The Product Management Skill Stack

In college, my Information Systems professor told my class about a career path that sounded perfect. It involved working with technology, making strategic business decisions, problem-solving, collaborating across teams, and a whole lot of responsibility. It was a position that seemed so general in scope that any smart, willing person (that was me!) could do it. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in feeling that way about a job in product management - and now it seems like everyone these days is thinking about starting a career as a product manager.

Seven years and multiple roles later, I've realized that my professor’s definition of what a product manager is and does is actually pretty vague. Some product managers do all of those things, while others have a completely different set of responsibilities. That’s probably because depending on your industry, company size, and so on, a product manager's day-to-day job can look really different. And frankly, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Every time I meet with someone who's interested in the world of product management, whether it’s a new grad or fellow HubSpotter, they all have a different idea of what it would be like to be a product manager. To me, the primary responsibility of a product manager is to make sure my team builds a solution that provides value for our customers. They make products that people will love and even (hopefully!) pay for. That's how a product manager adds value to HubSpot, and that's the impact on which we measure product managers here.

But that’s still sort of vague, isn’t it?

To help break things down, these are the skills and perspectives that I’ve noticed make for successful product managers. (Not surprisingly, these are also what our product organization is usually looking for when interviewing and hiring a new product managers). 

The Product Manager Skill Stack

  1. Market Knowledge: A strong understanding of the product you're building and the space it's competing in.
  2. Product Knowledge: An understanding of how something gets built, and how to fail quickly and learn from those failures.
  3. Technical Knowledge: The ability to grasp the intricacies of the technology and its constraints (or the ability to code yourself) in order to earn the trust of your developers, designers, and others on your team.
  4. Customer Knowledge: The ability to both intimately and holistically know and understand the users you're building product for.

I believe the best product managers out there have thoroughly developed all four of what I refer to as the "product manager skill stack”. Associate Product Managers (or APMs, which are first-time product managers - not an entry-level job!) typically have keen potential or deep knowledge in at least one of the skills. At HubSpot, our APMs usually come from internal departments, places where they’ve gotten to know the business, our customers, our culture, or our product extremely well. Still, some internal candidates have a hard time demonstrating they have the skills they'll need to be successful, so we work with them to nurture those skills over time.

That was me a few years ago. I was told that I wasn't ready to be a product manager, so I worked on strengthening my product management skill stack and demonstrating it to the team. It was one of the best and most humbling lessons of my career. Learning more about what a PM does at HubSpot, what it takes to get into product, and what types of questions I should be prepared for in my interview certainly helped prepare me for one of the most rewarding yet challenging roles I’ll likely ever have.

If you're a recent grad or if you've never worked with a product organization, it's nearly impossible to develop a deep competence in one of those skill areas, let alone all four. Even if you're a computer science major who's started and exited a startup (giving you at least two of those four skills), you're still competing for product management jobs with people who have done that two or three times over in a varied career. If you’re a student or a professional looking to enter into an APM program, I’d recommend doubling down on developing one of those skills at a company you’re interested in working for first. That might mean starting in a customer support position (like I did) or sales role, which are much easier to break into without a technical background.

Lastly, if you’re serious about getting into product management, you should definitely reach out to product managers at your company or product people in your network to chat. Don't go into the conversation blind; set yourself up for success and make the most of the time. Before you grab coffee, for example, try finding a product problem that you’re seeing in your role to bring to the discussion. That way, you'll have something concrete to talk about, and the person you're chatting with can get a sense of how you would approach challenges. That way, you can skip the “So what does a product manager do?” types of questions (which you likely already know the answer to) and get to the heart of it.

The Product Problem Prioritization Process

Once you’ve successfully demonstrated the skills above and secured a role as a product manager, you’re likely going to be asking… now what? Much of product management involves evaluating problems, prioritizing work, and deciding what to build. Of course, every product manager has their own style. Personally, there are four different perspectives I use to evaluate challenges when I'm figuring out the most valuable way my product team can spend their time. I like to call this framework the Four Lenses of Product Problem Prioritization (yes, it's a mouthful). The four lenses are:

  1. Market Lens: How will the market react to the solution to this problem? Is it old news? Does it stave off a potential disrupter? Do our competitors not think like this? Is the market sentiment shifting? Are our prospects seeking this solution in the market?
  2. Business Lens: How will the solution to this problem impact your company globally? Is solving this problem aligned with our brand and our mission? Does it help the company? Will building this allow a key company initiative to run better or more effectively?
  3. Technical Lens: Do we need to prioritize the solution immediately because something might break? Is focusing on fixing something now going to allow us to build better solutions in the future? Conversely, is something really cool and shiny going to take on a lot of tech debt for years to come?
  4. Customer Lens: How will the majority (usually over 80%) of customers respond to this? Is this a high-impact feature for a small subset of customers? How many support cases is this problem driving and what is the impact of prioritizing a solution? Will it make our customers more successful? Will it make them better at their jobs or happier in their lives? How do we know?

Only after you’ve looked at a problem through all four lenses can you truly get a sense for the scope of impact and the magnitude of what you’re about to take on. If you only look at a problem through only one of those lenses, it can mean that you end up building the wrong solution, wasting your company’s money, and even hurting your team's morale. For example, if you’re a product manager and you prioritize something that was really hard to build, questionably valued in the market, and an amazing solution for only 6% of customers, you run the risk of losing some of the goodwill and trust that you’ve built with your engineers and designers over time. Just like in life, it’s good to zoom out and evaluate a situation from multiple perspectives before jumping in.

If you’re a fellow product manager reading this - hello! Let's chat in the comments about how you approach product problems differently, or if you have a different set of skills that have helped you be successful in your job. And if you’re an aspiring product manager, please let us know - we’re hiring and we’d love to hear from you.

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