Over the course of my career, I’ve worked on product at Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and Wealthfront, and have advised dozens of other companies on the role of growth and product. Now, as an investor at Unusual Ventures, I get exposure to an even broader collection of companies, and the product cultures within them. Despite that exposure, there is a lot about the role of product that I still don’t understand. But what I can say for sure is that there are as many philosophies on the role of a product manager (PM) as there are letters in the alphabet. And we’re nowhere near getting to a point of agreement on the basic question of, “What makes for a great product manager?”
The confusion surrounding expectations has always stood out to me as one of the most unique and challenging aspects about this role. If you ask an engineer what they want from a product manager, they’ll give you an answer from their perspective. Some might say, “I want them to do all the stuff I don’t want to do, like take meeting notes.” Others might say, “I want them to be proficient with SQL, so that they can pull data.” Or, “I want somebody with good design sense.” Then, if you ask a designer what they want in a PM, you’ll probably get a different set of answers. Same thing when asking marketing or an executive of the company. If you ask the PM themselves (or Twitter for that matter) what they think a PM’s job is, you’ll get yet another set of perspectives.
These completely different expectations make the PM job very difficult relative to most other positions because what makes for a great PM can’t be narrowed down to one or two objective measures. PMs have a broader set of definitions and expectations to live up to. If you view each of these expectations as a set of circles, the world’s greatest PMs are those who are very good at a combination of these overlapping expectations. For example, you may have a PM who’s really great at writing SQL queries, which might earn them the respect of an engineer. But they also need to be excellent at conducting customer interviews and reflecting the voice of the customer to really impress designers. Ideally, you’d find somebody with an overlap of these skills. A baseline set of expectations for a junior to mid level product manager might look like this:
To make things even more complicated, these expectations can also vary from company to company. Some companies don’t even want to have product managers. That’s how conflicted the industry feels about the product management role. However, at the risk of being too prescriptive, I’ve laid out my framework for PM skills development below.
In my opinion, below are the most basic set of skills that a Product Manager should master in order to establish their role within a team:
- Create Requirements — They can create clear product requirements that satisfy the preferences of the engineers and designers they work with (i.e. it unblocks design and engineering). There are many different approaches to product requirements, so there shouldn’t be a religion around a particular style. What matters most is that design and engineering feel enabled by the requirements a PM produces.
- Customer Feedback — They can bring together basic customer insights through customer interviews, reading customer service tickets, etc. They do an adequate job of reflecting the baseline expectations of the customer they’re building the product for based on an explicit set of requests from the customer (e.g. the customer says a part of the product is broken).
- Data Insights — They have some basic data proficiency where they can look at the data related to their product and potentially use that data to make decisions. They will have working knowledge of data languages like SQL and know how to use popular business intelligence tools like Looker, Google Analytics, and so on.
- Run Meetings — They can run effective meetings with the team. That includes setting the agenda and tracking action items. For foundational abilities, this does not include driving decisions within the context of product meetings as driving decisions is more common amongst senior product leaders. I’ll touch on this more in a moment.
From what I’ve seen, having this baseline set of skills means you can be average-to-good and generally command some reasonable amount of respect from cross-functional peers in engineering and design. Then there are the additional skills that separate a beginner PM with foundational skills from a more experienced PM with intermediate capabilities.
To be an intermediate PM, you also need to layer on the following skills on top of the prior set:
- Customer insights. Beyond collecting the plainly stated forms of customer feedback, this means deeply understanding the problems/needs of a customer and how that customer has historically solved those problems or met their needs. This PM can then diagnose how the product he/she is building will solve the customer’s unmet needs.
- Basic design knowledge. Good PMs have working design knowledge so that they can distinguish between bad, mediocre, and good design. This predominantly comes down to UX fundamentals and not advanced topics like color theory. Does it require too many taps/clicks? Is the product copy unclear? Does it meet the stipulated customer needs? Is the cognitive load too high? Is the information hierarchy correct? These are the sorts of questions that a good product manager will ask when working through prototypes.
To be an exceptional PM, you must combine the previously mentioned skills with a few more skills. This person can operate at the executive level or be the product lead on the biggest, most important product initiatives within a company.
