What Makes A Good Product Manager?

In Detective Comics #619, Tim Drake–on the road to becoming Batman’s next Robin–wonders if familial tragedy is a prerequisite to becoming Robin.

In other words, it’s not just about athletic ability, acrobatics, crime-solving, and short-shorts–there’s also an element of tragedy required to cross the divide from teen boy to Boy Wonder.

This got me thinking: What traits make a good product manager? What’s the ideal background for a product manager?

Note: This is not an overview of what a product manager does or what skills a PM should possess. This is more of an examination of the characteristics and distinguishing features that I see in the more successful product managers.

Sacrifice

If your parents conduct dangerous high-wire acts for a circus plagued by extortionists, or your parents are frequently targeted by kidnappers, you are golden, my friend. Just kidding: That’s not the kind of sacrifice I mean.

I’m talking about the sacrifice of ego, of rejecting Product Narcissism.

Product development isn’t about you. It’s about understanding problems, unmet needs, and desires, and providing solutions that help your target market solve those problems, meet those needs, and sate those desires.

Passion

To prove he’s worthy of the Robin mantle, Tim Drake fights the Scarecrow, trains with the world-class assassin Lady Shiva, and masters the bo staff. He endures months of grueling physical and psychological training to prove he’s the right person for the job.

That is passion.

Successful product managers have an inherent love for products. [...] They delight in well-designed products–even if not made by their own company. They loathe poorly-designed products–even if made by their own company.

Michael Shrivathsan

Good product managers are passionate about their products–no matter how mundane or dry the products might be. Your job is to understand and articulate what’s great about the product and shout it from the rooftops.

You are a cheerleader. This means you must cheer, and you must lead.

Determination

Once Tim makes up his mind about being the next Robin, he doesn’t let anything sway him–not even Batman’s initial (and sustained) rejection of the idea. Because he’s done all the calculations. He’s smart. He understands what’s required and why.

As a product manager, you’re making decisions all the time–some big, some small, some strategic, some tactical. This is what you do.

The best, most succinct definition I ever heard as to what my job as a product manager entailed was: “Your job is to make decisions.”

Mark J. Tiedman

Good product managers make decisions based on the information available and their own experience. They make decisions before the opportunities pass them by. They celebrate the good calls and learn from the bad ones.

Empathy

Tim might be the most successful Robin because he’s able to forge strong connections with others. He listens to them, he understands where they’re coming from. Good product managers can do this, too.

Users are often too literal in what they want. They want to tell you about the feature or change that you must make to your software, rather than the real problem they need to solve. This is treating the symptoms and not the disease.

Bob Warfield

If you have a connection with your customers, if you have empathy as Bob suggests, you’ll understand why users want what they do, which helps you understand…

  • Which of their requests can (and should!) be ignored; and
  • Which requests will best improve the product for the broadest audience.

Good product managers understand that this same approach works internally, as well, to align sales and marketing and make great products.

Imagination

Tim couldn’t possibly imagine everything that would follow his choice to become the next Robin. But he uses his imagination every time he faces a villain or helps someone in trouble.

Good product managers understand the need to innovate. To take all that they’re learning and observing and thinking about and turn that into innovative solutions that meet market needs.

This requires creativity. Inspiration. Optimism. And, above all, imagination.

What’s The Ideal Background For A Product Manager?

It depends on the environment: Large company or small? Technically-oriented or design-oriented?

Surveys say that technical backgrounds help boost a PM’s compensation level. Certainly, that’s part of it.

Personally, I think technical competency is important: You need to be aware of, and understand, new technologies so you can apply them to solve the things plaguing your target market. But do you need to be able code in C++? No.

I think any role that combines the traits mentioned above–Sacrifice, Passion, Determination, Empathy, Imagination–prepares you for product management. Excel and project planning can be taught. The above traits need to be learned. There’s a difference.

If I was going to pick one profession as a good launch pad for product management–outside of actually being trained as a product manager from the start–I would choose Usability, and here’s why:

Usability, like product management, is naturally focused outward, on the users of the product. It’s a naturally empathetic career choice.

Consideration for good usability is not required to deliver a product to market, but it is required to bring a good product to market.

- Usability: The Key to Product Success

The best Product Managers and Usability folks I’ve worked with (looking at you, Josh Ledwell!) understand consumers and meeting their needs, and that desire to create a solid experience for someone who is not you.

Are you a Usability professional thinking about transitioning to product management? Check out Jeff Lash and Chris Baum’s article, Transitioning from User Experience to Product Management.

Derek at All About Product Management has several interviews with product managers from diverse areas–with backgrounds in engineering, business analysis, web development, and others–that might prove educational, too.

And as for what makes a great product manager? Robin, meet Xena, Warrior Princess.

Additional Resources

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