Given how many responsibilities product managers have today, it’s easy to lose focus of the fact that the modern meaning of the role itself is still relatively new. And even still, the position’s duties can vary wildly depending on the organization.
This may be one of the reasons the folks running Mind the Product have found so much success building supportive communities around product management. The organization originally began in 2010 as a small meetup group of product professionals, dubbed Product Tank, in London, and has since expanded into over 100 cities around the world.
Whereas Product Tank facilitates local meetups, its offshoot, Mind the Product — which was initially started as a blog resource for those groups — has now grown to hosting annual product management conferences in Hamburg (April 19-20, 2018), San Francisco (July 16-17, 2018) and London (shown above in 2017; happening October 18-19, 2018), showcasing new job openings on its website and still producing regular content on its blog, among other things.
We spoke with Mind the Product co-founder and CEO, James Mayes, about some of the challenges facing product managers today, the traits of a good and bad PM and how the job itself can instill a sense of imposter syndrome.
Jama Software: Things are changing so quickly in product development. How can product managers not get left behind?
James Mayes: I think one of the things that really makes a difference for product management over engineering is with engineering you are looking at hard technical skills: programming languages and frameworks. And when something new comes out, you need to learn it and be on top of that.
With product management, there is so much more related to the mindset that you bring. You need to be open and to trust that you don’t necessarily know everything, but know you are surrounded by great people.
If you can learn to ask good questions — learn to continuously be curious — and have the humility to expect that people will be open and honest in return, that’s probably the strongest thing you can do as a product person.
JS: What would you say are the qualities that make a great product manager?
JM: The ability to be constantly learning. Certainly, a fundamental curiosity about everything you touch. The ability to be humble. When you’re trying to bring so many different teams together, your job is essentially to defuse the different empires that might be at play. You have to find the right path from stakeholders and the different requirements, and balance different priorities.
And all along, recognizing that, as product managers, typically while you might be writing the strategy, you don’t necessarily own any of the resources that you have to work with. They don’t report to you. They report to a CTO or VP of Engineering, something like that.
As a product manager, you’re there to build consensus and to get everybody going towards that vision without necessarily having the power to compel them.
JS: And then conversely, how do you know if you’re working with a bad product manager?
JM: That’s a tough one. And that’s one where we’re starting to look at more and more with the leadership series that we’re running. It’s a very timely question.
From our perspective, we’ve noticed that’s actually one of the biggest shifts in the marketplace over the last five years or so. When we first started going to the conference, a lot of the questions that people were coming with were things like, “What’s the best way to prioritize a backlog? What’s the best way to show my roadmap? How do I engage with key stakeholders?”
And typically, with product managers, there were only one or two of them at their organization. Right now, there are organizations out there with product management functions of 10, 20, 50, 100 product people.
How you identify a manager who’s struggling and how you support them better? That’s one of the questions a lot of people are bringing now.
One of the things that we found is that we have to actually separate out that side of stuff for some of the more mainstream meet-ups and conferences that we do because it’s hard for somebody to ask that question when their team is sitting around them. They wonder, “Is he talking about me?”
JS: How do you keep product managers from getting too discouraged? Because obviously you have to keep your head up if you’re going to complete development successfully, but there are a lot of setbacks along the way.
JM: It doesn’t matter how many times we say, “Keep your chin up, you’ll get through it.” What really matters to product managers is hearing it from other people who are also in those trenches. That makes a huge difference.
I think the other thing we have heard a lot more of over the last year or so is the idea of imposter syndrome in the workplace. The opinion that maybe I’m not up to it.
Listening to some of the talks we’ve had over the last year, one of the things that’s started to become a little bit more obvious is the breadth of skills required to become a product manager contributes towards imposter syndrome.
You’ll be working with a design team and you might be doing some prototype design work. The designers will be better than you.
You’ll be with the engineering team and you might hack a little bit of code together to try something. But the engineers would do it better than you.
You might be working with the commercial team to look at the pricing and marketing. But those people are specialists and they’re going to know it better than you as well.
Product manager? You’re going to have a very, very broad skill set. You’re going to be doing a little bit of all these things. But everywhere you look, there’s going to be true specialists who outclass you in that particular niche.
And that can very, very easily contribute towards this overall feeling of, “I’m surrounded constantly by people that are better than me.”
JS: Right, so what do I bring to the table?
JM: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s, that’s the point at which, as a product manager, you need to be engaging with those teams and say, “How can I be making you more effective? How can we work better on this? What can I do for you? What can you do for me?” And really making sure that those lines of communication are as open as they possibly can be.
It’s one of these things that, again, we’ve seen more and more on our side of things is product managers asking about communication skills and stakeholder management skills.
Those soft skills that, typically, people in technology-led companies don’t get trained for. They’ll get training on design tools or coding languages. But those other skills that make the best product managers? Not so much.
For more insights into becoming a more effective product manager, check out our white paper, “Top Three Frustrations of Product Managers and Tips to Avoid Them.”