- Customer Innovation. This PM not only knows the explicit customer requests and has intimate knowledge of the customer’s needs, but can introduce new products or features that exceeds the customer’s expectations and innovates on the customer’s behalf.
- Vision and Strategy. Exceptional PMs can also internalize founder-level vision for the company and turn that vision into an actionable strategy. They have the most keen line of sight into the series of products/features that need to be built to achieve the founder’s vision. And once they have the vision and strategy clearly understood and explained to their team, they can enforce great execution against the vision and strategy.
- Broker hard decisions. The best product managers are those that can also drive a team toward making a high quality decision in a world of uncertainty. Foundational and intermediate PMs can arrange and run the meeting, but aren’t necessarily great at driving a product team towards a decision in difficult situations. The best PMs are those that everyone else in the room looks to when making a hard decision and they typically make the best tradeoff decisions given the circumstances.
As you can see, the requirements for becoming an exceptional product manager are high and numerous. Going back to the original venn diagram analogy, exceptional product managers need to have a lot of overlapping skills and each function within the company places particular emphasis on some of those skills. Engineers might assess a PM based on data proficiency and quality of requirements, design might assess based on customer-centricity and some degree of design thinking, while executives may assess a PM based on the ability to lead a product team through complex initiatives and fidelity of vision and strategy. Across the board, everyone is expecting a PM to be a good decision maker.
A needle in a haystack?
That said, it’s no surprise to me that I often hear founders gripe about how they can’t find great product managers. They often say they only come across average PMs. As part of that, I arm them with the above framework so that they can be more specific when it comes to critiquing the caliber of their product managers, in particular once they’ve adjusted their expectations for the level of seniority.
When I dig in more deeply, what they are really saying is that it’s very hard for them to find product managers with the exceptional PM qualities of customer innovation, clarity of vision and strategy, and ability to make hard decisions. Unfortunately for PMs, most founders expect them to have the skillset of an exceptional PM, regardless of their level of experience. This triumvirate of skills (customer innovation, vision and strategy, and ability to make hard decisions) is what I call “Founder’s Feel”.
For example, when Facebook was working on Messenger, it first started out as an integrated messaging app as part of the web client. One day, Mark Zuckerberg declared that it must be made a standalone mobile app and that Facebook users would be required to download it if they wanted to chat directly with one another. That wasn’t an obvious decision at the time, certainly to most of the rank and file employees, yet it was the correct decision given the pressure Facebook was feeling amongst a growing collection of competing messaging apps. Facebook was being unbundled by competing products so they decided to get ahead of it and unbundle themselves. This is the sort of decision-making that great founders make and, sometimes, exceptional product managers can make as well.
I’ll give you another example from my time at Wealthfront. We had just launched our mobile app and the number one source of customer feedback we were getting was that customers wanted to see their daily returns front and center in the mobile app. In other words, customers wanted to be able to log in and see whether their account was up or down relative to the previous day, and they wanted that front and center in the app. I remember telling our product manager at the time that we were never going to do that. The PM looked at me like I was an alien and kept repeating that customers were asking for the feature.
I explained that customers were asking for that feature based on what they thought Wealthfront was at that point in time, which was a tool to manage their investments. But what we were going to be a few years into the future would be their holistic money manager where we would handle their financial planning, banking, investing and so on. Holistic money management is not about showing daily returns because whether the market goes up or down 1% per day does not matter in the long run. Most customers were investing and planning for something several years or even decades down the road. I pointed out earlier that a great product manager understands customer feedback first and foremost. But an exceptional PM knows how to contextualize that customer need within the broader company vision and strategy, and then decide whether or not to implement what the customer is asking for.
Fast forward a couple years, we took daily returns and relegated it to a lower position within the app and put long-term financial planning front and center for the customer. Eventually, we saw that the savings of customers who engaged in that long-term financial planning feature went up by a double digit percentage. Sometimes, listening to explicit requests from the customer can lead you in the wrong direction, as would have been the case here.
