What is product management: the three core skillsets of a product manager

A high-level framework for thinking about the core aspects of the PM job

Product management is a tough gig. It's no surprise then that many PMs describe the role as "drinking from a fire hose."

Our aim here is to simplify the role of product management into three core skill sets. Throughout this PM Guide, we'll dig deeper into each topic but this post will setup the framework.

Three core duties of a product manager

  1. Leadership: Directing the product vision and team
  2. Execution: Getting "stuff" done
  3. Product sense: Generating insights

Jonathan Lewis, a Group Product Manager at Twitter and ex-Facebook PM, lays out his take on the three key skill sets here:

1) Leadership: Directing the product vision and team

Engineering owns the code base. Sales owns the pipeline. The CEO and his/her executives own the P&L and, ultimately, the success of the company.

PMs own the product vision

Owning the vision does not mean PMs unilaterally dictate the vision - it's more nuanced than that. Owning the product vision means crafting it, stress-testing it, socializing it and evolving it over time as necessary.

Like most aspects of the PM role, this isn't a solo act. Successful PM leaders collaborate with their respective engineering, design, marketing, operations and executive stakeholders to make sure the product vision is in fighting form.

If one imagines a pyramid of PM responsibilities, leading the product vision is at the top because all else, for better or worse, flows from this. If the vision is wrong, even great execution across every other responsibility can't mitigate it.

Driving the product vision

To drive the product vision forward requires a strong, and unique, blend of leadership skills.

Many other leadership positions (e.g., VP of sales) have direct reporting authority over their team members, but PMs (especially entry level PMs) will rarely have any formal reports (e.g., the engineers don't report to the PM).

As a result, PMs need to earn the respect of their team members and lead via influence. Every PM has a different leadership style but it often is reflection on the strongest skills and experience they bring to the job. For example, some PMs have a supernatural understanding of the customer and can use that insight to lead. Some PMs come from a technical background and can use their technical chops to earn the respect of the engineering team.

Below, John Gronberg, a Director of Product at Okta (the enterprise identity "unicorn"), talks about using "soft power" to build credibility with stakeholder teams to drive the product forward.

2) Execution: Getting "stuff" done

PMs that can't translate a product vision into real, shipped products don't end up staying in the profession long.

Product management is an execution heavy role. PMs will commonly quip "ideas are cheap," implying that coming up with an exciting or great idea is the easy part but translating that idea into a product is where real PMs succeed.

As a result, it's critical to learn and continually refine the set of skills that PMs rely on. We'll go deep on all the core hard skills and soft skills later, but here we'll briefly enumerate the key ones.

Goal setting

As a PM, you'll be responsible for both setting and meeting the right goals for your product and team.

In many cases, solid product execution will come down to setting the right goals, prioritizing the right features to achieve those goals and communicating the goals and path to acheiving those goals relentlessly.

Prioritization

Without excellent organizational and prioritization skills, a PM will end up drowning in the massive, never ending, fire hose like stream of tasks that will come across his/her desk. The first step in successful execution is the PM being able to take the product vision, sequence it into key components and prioritize what tasks need to be done now, later and never.

Additionally, prioritization isn't a skill trotted out 1x a quarter to build a roadmap. It's a skill utilized daily on prioritization questions large and small, from prioritizing which bug to fix in the next release to which analyses to run to which emails to answer first (yes, even managing your email inbox requires prioritization!).

Communication

Excellent communication is critical.

Why? Perfect prioritization in isolation is worthless. What good is the perfectly prioritized roadmap if the engineering team doesn't understand the logic? Or the sales team doesn't know what features will be built when and what to promise (or not promise) to customers?

As a result, PMs need to effectively communicate to all their stakeholders. Since PMs function as the hub in a hub-and-spoke model with other core functions, if their communication is poor the hub-and-spoke model will fall apart and the team will likely devolve into disorder.

Finally, communication is *not* just verbal. All forms of communication come into play, across all levels of the organizational stack: from a verbal presenatation to the executive team about quarterly growth targets to notes in a JIRA ticket or Slack channel about nitty-gritty technical details.

3) Product sense: Generating insights

The final component is the driving the product forward with insights.

Since PMs work in dynamic environments, it's highly likely that the vision will evolve over time. It's a certainty that the priorities and tactical steps required to realize the vision will ebb and flow in terms of importance. To navigate this, PMs must continually bring the right insights to the team.

Whether it's new feedback from a top customer, a new technical capability to execute on something that wasn't possible before or analysis that uncovers a new avenue to improve the core product experience, these insights drive the whole product and team forward.

The insights are critical because they help validate that the team is pursuing the right course of action (e.g., the feature we recently launched is driving up new subscriber conversion by X%) or informing the team about potential market, consumer or product changes that need to be tackled (e.g., the market appears to be shifting toward unbundled mobile apps w/ narrowly focused feature sets).

These insights often fall into one of three categories:

Analytics and data

Many insights come from analyzing your own products proprietary product usage data (e.g., how to drive adoption of a new, critical feature or how to optimize your sign up funnel). Another source of analytical insights is from publicly available market or competitive data (e.g., we believe we can monetize at $0.0X rev/DAU given comparable numbers from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, etc.).

Customer and market needs

Insights about customer needs, pain points and market white space that your product can address. These can originate from activities like customer interviews, focus groups, community ans support teams, online forums, surveys, etc. Regardless of the specific source, successful PMs have a strong sense of customer needs and how to deliver product which addresses those.

Technical capabilities

These insights come from new or evolving technical capabilities (e.g., a newly opened API or a new platform that might provide growth opportunities or a new type of machine learning model). While PMs won't engineer these improvements themselves, a deep, technical domain expertise can be a strong source of insights for PMs.

The product management cycle

Set a vision. Execute on it. Collect insights... and repeat.

Like many things in life, product management has a cycle. The details of each PM role will be different (e.g., stage of product, stage of company, size of team, industry, etc.) but the cycle you'll need to go to launch successful products will remain the same.

In the coming sections, we'll dive into the individual skills and relevant context necessary. First, let's take a step back and look at which companies hire PMs today.

Back Next: Hiring companies