritization— Usually after breaking a problem down, can you prioritize on what are the right things to work on with a structured way of thinking?

Stakeholder Management — When you have your ideas, are you able to effectively communicate these ideas to internal stakeholders (especially those who rank far higher than you) and persuade them that your idea is right for the company?

Leadership Style — Can you not only work effectively with a team of designers and engineers but be able to lead them from initial discovery of a problem to release of the right product?

This list is not fully comprehensive since the skills needed to become a great PM are always growing and this is especially more true as one progresses up the PM career ladder, but what I hope to share is a good starting point for anybody trying to find their footing as a growing PM.

Important note here. Each of these key skills are something that you can practice in any role even if you are not a PM, so do not be discouraged by the catch-22 of needing experience to get experience.

Stay curious and keep learning!

Product Builder. Curious Learner.