Ask Me Anything: Soft vs Hard Product Management Skills

This past month we had the privilege of hosting 5 very talented Product Leaders on the Product School community channel:

  1. Tirtha Chavan, Senior Product Manager at Salesforce
  2. Nirav Patel, Product Lead at Microsoft
  3. Ananya Mishra, Product Leader at Microsoft
  4. Pranjal Tripathi, Senior Product Manager at Salesforce
  5. Tori Funkhouser, Senior Product Manager at Twitter

The theme of September was soft vs hard Product Management skills. Both are important, but where do you start? Which are the most important? Here’s what these Product Leaders had to say.

Bonus: read on for their insights on breaking into Product, making decisions with limited information, Product Discovery, dealing with challenges as a PM, plus final tips for aspiring Product Managers!

Soft vs Hard Product Management Skills

In your opinion, what soft and hard skills are important to be an effective Product Manager?

two people seated side by side and smiling. there are papers on a wooden table in front of them

Tirtha

I believe as a Product Manager, one needs to have following skills:

  • Customer obsession – As a PM, nothing is more important for me than the success of my customers.
  • Prioritization (As a PM, you are going to say NO a lot. So, it is extremely important to have a clear prioritization framework that your stakeholders understand so that they know why you had to say no to their request). Take outside-in perspective and make data driven decisions as much as possible.
  • Influencing without authority
  • Jobs to be done for each persona
  • How to say NO :cara_ligeramente_sonriente:
  • Metrics – How do you define and measure success. :gráfico:
  • Depending on the role – Technical skills, pitching etc.
  • Excellent and clear communication skills – If you are unclear, you are unkind to your stakeholders.

Nirav

I always divide this in to 3 types of skills at a higher level –

1) Soft skills. You learn them everywhere in your personal and professional life. You can carry them into any new role in future, including PM role. Then you can enhance particular skill as needed. (stakeholder management, communication, leading change, negotiation and expectation management etc.),

2) Hard skills. These are pure PM skills what you will have to learn to be a PM. (pure PM skills around strategy, vision, prioritization, market/industry analysis etc.)

3) Functional. Generally you acquire these skills on the job. If you have prior experience outside PM, then try to find PM role into functional/technical skills that you acquired in past. That can give you jump start because you will be able to reuse part of them. (like retail, ecommerce, banking, supply chain etc.) and/or technical skills – one of these two skills is definitely important to thrive as a PM; both would be a big plus!

four computer screens and hands typing code

Ananya

Soft skills: it’s definitely important to be good at communicating and building relationships with others. Building a product is a team effort and it’s important that you’re communicating effectively with both internal and external stakeholders. Empathy is key.

Hard skills: it all depends on what kind of PM you are, but data analysis skills will come in handy for most roles. It’s important to be able to crunch numbers in order to gather evidence for your hypothesis and then later track the usage of your new feature.

Other hard skills that are role dependent could include technical skills & UX skills. PMs don’t necessarily have to code but I would recommend learning the basics. There’s so many online tutorials nowadays, try out an intro to Python or JavaScript course and see how you feel

Pranjal

Soft Skills: Most important is Communication, the ability to easily convey your thoughts. Next are negotiation, convincing skills, team player, presentation skills, prioritization skills, good judgement skills…etc

Hard Skills: Data analysis so that you can see the metrics and performance of your product, little bit technical knowledge of your products… knowledge of Product Owner responsibilities and agile mindset.. etc

Tori

Soft skills: I think it’s important to understand how to put presentations together. This took me a while to learn. Putting together a presentation requires having a vision and data to back that up, storytelling, and succinct plans / proposals. I started somewhat recently building decks rather than docs even at the beginning of the process to help myself think strategically and in a way that can help communicate to stakeholders.

Hard skills: I do think it’s important to know at least at an intermediate level about data – analysis, structure, etc. I think you should know at least at a high level about a full stack of technical concepts (back end dev, front end dev, some understanding of ML/AI – you don’t have to go crazy on it, but it’s good to know).

Breaking Into Product

Tips on how to transition into Product?

