Last January, I joined Webflow as a first-time Product Manager. Before coming to Webflow, I was running my startup, Homeroom, where I managed everything, from research to design to engineering to marketing to sales/negotiation. When I was wrapping up Homeroom, I was looking for a Software Engineering position until my mentor, Eric (@ericbahn), brought up that I should consider being a Product Manager given all that I had done while running my startup solo.
He mentioned about this company named "Webflow" that might be looking for a PM. When I met up with Vlad (@callmevlad) the next afternoon, he mentioned that Webflow was looking for a "Technical" Product Manager to help lead their infrastructure teams. To be honest, I didn't know what a “Product Manager” really was — the function of Product Management sounded like a blackbox with no tangible way to create value. So before meeting up with Vlad, I furiously Googled what a PM did — if the engineers build the product and designers design the product, then the product people ___ about the product?
After being a PM for over a year, I have learned a lot about the function of Product Management and the impact that great Product Managers have on their teams (and companies).
Note: These are my opinions and thoughts. Product Management is a function that is unique to its business and a great PM at company x may not be the best PM at company y.
Here are 5 core skills that makes someone a strong Product Manager:
As a Product Manager, communication is at the core of what makes someone an okay vs. a great Product Manager. Communication is a soft skill, compared to various different responsibilities of a PM that may be more tactical-oriented, so there’s a lot of nuance you have to decode and navigate around, and therefore is what makes it so hard. A strong PM, while not an individual contributor — they aren't building or designing the product directly — effectively communicates the why and what their team is building to create alignment within the team
Communication doesn't just refer to verbal communication — it encompasses written communication as well. As more and more companies adopt the remote-work trend, written communication becomes even more important.
Communication isn't just informing their teams what they’ll be building — it’s communicating with different functions, such as the engineering team, product designers, their Engineering Managers, Product Marketing function, other Product Managers, and at times, senior stakeholders like Directors, VPs, and C-suite to create alignment amongst all stakeholders. The role of Product Management is that of sales — you’re constantly selling what and why your product area is important or why x feature should be build and being a strong communicator can create alignment in teams and help you gain the external support from stakeholders.
A great analogy to correlate this to is being a coach. The coach's job isn't to tell the players what to do — it's to help the team build a great habit of delivering and meeting goals. This can be done is many different ways
The job of a Product Manager requires their to have the ability to zoom in and out and context switch often. As a Product Manager, you’re going to get your hand dirty by writing up a Product Requirement Document (PRDs), tickets for issues, and thinking about all the nitty-gritty details about a feature, (and maybe do project management), while also spend a large chunk of your time looking at your area from a birds-eye view to find potential opportunities and strategically prioritize.
The act of prioritization calls for strong decision making that requires more than intuition and judgement. You’re essentially making decisions & trade-offs that’s going to have a major impact on your users and therefore these decisions need to be based on solid understanding of the market, the positioning of the product in the market, the customers, their needs, the competition, and the business. At a higher level, prioritization is a small aspect of defining product strategy that will help you deliver value for your users as well as the business. This level of work is quite similar to playing the game of chess. There's a strategy for how you're going to win (in the context of startups, it's how you’re going to win the market) and it's the PM's job to identify that strategy and executing on it. They're moving pieces on the chess board, occasionally sacrificing a couple of pieces so they can position themselves and their company the right way to succeed.
The success of a Product Manager isn't measure by the number of lines of code they write or number of designs they create (which you shouldn’t be doing, unless you're at an early-staged startup where you're wearing 100s of hats), but how many lines of code they enable their engineers to write and artifacts they enable their designers to create. A good analogy is to think of Product Managers as an air-traffic controller. They are constantly directing traffic to making sure everyone is in the right spot, have enough gas, aren’t stuck in traffic, and are moving in the right direction to accomplishing their goals.
Coming in, a misconception I had was that strong PMs are responsible for making all decisions and that's not entirely true. Great Product Managers are great facilitators who drive discussions/conversations within their teams, gets everyone's input to identify their own areas of blindspots and empowers their team to weigh in into the decision-making process. They shouldn't be dictators (unless the situation calls for it and there are some) — they should be rallying the right stakeholders into the conversation at the right time to foster a positive discussion, make decisions, and push things forward.
Similar to PMs bring strong facilitators, great PMs are enablers — they enable the people in their team to get shit done. They are checking in to see how everyone is doing to identify blockers or potential blockers that might impact the team's progress or timeline negatively. PMs are like fire-fighters to some extent — they are putting out whatever fire that comes up, making sure people are in a position where they're, safely, able to do their best work by unblocking them on issues or conversations.
Firefighters's first concern isn't to put out fire, but to make sure people are safe. I think great PMs are those who create psychological safety for their teams so they feel comfortable and safe which gives their team members a huge boost of confidence.
Real Life Example