What Does a Product Manager Do? Part 2/5: Competencies

While I’ve previously posted about the requisite “soft-skills” of great Product Managers, in this Part of the series, we’ll explore the functional skill-set required on any given day. These competencies fall into three major categories, which I refer to the “3Ds”, consisting of Direction, Design, and Details.

I believe that the Product Manager is ultimately responsible for every single pixel, workflow, and error message in the final product. As a result, the job ranges from very high high-level strategy to the most excruciating details. This spectrum of skills can be summarized by three major competencies, which I call the “3Ds” (developed via an interview I gave at Krash Boston). This list is not meant to be completely exhaustive, and the proportion of time spent in each area, will vary based on some of the “external” factors we’ll discuss in Part 3, and Part 4 of this series.

1) Direction: Creating and evangelizing your product / market hypothesis

Starting at the most macro, level, a PM needs to set the product “vision”. Specifically that is to develop the overall product / market hypothesis, which is your master plan for how your product will open new market opportunities. This hypothesis is informed by your understanding of the convergence of new technologies and market trends, such as:

  • Explicit and latent needs of your audience you can meet
  • Evolving customer behaviors you can tap into
  • Industry comparables you can learn (or borrow) from
  • Emerging technologies you can leverage to disrupt the status quo


2) Design: Planning and prioritization

Armed with that hypothesis, you must develop your approach to evangelize and execute your strategic plan. When I use the word design, think of this as designing your approach, rather than designing the pixels of the app (although that’s important too). This category is about both the art & science of developing a game plan, and then prioritizing all of the competing factors, which include:

  • Strategic Initiatives: Items that your team feels are necessary to drive, such as getting to competitive parity, implementing a new technology stack, etc.
  • Metric movers: Those features you believe to have significant impact on your core funnel metrics
  • Experiments: Specific projects that test how to influence the customer experience
  • Customer Requests: Features your customers have explicitly asked for
  • Commitments: Specific obligations, such as satisfying contractual terms (external customers), or providing tools to your support team (internal customers)
  • Fixes: Bugs, or minor enhancements, that will in totality improve the overall experience
  • Technical debt: The various technical clean-up (or refactoring) the product needs (see here for more detail).

Your job, as a product manager, is to balance all of these often competing objectives, of what you want to do, with what you must do, and what you can do. The net result is a set of clear plans and processes that align all of your stakeholders.

3) Details: Getting things done

While the high-level strategy and detailed plans are nice, at the end of the day, your job is to do whatever it takes to ship your product.

I truly believe that in order to truly empower and remove obstacles for your team, you simply can’t get around being in the nitty-gritty details. So in this category we deal with all of the day-to-day executional tasks, that are directly delivered, or overseen by the product manager, which include:

  • People / resource management: All of the task allocation and progress tracking to ensure all people are pointed in the right direction and working on the most important things, at the right time
  • Specifications: Providing direction to the development team on what to build, ranging from a quick sketch to illustrate and discuss a concept, to detailed & explicit specifications that account for the various edge cases that may arise.
  • Design feedback: If you’re working with a design person, this involves detailed reviews of their work in as real a setting as possible…however some PMs may also act as the designer.
  • Content reviews: Reviewing copy ranging from the main elements of your user experience, all the way to the minutiae, like error messages and hint text.
  • Bug finding & triage: This entails exercising the product to the nth degree to uncover anything that is “off” in any way, and then taking that feedback and sorting it into its appropriate priority.
  • Edge case decisions: As development begins, undoubtedly, there will be many micro-decision that need to be made to account for unforeseen conditions.
  • User research: This can entail specific usability testing of workflows, as well as more in-depth focus groups, or interviews with customers to understand their needs.
  • Analytics: Critical to the product’s success is to analyze specific performance patterns, either by way of ad-hoc investigations, or more specific analysis of experiments (e.g. A/B tests).
  • Enabling stakeholders: In many cases, your job as a PM is to train, enable, and support other team members, or departments, such as customer support, marketing, operations, and sales…and in really early stage companies some of these functions may also be your job.


Looking Ahead

The “3Ds” gives us a means to encapsulate the many, varied functional components Product Managers must service. In the next post, we’ll look at how each of these are calibrated, based on the type of customer you are serving.

Go back to Part 1: The Introduction


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