How To Succeed In Product Management

Tags: ,

This article originally appeared April 18, 2015 on the Stanford Graduate School of Business Tumblr blog, featuring XSeed Partner Alan Chiu.

What does it take to be a product manager?

XSeed Capital Partner Alan Chiu (MSx ‘11) kicked off his Stanford GSB talk, “Career Pathways in Product Management,” by first exploring the definition of product management. “If you asked 10 people, you might get 12 answers,” he shared. “It means different things at different companies.”

Chiu defines product management as being the “CEO of the product.” A product manager has to nail strategic marketing, product definition, and the voice of the customer. Product management is NOT:

  • Project management
  • Just about working with the engineering team
  • Just about executing the CEO’s product directives

So what does it take to succeed in this challenging role? Chiu shares five key characteristics of product managers:

1. High IQ and EQ. As a product manager, you’ll be the nexus for customers, sales, engineering, and more. In other words, you’ll be pulled into a million different directions. You need to be able to manage a lot of different opinions and data, and influence many people without having authority over them.

2. Respect of the engineering team. Even if you don’t have an engineering background, you can still earn the team’s trust. What does it take? You need a genuine love and curiosity for technology. Get into the engineers’ world and relate to them on a technological level. With openness and understanding, learn as much as you can about the strengths and limitations of the product architecture, as well as the tradeoffs of different engineering and design decisions.

3. Deep customer insights. Empathy is key in working with customers. Meet or speak with customers several times a week and bring quantitative and qualitative data back to your team. As you grow your customer base, you also want to grow data on their behavior: what’s working and what’s not? Show up with customer stories and metrics to help convince the engineering team that your next priorities are the right ones to work on. It’s vital to become a trusted customer proxy within the company.

4. Courage to make tradeoffs. In this role, you’ll have an endless feature request list to work on, so you’ll never be able to please everyone. You have to be comfortable with people being unhappy with your decisions, yet still respecting you. Focus on the priorities that move the needle on the metrics that matter to your business, and make sure no one is so unhappy with the choices that he or she will sabotage you.

5. Diplomatic skills. If you join a company that’s founded by a CEO with a strong product vision, how do you gain her or his trust so that you can grow your ownership of the product? Start by involving the CEO very early in product brainstorms; create a safe environment where he or she can disagree and you can make changes. Bring in qualitative and quantitative customer insights to share with the CEO so you can have an intellectually honest dialogue. Earning the CEO’s trust is just as important as earning it with the engineering team.

For more insights from Alan, read “Overcoming Common Challenges between Business and Technical Cofounders” and follow him on Twitter: @AlanChiu.