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Hard skills to accelerate your PM career

This is the third of a five part series about breaking into product management:

  1. How to become a Product Manager: Four routes into product management 
  2. Soft skills to accelerate your PM career
  3. Hard skills to accelerate your PM career <- this article
  4. How to write an awesome PM resume
  5. Building a network to break into product management

As a product team, you are building digital products to solve user needs and create business value. This requires tackling problems from a broad range of perspectives: commercial, technical, design, data and research. Product teams do this by involving specialists from different disciplines, with product managers sitting at the center, facilitating everything. 

Five hard skills to master in product management

As a product manager, you need to understand each of these different functional areas to make the best decisions. But you also need to understand them to stretch your teammates to do their best work, and to align people who view the world in very different ways. There are five hard skills that you should understand:

  1. Commercial acumen
  2. Quantitative analysis
  3. Qualitative analysis
  4. Product sense
  5. Product development

Hard skills for product managers: Commercial acumen

Product managers are often the only member of a cross functional team with really strong commercial understanding. Whilst it’s always beneficial for engineers, designers and others to think commercially (especially as they get more senior), it’s PMs who typically frame the team’s work in financial terms. This is important both to drive the right decisions within the team, but also to communicate the work done to stakeholders from around the business who use commercial terms as a common language. 

PMs should understand how the business makes money, its unit economics, key marketing channels and important partnerships. They should be able to frame product work in terms of an investment that will deliver a return and comfortable talking about payback times. It’s no wonder that the MBA to product route is becoming more common, but there are plenty of ways of improving your commercial acumen at a fraction of the cost.

“Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

– Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Tips and resources to help you improve commercial acumen:

  • Read Richard Holmes’ excellent primer on commercial terms and analysis for product managers. 
  • Put your consulting hat on and read up on some common frameworks for tackling problems.
  • Understand the business segment in which businesses you are looking to work for / are working for. Technology businesses (by and large) have established business models, and you can visit sites like az16 and TechCrunch to find a whole wealth of analysis, conversation and comparisons between business types
  • Follow the industry press for your business, and look for sources of deep analysis that you can dig into on a regular basis. Find out when public competitors release their quarterly and annual reports, see what the companies say themselves, as well as how it’s received by analysts.
  • Set up a side hustle, even if amounts of money are small. You’ll quickly understand other aspects of business like marketing, customer service and operations by having to do them yourself.
  • Speak with colleagues in sales, marketing and finance. These people are usually very close to the business commercials and will know and care about the financials of products, partnerships and marketing campaigns. Understanding your marketing or sales conversion funnel will help you to speak their language.
  • Spend time understanding any business dashboards you have access to. Get someone (e.g. your line manager or the commercial analyst who created the dashboard) to talk you through the trends they see, what they care about, and how various teams might influence the core metrics.

Hard skills for product managers: Quantitative analysis

Hard facts tell you what your users are doing. Without them it’s impossible to determine the scale of problems, how users flow through your product or how much impact you’ve created. A well resourced product team will be lucky enough to have a dedicated analyst to run quantitative analysis for them, but if this isn’t the case the onus will typically fall on the product manager. Being fluent in quantitative analysis and creating your own insights is critical for being right a lot of the time, and persuading others that you are right. 

“Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.”

Suhail Doshi, CEO Mixpanel.

Tips and resources:

  • Read about driver trees to understand how they work, then practice drawing one up for your own team. 
  • Read this article by Tim Herbig to understand the difference between leading and lagging metrics. Start measuring the leading and lagging metrics for the work you are doing. Become obsessed about delivering impact.
  • Read this presentation on what makes for good startup metrics, and how AB tests work. Ask analysts or anyone good with numbers around you why they have chosen the metrics they use, and what limitations of them are they aware of.
  • Understand the pros and cons of northstar metrics.
  • Read more about data and AB testing from the excellent Julie Zhou.
  • Dive into Andrew Chen’s (extensive) deck on the growth metrics that really matter for startups.
  • Check out Hustle Badger’s sections on choosing metrics and running AB tests

Hard skills for product managers: Qualitative analysis

Qualitative analysis is the kind of insight you get from speaking to users to understand their motivations and needs. Whilst quantitative analysis tells you what is going on, qualitative analysis tells you why it is happening, creating a narrative over the hard facts that have been established. Speaking to customers helps you develop empathy for them, and sharing these conversations with others helps those around you to develop empathy for them. There’s a reason that politicians and charities are always telling stories about individuals in need – these stories resonate with us. There’s no faster way to make your work feel important than to understand on a personal level the problems you are solving for real people.

