What makes a good product manager?

While there are whole blogs devoted to the topic of good product management, I don’t think anyone has a good answer for how to interview for a good product manager that doesn’t boil down to “it depends.” There are sound reasons for that: There is a continuum of roles that a “product manager” can play, ranging from almost entirely strategic/market focused to almost entirely development/product focused to somewhere in the middle. The roles I have played have been at all ends of the spectrum, or all roles at once; at most companies the role falls somewhere along the continuum depending on company size and organization. The competencies that you look for during the interview depend strongly on how you expect the product manager to function in your organization.

That said, here are some things to look for in a product manager, divided into categories:

  1. General
    • Communication skills – one of the major roles of a product manager is being able to speak Sales to Development and vice versa and be understood
    • Decisive – need to take input and synthesize a clear direction even if it’s unclear what the right way to go is.
    • Negotiation experience – important when brokering a deadlock between priorities, or between sales and development.
    • Business savvy – understand how the product can make money. Prioritize according to business needs, both long and short term
    • Market savvy – understand the competition, the strategic landscape, and how the product fits
    • Driven to learn – do they keep up with what’s going on in the industry? Ask them what are the challenges for product managers in an Agile environment and you’ll quickly get a sense for their depth and how much they think about their role.
  2. Development-facing specific
    • Tech savvy – I would say that the ability to quickly pick up and understand the challenges of new technologies is more important than specific experience in the languages your development team is using. I was a PowerBuilder dev, but I was able to understand the peculiarities and challenges that my development team experienced in C++ vs. C# vs. XAML.
    • Project management – Tracking, detail orientation. This can make or break a product manager on a day in, day out basis.
    • Facilitation and meeting management – In a lot of teams the engineering lead drives this almost entirely. But it’s a critical skill to have in your pocket, from requirements gathering to release post-mortems to gathering agreement between different stakeholders on what is to be done on a particular problem.
  3. Market-facing specific
    • Experience working with analysts – Some companies have separate AR roles; some don’t. It’s a pretty good bet your product manager will need to face a skeptical analyst to describe the product’s direction at some point, and it’s a good indicator if a candidate has had that experience under her belt already.
    • Strong demo skills — even if the PM doesn’t do sales directly, they might do conferences, and at a minimum they will need to champion the work that development is doing.

Finally, there’s a really good article on Pragmatic Marketing that sums up some value drivers for good product managers as: Attitude, Knowledge, Communication, Customers, Managing, Decision Making. It’s worth looking into.