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The Four Skills of Product Management

PM roles vary a lot. But what are the skills every product manager must know?

Beyond some core competencies, most PM roles require a highly variable combination of four major skill-sets:

The primary competencies of Product Management. I’ve included relevant skills between each.

Core Competencies

All product managers must be good at communication, analysis, prioritization, breaking down complexity, vision, and managing a roadmap. They also need sufficient technical knowledge for the product they are building and, generally, should be at least familiar with Lean methodology and Agile development.

But aside from these table stakes, job requirements vary across four areas:

1. Business Acumen

A solid business understanding is important to evaluate market opportunities, define success metrics (OKRs) and align them to business goals (KPIs), and know how to position, distribute, and grow a product. Some roles require an MBA or relevant business/consulting experience.

2. Product Design

Product design is essential to building good products. Product design is a spectrum, applying user empathy and UX research to evaluate and ideate solutions, prototype them, and test their validity—all ideally before a line of code is written.

3. User Empathy

User empathy entails  truly understanding the user’s position, needs, and pains. PMs must understand what motivates users and why they act in certain ways. User interviews, surveys, and usability tests inform persona development, influence ideation, and help measure success.

4. Data Analysis

Analyzing user data helps us understand what users are doing. Often tools like Google Analytics or Mixpanel (plus the ubiquitous Excel) are sufficient, but some roles may require familiarity or expertise with SQL to query a database directly.

Which Skills Are Most Important?

It depends. A company in growth-mode may be more interested in PMs with stronger backgrounds in A/B testing and data analysis than product design. Earlier startups or teams launching new features may want more experience in user research and product design.

Shreyas Doshi’s 10-30-50 framework is a helpful way to frame strengths in a higher-level, less tactical way. And, as he points out, PMs will be naturally biased toward certain strengths and will have to work on improving weaknesses.

Assess Your Own Skills

Use this framework as an assessment tool to identify:

  1. Relevant opportunities
  2. Your weaknesses

Here’s my self-assessment, for example:

I have experience doing industry analysis, business consulting, user research, product design, and data analysis, but I'm less experienced with SQL and I haven’t owned P&L.

Identify Opportunities

Are you applying for new roles? Compare your self-assessment with roles that you may be interested in. How much do they overlap? And are there any patterns in the types of companies where you seem to fit particularly well? Are they early or later stage? Are they in specific verticals?

Identify Weaknesses

Are you lacking skills for certain roles? There’s no real substitute for experience and it can be an investment to learn new skills. However, if you are interested in roles that demand skills you lack, the investment may well be worth it. Online courses, bootcamps, and meetups are just a few avenues to explore.

What Else?

Soft Skills

In addition to the skills above, certain soft skills like emotional intelligence are important. These are hard to measure, though, even in on-site interviews. Here are a few others:

Culture

Culture sets the tone for product management. For example, a business that prioritizes growth at the expense of UX may begin to introduce dark patterns to drive incremental, short-term growth.

Culture is normally established by leadership, so take a look at the leadership team’s background. Are they engineers? Designers? MBA consultant-types? This often says a lot about what the product development culture is like and what types of people they hire for those roles.

Ask smart questions during your interviews to get a better sense of the product management culture.

Passion

Especially for product managers at smaller companies, the number one thing hiring managers look for beyond the requisite skills is passion—for the product and for the company mission.

Even at bigger companies that may not hire for specific roles (e.g., Google rarely hires PMs for specific roles, instead vetting and then deciding where to place them afterward), passion for the products will be taken into consideration.

And because the PM is the voice of the user within a company, it will be important to communicate how much you resonate (or intend to resonate) with their user.


Visit PMLesson's Online Course for more great product management interview prep.