Product managers (PM) come in all forms and flavours. Product management, as a subject, is too vast and generic to fit a single description.
Not only this; product managers can also be divided into different groups based on their skills and specialisations – the type of product they work on (B2B vs B2C, early, mature), or even at a higher level (whether they are builders, tuners and innovators).
If you are an aspiring PM or have just started your career as a PM, you must be extremely confused about what is expected of you, which areas you should dive into and what are the things you should hone or work on. So, let me make it simple for you.
Image source: MindTheProduct
Based on such a generic description, every PM seems to have the same set of skillsets. So how do we classify them?
In this post, I am going to classify some PMs (going by some of the greatest PMs of our times – as inspiration), based on what they bring to the table, a.k.a. their unique strengths. Depending on what your current skill-sets are, you can choose who you want to be like, or aspire to be, and build some really awesome things as a product manager.
1) The Tech PM
Image source: UserVoice Blog
I know my rocket inside out and backward. I can tell you the heat treating temper of the skin material, where it changes, why we chose that material, the welding technique… down to the gnat’s ass.Elon Musk
Elon Musk is a product guy who has been a ‘techie’ throughout his life. He is the chief technology officer at SpaceX, a company that he founded to take on multi-planetary existence of the human species. Marissa Mayer falls into this category as well.
- Pitfalls/Traps: These PMs try to solve engineering problems, which they are pretty good with. However, this means they can end up working as an engineering manager on the team, rather than a product manager. If this is the type of PM role you see best fit for you, you should focus on defining WHY you are building something, and WHAT you are building.
- Advantage 1: These PMs work pretty well with engineers and it takes them no time to gain their trust and respect.
- Advantage 2: They can think through technical products (AWS, recommendation engines) pretty easily. Google/Amazon hire a lot of engineer-turned-product managers.
- What you should focus on next?: Building a good business sense and user empathy to see the big picture, and defining what products to build. Also, though not true for most, some may struggle with communication skills to get along with cross-functional teams.
2) The Designer PM
Image source: Techaxon Networks
Steve Jobs made this category very appealing, didn’t he? Most people remember Steve as the guy who revolutionized six industries. Few people focus on the common thread that runs between those six industries – animated movies, digital publishing, music, personal computers, phones, computing tablets.
Steve was the guy who could strongly sense the future needs of consumers, and focused (with almost a crazy precision) on design and aesthetics in all these products. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO at AirBnB, and Joe Gebbia (CPO, AirBnB) are other examples of designer PMs.
- Challenge: Many coders idolize Steve Wozniak over Steve Jobs because
And this would be a problem when you are starting as a PM because you haven’t been anywhere near the engineering as a designer. Their method of working is quite different from yours. So it becomes harder for both to work together. Same goes for this PM working with other teams, like sales and operations.
- Advantage: You understand what a good product looks like. You empathize fairly well with the users of the product and understand the difference between stated preference and revealed preference. All these qualities help you make and design much needed, beautiful products.
- What you should focus on: Building a business sense is pretty important as this will help you prioritize things. As a designer, you get pretty good at recognizing flaws in a product. Prioritization will help you define what to focus on.
- Where you should go: Instagram/Facebook/Apple/Tesla would love you.
3) The Business PM
Image source: OurCatHerder
Ever saw that fast-talking MBA kid who seems pretty well versed with terminologies of business, operations and finance? Probably starting off with a liberal arts, engineering or economics major and going on to learn elements of business by either doing an MBA or some such.
Some people in this category actually learn about business fundamentals by working with/for a fast-growing startup, as well. They are pretty good at communicating with, and understanding, people around them. Ken Norton falls in this category.
- Pitfalls: Not understanding technology/design very well can lead to conflicts; and it takes hard work to build credibility with designers and coders.
- Advantage: These are good thinkers and are able to paint and see the big picture to lead teams.
- What you should focus on: You have a lot of things to do. Start by understanding how tech works and evolves over time. Develop an eye for detail and rigor. You don’t see many of these in product manager roles, unless they get an MBA.
4) The Data PM
Image source: memegenerator
A future role, I must say. With the advent of gaming apps, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, the role of a data PM is also emerging. These PMs work on data products such as recommendation products, personalization, etc.
They are pretty good at reading and finding patterns in data and since data is the key to decision-making in most meetings these days, they gain influence within many teams, over time.
You don’t see many PMs right now in this category. Sebastian Thrun, who led the integration of big data into robotics, falls in this category. He is the founder of the leading ed-tech startup Udacity. Netflix, Amazon and Google are companies driven by data algorithms and personalization, and they would love this kind of a PM.
- Pitfalls: Focusing on data too much leads to losing sight of the big picture sometimes.
- Advantage: Being equipped with good analytical abilities can help you understand business, sales, and product equally well.
- What you should focus on: A good idea of user research will help you understand the ‘why’. Clubbing research and quantitative data can work wonders. You should also focus on understanding design elements well, so that you can tell a good design from a bad one.
5) The Growth PM
Image source: MindTheProduct
Every organization has its own set of growth problems. Some find it hard to generate demand (e-commerce, content) at low cost, others find it difficult to meet supply once they have generated demand (Uber). Growth PMs work to solve these problems.
This is a rather undefined role and varies a great deal from one organization to another. These PMs are generally very strong with data and communication. Further, business acumen helps them prioritize and solve the most important problems first. Chamath Palihipitiya, Head of Growth at Facebook, helped Facebook become the first social network to cross the 500 million user mark, and reach more than a billion users.
- Pitfalls: Focusing too much on metrics leads to losing sight of the big picture here too. There are a lot of ideas you come up with while solving the growth problem for any organization, and the lack of quick experimentation and right prioritization framework can lead to low impact work.
- Advantage: A well-defined growth problem gives you the kick to hustle and make a difference. Clear metrics can help you move in the right direction.
- What you should focus on: User research and psychology. This can help you most when taking the decision of what to build and why.
Summing up, let’s list down some of the key and desirable traits of a PM. It looks like you will need the following traits to become a great PM:
- A good understanding of how tech works
- Project management
- Business sense
- User empathy and research
- People skills
The best PMs out there understand and work where the interaction of business, design, data and tech happens.
since you are working with a lot of people, at any given point of time. That said, you don’t need to be well versed with everything when you are just starting off.
So, if you were confused at the beginning of this post, hopefully I have managed to diminish some of that confusion and some of you may even have figured out which role to aim for, depending on what your current strengths are.
If you are an analyst/data scientist, you can learn elements of design and user research to move to a Data PM role. If you are a ‘techie’, a tech PM role would be easiest to mould yourself into. The same follows for a designer and a business person. Marketers tend to like the growth PM role a lot, given the hustle it involves.
I hope this post helps you gain some clarity in where you want to go as a product manager. If you have any questions, feel free to write back to me at deepak (.) singh @ upgrad.com
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Deepak is passionate about product development & growth, behavioral economics, and building defensible businesses. He loves data and is learning to build products that change the world for the better! Deepak currently works at UpGrad.