Developing “Founder’s Feel”
So what does it take to develop “Founder’s Feel” in order to become an exceptional product manager? How does one go about building strong instincts around customer innovation, a vision for the future, and a knack for making high quality decisions that others don’t necessarily see? The bedrock of it is in knowing the customer better than anyone else.
The way I think of it is that you’re collecting unstructured data every time you have a conversation with a customer. It’s not structured like the data you retrieve from a database. Rather, you’re looking for structure (i.e. patterns) in the data that only becomes apparent once you’ve had enough customer conversations. For example, imagine that an insight from a customer conversation is a data point that you plotted on some nebulous graph, like I’ve shown below. Each time you have a conversation you collect insights and start plotting them into groups based on similarities/themes. Once you’ve had enough conversations, the themes start to cluster around common insights or customer needs.
Once you hone in on the clusters they start to make sense to you and “feel” obvious, especially after you’ve had enough conversations with a customer. In the below example, each cluster outlined in red could lead to a meaningful product decision.
Each time you talk to a customer, you capture unstructured data. If you have enough conversations with customers, that unstructured data starts to take shape in the form of extremely strong instincts around potential for customer innovation and product vision that seems less intuitive to others. That’s what “Founder’s Feel” is.
The founders of Wealthfront talked to hundreds of initial customers face-to-face and read most customer service tickets from the first couple thousand customers. Several years after founding the company, the founders continue to read customer service tickets and talk to customers face-to-face. When you compare their ability to make a decision in an uncertain environment vs. a product manager who hasn’t talked to any customers, there’s no comparison to be made. They have a “feel” for what to build (and not build) for Wealthfront customers that is unmatched due in large part to the sheer volume of unstructured information they have collected over many years while building the company.
Returning to the original question: What makes for a good PM? The answer is it’s really complicated.
To start with, good PMs can navigate ambiguous expectations and can apply their skills based on the team’s needs. They know the different levers to pull depending on who they’re working with and can adapt accordingly. One thing that can’t be sacrificed is knowing what the customer needs better than anyone else. This means doing customer research, design testing, and diving into customer support tickets, spending time sitting with the customer support team, and so on.
If you’re just getting started as a PM, focus on building the foundational skills I outlined above. That’ll be the foundation through which your cross-functional peers see the value you add. With time and practice, you can hone the additional skill set I’ve outlined that can make you an intermediate or exceptional PM. But if you’re not good at the fundamentals to begin with, you’ll lose the respect and trust of your team and they might wonder, “What is this person’s job exactly?”
For senior PMs, you have to have the ability to broker decisions in situations where it’s hard to make the right call and drive alignment around the vision and strategy. In addition to that, you can weigh in on product decisions using some working design knowledge. I’m not talking about weighing in on square corners versus rounded corners. I’m talking about the overall flow of products, if the experience is clear or cumbersome, and if it meets or exceeds customer’s needs or expectations.
Finally, the rarest of PMs develop their own “Founder’s Feel” — i.e. a knack for making the best strategic decision that’s informed by a top rate understanding of the business, customer, and the market. They know how to work under uncertain conditions and get a sense of the bigger picture. Those exceptional PMs can translate the founder or CEO’s vision into a clear execution plan.
With all this in mind, though, my default position is that the vast majority of product teams are better off being led by a small group of cross-functional owners as opposed to the outdated notion of “the PM as the CEO of the product”. The most effective product teams are those where the leads on Product, Design, and Engineering (and sometimes other functions like marketing, customer service, and data science) are all mutually bought in to being experts at understanding the vision, the customer, and have shared ownership of the outcome. This means that a Product Manager should often defer to Engineering or Design when key decisions need to be made, specifically when those other functions are better fit to make those decisions. And that’s often the case! I would argue that a great PM also shows “Founder’s Feel” by referring to the right person in the room to make the decision.
In my experience, small group decision making typically leads to vastly better outcomes and if you have a true product leader, that person emerges naturally just like any leader does. There’s no explicit conversation about “who is in charge” of the group. Rather, they do such a good job that the peers around them see it, they know it, and there’s not a discussion about it. That person simply rises to the occasion. It’s the person that everyone in the room naturally turns to for the hard decisions and the mark of an exceptional PM.