Product managers are often described by their soft skills: leadership, influence, persuasion, innovation, creativity, etc. But product insight — the ideas that inform your direction and prioritization — also require knowledge and skill that PMs develop over time.
My co-founder and I were both APMs at Google before leaving to start Kapwing last year. With training from coaches, role models, and senior PMs at Google, we learned what skills you need to develop to become a product leader. In this post, I share my opinion on the “hard skills” of a PM, the knowledge that sharpens product intuition and leads to better decision making, for people looking to grow themselves or their employees.
Product Management: Hard skills
1)Technical expertise: Good PMs add to engineering teams. They can credibly push back on engineering estimates because they know when their team has under- or over-scoped a project. They can identify performance bugs. They understand technical constraint without needing to consult a teammate. They represent the engineering team when talking to other functions like design, legal, and sales. Good PMs need engineering skills or a deep domain knowledge of the product’s technical architecture.
- To improve: I studied CS in college, but you can also teach yourself to code. Build something new from scratch or take a coding bootcamp course.
2) Knowledge of relevant products and internet trends: Strong PMs are plugged into software news. They adopt new products, learn about startups that fail and succeed, engage with frontier technologies, conduct market and user research, and read about rising consumer trends. Since new ideas often come from the collision of two old ideas, creative PMs are constantly exposing themselves to new industries, concepts, and data on user preferences.
- To improve: I started engaging with the HackerNews and ProductHunt communities and became much more aware of tech news, trends, and hit products. Open a Twitter Account and following tech influencers and investors.
3) Brief, clear writing style: A good PM is concise. They pack a lot of detail into brief emails and documents.
- To improve: Ask people you email for feedback. I had a manager who helped me by giving me detailed feedback on emails and PRDs. Could you have conveyed your message in fewer words? Practice writing by publishing blog posts or writing for the local paper.
4) Eye for visual design: Good PMs can whip up marketing materials, visual assets, UI designs, and presentations that are visually appealing. They give designers aesthetic feedback and care about users’ delight and emotional sentiment. They are comfortable with Sketch, Photoshop, and a sketchbook. They can answer small UI questions without needing to consult a teammate.
- To improve: I enrolled in a drawing class while working at Google. You can also spend time on Material Up browsing through UI designs. Keep a sketch book with you to practice, and ask designers and artists in your life for feedback and best practices.
Product decision making is more than just courage and intelligence. People who aspire to become better PMs can build up experience in design, read about new software ideas, and practice coding and writing to develop smarter intuition. “Soft skills” are essential to pushing good ideas through, but product insight is essential for knowing which ideas are good in the first place. I’ve seen these qualities in senior product leaders and intentionally focus on them for myself.