“To find ideas, find problems. To find problems, talk to people.”

– Julie Zhou, former VP of Product Design at Facebook

Tips and resources:

  • Go and speak to some customers. Whatever role you are in, it’ll make you better at your job.
  • Read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick to learn how to get hard truths even from people who love you. 
  • Go through publicly available sources of feedback from customers like reviews, ratings and social media. See if you can get access to customer service complaints to understand what is going wrong for customers.
  • Get to know this cheatsheet for questions you can ask users. Practice using open, neutral questions in everyday conversations to open people up and really understand their views.
  • Read Tim Herbig’s comprehensive guide to user research techniques.
  • Check out our section on User Research.

Hard skills for product managers: Product sense

Product sense is the ability to create a user experience that is both functional and delightful. This means you need to have the ability to critique designs and intuitively know how well they might work, spot obvious problems with usability, and have a sense of how they will make users feel. Good product sense means that you can consistently craft products that have the intended impact on their users.

Tips and resources:

Hard skills for product managers: Product development

If you are building things with engineers and designers, then you need to understand how they work. You’ll want to have an understanding of the overall shape of the product development cycle, as well as core components of it like writing PRDs, prototyping, writing tickets, planning releases and measuring impact. 

Tips and resources:

  • Understand the digital product development process. Whilst this may be called different things at different companies, the broad brush strokes will be the same.
  • Read our article on How to Write a PRD to get to grips with the importance of documentation, and how to do it. This is one of a PM’s core roles in the development process.
  • Read up on agile ceremonies to get familiar with the regular cadence of meetings that developers in a product team are likely to have. More importantly, understand why they have them. 
  • Read GivenWhenThen by Martin Fowler to understand how developers think, and how to write tight user stories for them
  • Understand the difference between wireframes, high fidelity mockups and prototypes, and when to use each.
  • Find an opportunity to help out a cross functional team by writing some tickets for them, testing a prototype, or planning the release of a new feature.
  • Check out our section on execution

Hard skills for product managers: Summary

To thrive as a product manager you need to develop at least some understanding of a range of technical hard skills. These will help you make better decisions and better solutions for your users, allowing you to deliver more impact. They will also let you act as a force multiplier to the rest of your team, stretching them to deliver better work by acting as a sounding board and holding them to high standards.

Next in this series: How to write an awesome PM resume

Is there a product manager skills matrix?

Different organizations will describe and organize the skills that product managers need in different ways. Broadly product managers need to be good at five soft skills: leadership, communication, decision making, strategy and execution, as well as five hard skills: quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, product sense, product development and commercial acumen. We have an example competency framework (career ladder) here if you are interested to how these are expressed as you get more senior as a PM.

What are the main responsibilities of a product manager?

Product managers lead cross-functional product teams, and need to decide where their teams focus (i.e. what they build), make sure that the features built deliver impact for users and the business, and keep everyone clear on what’s going on – both inside the team and with external stakeholders.

What do product managers do in agile?

Product managers define problems that customers have, or their business needs solved, and then work with their cross-functional team to develop solutions to these problems. PMs are also typically responsible for ensuring that everything released by the team has a suitable go-to-market plan, and making sure that every one within the team, and external stakeholders, knows what is going on.

What technical skills do product managers have?

Product managers are not technical specialists like engineers or designers, but as leaders of cross-functional teams made up of specialists, they need to know something of the specialists they routinely work with. In particular, it’s useful for PMs to have commercial acumen and product sense, and be fluent in quantitative and qualitative analysis, and product development. 

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