Steven Forth is a Co-Founder of TeamFit. See his Skill Profile.


Product management is emerging as one of the key roles in the innovation economy. Many of the fastest growing companies position themselves as ‘product first’ and events like ProductCamp draw sell out crowds. ProductCamp Vancouver was held in late February and had almost 500 people attending on a snowy Vancouver day. Vancouver does not cope well with snow so this is much more impressive than it would be in Boston say, or Montreal.

New communities and services for the upper reaches of product management are emerging such as Product Culture and there is a growing effort being made to support and mentor people new to the field.

So what are the skills needed in product management? This is going to be part of our skill research for 2018 (we are currently researching the skills needed for pricing expertise).

We like to start our research into a field by interviewing prominent practitioners. After ProductCamp Vancouver, we were able to sit down with Eric Bin, Director of Product Management at the rapidly growing Vancouver Legal Practice Management software company Clio. We sketched Eric’s view of the skills needed for product management as a mind map (we are also using mind maps to explore people’s career goals and to map these to skills).

For Eric, the foundational skills for product management are ‘Leadership,’ ‘Communication,’ ‘Empathy,’ ‘Data,’ and ‘Design.’

There is some tension in here for sure. Finding people with high ‘Empathy’ who are also good with ‘Data’ and ‘Decision Making’ is not always easy. In some conventional workplaces, these are seen as being in opposition to each other. ‘Empathy’ and ‘Data Driven’ are not in opposition to each other, or at least, they do not have to be. Finding people who are able to bring these skills together is one of the keys to leading product management teams.

Of course, the product leader is going to have to develop a deep domain knowledge, and get close to the users. In my experience, one does not have to begin with domain knowledge. It is often better to develop this knowledge together with the product. People who come with fixed ideas about what is normal in a field often fail to innovate.

The lines that cut across categories in mind maps can be very important. Note the dotted line above. It runs between ‘Prioritization’ and ‘Drive Decisions.’ Prioritization is attached to Leadership and Drive Decisions to Data. Clio is a company that wants its product leaders to be making data-driven decisions part of leadership, but at the same time to show Empathy. Look at the skills attached to Empathy: Listening, Understanding Motivation, Being Able to Care.

We also like to go to the TeamFit Skill Graph and see the associated skills. In the case of Product Management, one of the most closely associated skills is Project Management. I wonder about this. To me, Product Management and Project Management are very different types of work. Product Management is about goal setting, project management is about goal attainment.

On the other hand, I am currently reading The Amazon Way on IoT by John Rossman. He has led the development of a number of important innovations at Amazon, including the Amazon Marketplace. This was a product management role , but Rossman considers himself to be at heart a project manager.

Another aspect of Product Development is teamwork. In a recent post, Itmar Gilad wrote about 5 Tips for Building Effective Product Management Teams. One of his five points is to look for skills and not the résumé. In the post he called out three skills that he regards as critical to product management.

Analytical thinking — Good PMs are good at breaking problems into their parts, doing pro and con assessments, coming up with guesstimates, analyzing facts and data, and estimating probabilities and distributions. Interview question — “How much storage does Evernote require to support its UK users?”

User/Customer empathy — The ability to understand and share the feelings of another person who may be very different from you is key to building a product that delivers value for that person. I found that some people are just more naturally inclined to see things through the eyes of their target audience and are able to articulate this view back to others. It’s not a common skill — most of us just assume that other people are like us. Interview question — “Design an AirBnB-like app for people who are vision-impaired”.

Humility — Product managers have a lot of power over the product. An over-confident PM who fully trusts his/her intuition and judgment and does not need proof is every bit as bad as a manager who has these traits. Strong opinions, held lightly is what we’re after. Interview question — “Tell me of a time when you got into a strong disagreement with someone over the requirements you set. How did you handle the situation?”

He also talked about three areas that he feels are given too much emphasis by many people.

Education — OK, I admit that I think that an engineering degree (or significant hands-on experience) is very helpful for PMs, but then again I’ve seen good PMs come from all walks of life. Background in psychology or design is a plus. Same for business degree. An MBA is definitely not a must.

Domain expertise — I’m seeing companies spend quarters looking for a PM that has just the right experience in their industry and in their business model. Don’t worry about it — good PMs are generalists and can learn quickly. Don’t let go of someone talented just because of lack the domain knowledge.

Work experience — it’s not hard to build an impressive-looking CV. Resumes are a way to filter candidates, but once the candidate is in the interview process, they should not play a factor in hiring. It’s the results of the interviews, ideally based on multiple interviewers, that should matter.

There are some clear connections between Eric and Itmar’s views on product management skills. They both call out Empathy as a key thing. Empathy is also frequently cited as a key skill for Design Thinking (I believe Design Thinking to be a foundational skill set for Product Management). A close reading of the components of the skill Analytical Thinking in Itmar’s model shows some overlap with the Data skills called out by Eric.

I wonder if there is a tension between Eric’s call for Leadership skills and Itmar’s focus on the importance of Humility. I think the goal here is to help people combine both. At the end of the day, great product leaders will be people who can resolve two core tensions and move them to a higher level.

So the deeper question is this.

“What are the foundational and social skills that enable a person to take the tension between Empathy and Analysis (Data) and between Leadership and Humility and move them to a higher level?”

Over the coming months, TeamFit will be digging in to the better understand the skills of top product managers. Please contact us if you would like to contribute to this research.