Product sense: How to become a great product manager

In any technology company, there’s a group of people who are critical to ensuring that teams all work together – product managers.

The product manager provides the overarching view in the development of any product, stepping in where there are gaps, and ensuring that the final vision is realized.

We sat down to talk to Peter Knudson and Braxton Bragg, authors of Product Sense: How to Solve Problems Like a PM, Ace Your Interviews, and Get Your Next Job in Product Management to get their views on what it takes to get into product management and how to succeed when you get there.

Knudson explains that their reason for writing the book in the first place came from their experience in seeing people trying to figure out how to get into the field.

“Braxton and I met at Zynga; at the boot camp they hold for all their new PMs. Not everybody gets to have that experience, so we wanted to create a ‘boot camp in a book’ giving people a baseline understanding of product management.”

Even though they started in the same place, Bragg states that their paths have diverged, emphasizing the diversity of opportunities that exist.

“We wanted to bring our experiences together and provide some different perspectives. Product management can vary substantially from place to place, sometimes even inside the same company, and so to highlight this we included some perspectives from folks that we interviewed.”

Leveraging your experience is what will get you ahead

In Knudson’s view, trying to get into product management can be daunting because there’s no single definition of what makes a great product manager.

“Our philosophy is that PMs aren’t commodities, each person comes to the table with a unique set of skills and experiences. If you’re looking to get into product management then you need to figure out what your ‘superpower’ is, that one area you feel passionate about. So, even though there isn’t a single set of hard skills that a PM needs to have, you want to be able to show that you have a unique perspective that’ll bring value to the role.”

Bragg believes that flexibility is key. “As a product manager, you never know exactly what role you’re going to be required to fill, so it’s important to be kind of a utility player. It’s not only the willingness to step up, but you need to have the intellectual curiosity required to constantly learn new things and become the expert on the team when no other expert exists.”

Boost your empathy

Bragg points out that the ability to step up and become an expert must be balanced by a large dose of empathy.

“We talk a lot about empathy, for your customers and for your users. This applies to your internal customers and stakeholders, understanding what their problems are, and collectively putting together a vision for how to keep the business and the products on the right path.

For anyone considering a move into product management, Knudson recommends using product sense – knowing the product inside and out and having the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the user.

“If you’ve ever bought a product from Amazon and decided to write a review about it. If you’ve actively considered whether that product was good or bad, you’re using your product sense. Intentionally thinking about things you use every day, why you like them or why you don’t is a great way to build your empathy for a specific user, even though you’re the user in this case.”

Know your product, better than anyone else

In a product manager role, this translates into being the one person who knows the product, in a holistic sense, better than anyone else.

“The product manager, more so than almost anyone else, needs to know the product inside and out, all the nooks and crannies, for every different use case. Even if it’s something that hasn’t been touched by the team in a while, some user out there is probably going to run into it. If they’re getting frustrated then you might lose them as a customer,” Knudson says.

“Even if you’re not in a product management role you can practice this with products that you use every day. Go to Spotify or Google Maps and break it down. Ask ‘Why is this button there?’ ‘Why is it green?’ Put yourself in the shoes of the person who built it and try to figure out what problems they’re trying to solve.”

Even if you’re not in a product management role in your current company, it doesn’t mean that you can’t start thinking like a product manager.

Think like a PM, even if you aren’t one… yet

Bragg explains that if you want to move into a product management role you need to be thinking about how your product could be improved, and one of the best ways to do this is to look at what your competitors, and even companies you don’t compete with, are doing.

“Start to put together a coherent vision of where you want to go, look at a lot of different sources, especially competitors. Peter and I both came from a gaming background and there are lots of competitors in that space. So, you can always get ideas from them about new features or systems that might be interesting to your players, or that would support your business.

“Even if you’re not in a product role, trying to help steer the leadership and stakeholders to a point where they have a coherent vision and strategy is a crucial step in showing that you have some product sense in your thinking.”

Don’t go alone

Making the move into product management isn’t something you can do alone.

“One of the easiest ways to switch into product management, if you’re already in the company where you want to be, is finding a champion to work with. Having a mentor who can guide you as you take on that work, grow, and hopefully, at some point, transition into a more formal PM role is invaluable,” Bragg says.

Keep your eyes on the prize

When you do land that product manager role, Knudson points out that there will be many times when you’ll be asked to make decisions on which specific path to pursue. In these situations, he advises that you keep a firm eye on what’s most important to the business.

“You need to keep the vision of the company, its mission, and business objectives in mind, and base your decisions on that. When there’s a disagreement on what to build, understanding which one will move you closer to that one metric that’s critical to success will enable you to make the right call.

“Sometimes people call this the North Star metric. It might be daily active users or an engagement metric but knowing what it is and keeping it at the center of everything you do will help you keep everyone aligned and moving towards the ultimate goal.”

If you found Peter and Braxton’s tips from their webinar useful, check out our other on-demand webinars for more essential insights.

Are you a developer interested in growing your software engineering career? Apply to join the Andela Talent Network today.

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