Tirtha

  • You don’t need an MBA or coding or advanced analytics skills to be a PM.
  • Consider PM roles in your current industry. For example: As a sales/ customer success manager, try to move into the PM role within your company for the product you are supporting. You have an advantage since you have a strong customer empathy. You understand your customers, their personas, how they make decisions, their challenges and how they use your product.
  • Network network network! Internally and externally! Your network is your net worth! Treat every coffee chat as a potential first interview. Ask them if there is anyone else you should talk to – Is there an inspiring PM on your team that I should talk to. Ask them for mock interviews. :cara_ligeramente_sonriente:

Ananya

person jumping with white fence and blue sky in background
  1. The easiest way to transition to a PM role is to do it internally within the same company. If you’re a developer, I would recommend asking your PM for extra tasks so that you can gain experience. Since PMs are usually very busy, I’m sure they would be happy to offload some of that work. You could also demonstrate your product skills through side projects both within the company or with your free time. Think “hackathon” level side projects for your company and act as the PM for that project.
  2. As a new grad, I would recommend looking into APM (Associate Product Manager) or other PM rotational programs that you can apply to. But if you’re not sure if being a PM is the right role for you yet, I would recommend creating a mini side project and acting as the PM for that. There are numerous “no-code” tools out there that you can use to build mini apps or websites, like bubble.io
  3. Try to figure out which industry and type of role you’d be interested in, by trial and error. It’s important to keep as open mind, as some roles that might not seem interesting as first could actually be better than you initially expected.

Pranjal

I slowly transitioned in PM from Data Analyst role within same company by showing the leaders that I have/gained the PM skills. I would recommend to switch internally as it is the easiest way to transition into PM… But if this is not possible then, APM programs, PM internships and PM certifications are good resources that can help some for this transition.

When breaking into Product:

  • Be patient
  • Always think from the customer’s side.. (Customer centric)

I understand that transitioning into PM from different roles are tough because of lot of competition in the PM job market. I remember it was really exhausting and sometime heartbreaking process for me.

Tori

In my opinion, having your own startup is a better way to become a PM than even those other routes! I talked about this in my webinar for Product School. (This is one person’s opinion, so grain of salt, of course).

But being a PM is about building product and business solutions for users. You need technical skills of course but building your own company is super relevant to becoming a PM! There are also a lot of paths into PM – I know it’s not direct, but you can do it however works best for you. My main advice would be to do what you’re doing and to build your own product so you can really get experience and understand if you like the type of work PMs do!

Decisions With Limited Information

How would you make product decisions with incomplete or very little data?

Tirtha

  • When I am running experiments, I build a set of hypothesis based on what I already know about the customers and their challenges. During the experiment, I test my hypothesis. So, I try to be very clear about problems I am trying to solve and assumptions I am trying to validate.
  • When I don’t have enough quantitative data, I try to balance it with qualitative research (I talk to customers, sales, customer success), win-loss analysis, and leverage competitive benchmarking.

What’s your approach to dealing with ambiguity? How do you make product decisions in a timely manner in the face of uncertainty? 

person sitting in office on phone

Nirav

It’s always good to make decisions based on objective data points. If it is not handy, try to capture them quickly if possible.

If there are no data points then best thing is to reach out to key stakeholders and see if you can learn something from them quickly. If that is not possible and you still need to make decision then see if you can delay it or delay part of the decision. Basically you may need to buy some time for that part of the decision where risk is high.

In the worst case situation, if you need to make decision quickly, right now, then ensure that you rightly identify the risks, convey them to key stakeholders and bring everyone on same page upfront to avoid more conflicts later.

Product Discovery

How do you come up with ideas for what to build?

Tirtha

I love this question! I keep a running list of all the product challenges/ ideas that I hear about from all the sources.

  • Talk to your customers – My favorite technique is watching customer use my product so that I can identify manual steps they are taking outside of my product (this is your opportunity to automate) and when they switch to another tool (product integration opportunity)
  • Talk to internal teams that regularly talk to your customers – Sales, Support, Marketing and Customer ️Success team :cara_ligeramente_sonriente:
  • Block time on your calendar each month to listen to your competitors’ investor calls, quarterly earnings and to use their products.
  • Discussions/ brainstorming with teammates
  • Define your Northstar and work backwards from your Northstar/ vision
  • Your most unhappy customers are your biggest source of inspiration. Look into what caused attrition
  • Looking at adjacent markets – new industries, markets, customer segments, geos you can penetrate
  • Hackathons
  • Catch technology and industry trends
  • Using the product yoursel️f (End to end experience from trial to renewal and everything in between)

How do you reach users for feedback before you start Product design/development?

person looking at a phone screen

At Twitter we have teams of folks to help us with recruitment, setting up the plan for the research, execution of the research, and follow-ups/proposals from what we learned. On teams when I didn’t have dedicated research or design folks, I did this myself.

