Characteristics of great product managers

When hiring product managers, you should select for the following skills:

1. Product taste. Product taste means having the insights and intuition to understand customer needs for a product in a given area. What product features will wow a customer or meet their core needs? If the PM is joining you from another industry they may not know the specific needs of your customers. However, they should have the skill set and tool kit to quickly learn about your customers and their needs.

2. Ability to prioritize. What is the value of a proposed product feature versus the engineering work needed to accomplish it? What is more important—a new product for the sales team or a feature for customers? Should pricing be optimized for consumers or small business owners? What is the 80% product that should be launched immediately and what singular customer problem does it solve?

3. Ability to execute. A big part of product management is convincing and cajoling teams and different resources to get the product to launch, and then to maintain the product and support the customer base. Product managers will partner with engineering, design, legal, customer support, and other functions to execute on the product road map.

4. Strategic sensibilities. How is the industry landscape evolving? How can the product be positioned to make an end run around the competition? Intel’s famous pricing strategy in the 1970s is a good example of a bold strategic move. At the time Intel understood there was a strong reduction in their own costs as they scaled unit sales. Dropping unit sales would lead to increased demand and volume, causing a virtuous cycle. Intel smartly decided to launch a new silicon product at cost below their COGs in order to scale market share faster. In response, their customers bought in volumes they had not projected until two years out, causing a massively lower cost structure for them and therefore profitability. In other words, their low pricing became self-fulfilling and sustainable through massive volumes years ahead of projections.

5. Top 10% communication skills. Much of the job of a product manager boils down to understanding and then communicating trade-offs to a diverse group of coworkers and external parties.

6. Metrics and data-driven approach. You build what you measure. Part of the role of a product manager is to work with engineering and the data science team to define the set of metrics the product team should track. Setting the right metrics can be hard, and even the right metrics can sometimes drive the wrong behavior.

The four types of product managers

The product manager you hire depends on the type of product your company is working on. Often companies need a mix of the below. Some people can function as more than one type of PM, while other individuals are hard wired to only do one of the below well.

1. Business product manager

These product managers are strongest at synthesizing external customer requests into an internal product road map. Business PMs tend to thrive at enterprise software companies, or working on the partner-facing portions of consumer applications. They can work well with sales and present well to customers, yet are still technical enough to work with engineering and design to trade off road map versus engineering effort needed. They will have keener insights into product pricing, customer segmentation, and customer needs.

2. Technical product manager

Technical PMs are often (but not always) deeply technical people who can work with engineering on areas like infrastructure, search quality, machine learning, or other inward-facing work. Technical PMs can often work on a wide variety of products across enterprise and consumer as long as they can pick up the necessary business skills and have good user intuition to make the right trade-offs in the product.

3. Design product manager

Most commonly found working on consumer applications, design-centric product managers are more user experience-centric. Some companies will convert a designer to be the product manager for a consumer product. While designers are often incredibly talented at user experience and visual design, they may not be trained in making the trade-offs needed to run a business (e.g., advertising models, pricing, etc.) or may want a product to be pixel perfect (which means it will take longer to ship the product). In general, it is good to retrain design people who become product managers to focus more on pragmatic trade-offs between beauty and marketing. Design PMs spend the most time with internal engineering and design teams and tend to spend less time on outward facing or business-centric tasks.

4. Growth product manager

Growth PMs tend to be quantitative, analytical, numbers-driven, and in the best cases wildly creative and aggressive. The focus of the growth PM is to (i) determine the critical levers needed to drive product adoption and use, and then (ii) to manipulate those levers. For example, the growth team at Facebook added tens of millions of incremental users via email loops, funnel optimization, and large scale multivariate testing of sign up, conversion, and other flows. Growth PMs tend to work closely with engineering, marketing, UX, and in some cases partnership or deal teams. Sometimes growth marketing will play the role of growth product management and this role will report into marketing.

In general, the more technical and back-end heavy your product, the fewer product managers you will have. A database company is likely to have a much lower product manager to engineer ratio than a consumer internet company. When I was at Google, the search infrastructure team had a few-to-none product managers while the mobile team, which was more UI-centric and business-centric, had many (despite a much smaller engineering organization).

Not a product manager: project managers

Do not hire project managers as product managers. While project managers may be great at organizing and driving a schedule, they often lack the ability to prioritize features or ask the larger strategic questions. In general, project managers are not needed in high functioning software organizations, where a mix of the engineering manager and product manager will take on project management. Project managers may become useful for hardware products, external partner implementations, or vendor-specific hardware integrations.

Associate product managers (APM’s)/Rotational product managers (RPM’s)

Google and Facebook have developed extensive programs for more junior product managers joining these companies straight out of undergraduate programs. The Google program consists of two 12-month rotations, while the Facebook program is three six-month rotations. For each rotation, an APM/RPM works with a different product organization (e.g., ads, a consumer product, timeline, or search). APM/RPM programs are meant to grow an internal crop of future product leaders for each company. As your company scales to 1,000 or more people, it might be worth considering an APM-like program. Don’t do this until you have a solid internal senior product management organization in place.