I really liked Tristan Kromer’s resources around user research – starting with the experiment outline (hypothesis, learning goals, etc.) and then getting creative about approaches to answering our questions. In terms of how you get to them you sometimes have to get super creative!

Dealing With Challenges

What do you do when leadership asks you to work on something that’s not on the roadmap?

Nirav

We as PMs face this challenge all the time! If not from leadership member then from other key stakeholders. What is important is to define objective prioritization techniques (like ICE, RICE, MoSCoW, Lean etc.) during early phase, communicate the same upfront (ensuring that stakeholders understand that) and then follow the same throughout the lifecycle.

If someone is pushing for the feature that does not meet the prioritization technique’s criteria then explain it to him/her and ask for more details to justify the priority.

If you can’t crack the individual yourself then try to involve other key stakeholder (like sponsor, chief architect, scrum master etc.) who can support you with the defined process.

What is the most difficult part of being a Product Manager?

Tori

I think the difficult parts are stakeholder management and finding creative solutions to building projects. I think the most important part is having empathy for the customer. It’s often hard to triangulate what the customer needs with what the stakeholders want with what’s actually feasible. But I do think that if you keep the customer in mind and have empathy for your team, you can create great product!

What are your thoughts on efforts and roadblocks for Product Managers when working on bottom up vs top down (Leadership initiated) product ideas?

Tori

Thanks for the question! I’ve been on two different teams at Twitter. The first team was more bottom-up and the second team was more top-down. I think honestly the reason the second team is that way might be related to larger things happening at the company and leadership needing to be somewhat careful.

In terms of bottom-up vs. top-down, I think both can work! When it’s bottom-up, you have to gather a TON of information and get a lot of people in on your strategy and working with you to spread the news. When it’s top-down you have to work with leadership to find a sweet spot for being bought in to what they are looking to achieve — and then leading the team toward that charge. You have to ‘disagree and commit’ more. Either way can be effective.

Final Advice

Any final tips for aspiring Product Managers?

Tirtha

I would recommend building a Product mindset. For ex: When you are using any product, from ordering a coffee in an app to buying a movie ticket, think about what would you do as a PM to reduce friction for the end-user. If you have multiple ideas, which one would you prioritize and why.

Network, Network, Network. Reach out to internal and external PMs in your community. When you send a LinkedIn connection, mention that you want to break into the PM role and want to learn from them. This is a wonderful community and most folks want to help to shine! :estrella2:

Ananya

It’s always easier to learn something through practice.

At work, practice being a PM by asking current PMs for extra work or creating your own side projects.

Outside of work, try creating your own side projects through “no-code” tools so that you can go through the entire product development lifecycle & practice acquiring users. These can be really simple apps.

Also outside of work, try volunteering to be a PM at a nonprofit. DemocracyLab & Angellist always have openings. You can also look for local nonprofits in your area and offer to help them with their website or app that they’re trying to launch.

Pranjal

  • The PM Job market is tough and very competitive, so be patient and keep going.
  • The most important skill for a PM is to be customer-centric. Thinking about the customer’s pain-points, customer journey, their experience (UX) So that you can improve or provide a product to the customers that really help and create impact in their life.
  • For interview process: Be confident. if you are confident and your communication is clear, it reflects that you can confidently manage your product. This is really very important in any interview.
  • PM Experience matters more than the PM certifications.
  • Knowledge/experience of Agile is nowadays really important for a PM.
  • Always know why you want to be a PM, why you want to transition from any technical role to PM, what interests you about PM, what was the deciding factor when you thought to be a PM. Answer of these questions will help you in almost all of your interviews.

Tori

My final advice is to 1) build your own app! 2) try to get a PM job anywhere to start – there are a million interesting problems to solve and customers to help; just start somewhere! 3) keep trying! it’s not easy to break into a PM role, but you’ll be able to do it if you keep working at it. Good Luck!!

5 Product Leaders from Microsoft, Salesforce, and Twitter, on which hard and soft skills are essential for PMs.

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