Rewind to the start of your career, what skills would you need for an entry level Product Manager?

If you could go back to the start of your career, what fundamental PM skills would you tell your younger self to learn to become an effective entry level product manager?

Product management isn’t a subject that’s widely available in schools or universities. Most people seem to learn it on the job. But this is a barrier for a lot of people trying to break into the industry because they don’t know what they don’t know.

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This a great question! For me a few things stand out (I accidentally stumbled into a pm role over 10 years ago and have been finding my way ever since). Here are a few skills you might want to master to become a pm and then build your way up:

1. Most important: Base principles, base principles, base principles.

There are so many different tools, nuances, frameworks, approaches out there that to try and focus on the specifics is an exercise in futility. Rather I would tell myself to get really good at starting from tool agnostic things like l, what are you trying to accomplish? Why that? How do you know it matters? How will you measure it?

2. Simple, concrete, storytelling.

I like to talk. Early on I found myself over explaining or making 10 points that effectively mean I made no points. So I would tell younger self to spend a little bit of time to think about how you can simplify what your communicating and make it stick.

Recent example, I’ve been working with a team to change our new user onboarding path. Rather than say something like we need a more streamlined, easy to use onboard process that is seamless for end users in our target market segment. With a 7 bullet list of the areas to focus on; I say, people should be able to go from never having heard of us to using our product in 2 minutes or less.

3. Focus on how something feels rather than just what it does or what it looks like.

Too often early on I found myself getting caught up in the minutiae of acceptance criteria and disregarding simply how a given product or feature set made a user feel. I would tell my younger self that someone’s experience using our product is as important if not more so than what our product actually does.

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@MichaelYoffe, This is really solid advice.

The common thing I’m picking up here is to focus on the timeless things like ‘learning to think like PM’ or ‘learn to communicate effectively as a PM’. As opposed to things that change like tools and frameworks.

Also your comment about feel vs look reminds me of this quote

The best companies don’t engineer solutions, they engineer emotions

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Yep! There’s nothing new under the sun and when something feels great, to me it is basically the only competitive differentiator that matters.

Case in point (though not a perfect example). I would 100% rather be hanging out with a group of close friends in the freezing cold around a campfire laughing and swapping stories then to be completely alone in a mansion.

The feeling makes the experience, not the other way round.

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To become a pm, pick some basic fundamental of software engineering. Front end, back end, database, etc.

Would’ve been a more resourceful if the PM skills I had taken had an inclination towards engineering side early on.

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@ShiyaoLiu, Agreed. I’m an engineer turned PM at a med device company. As an entry level product manager, technical/fundamental background really helped me gauge the amount of work needed for a feature or to solve a problem, understand what the engineers needed from me, and let me ask better questions to users. So in short, I’d say I developed the pm skills along with my work. imo

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Just curious, what made you become a PM vs staying in engineering? I’m a technical PM with all the needed pm skills, working on very BE heavy data infrastructure and tooling, and have been thinking about becoming a dev instead. For me, I’m getting tired of constantly jumping through the usual PM hoops and feel like solving problems as a dev sounds so much more interesting at times. Would love to know your thoughts!

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What do you mean by a more resourceful PM? Also I do hear that a lot from PMs, but why do you feel technical knowledge is important for an entry level product manager?

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@FelipeRibeiro, Any error or deployment issues, I’d relegate it to technical folks and a pm role revolves to being note taker. Sometimes literally asking for dictations.

Then have to follow the process to enter a bug ask for resources, negotiate priorities with scrum master, get feedback send to DevOps or Client services and it goes back and forth. If I could read code and had basic debugging skills, I’d be in a position to take next steps instead of help me so I can help you situation.

Really wish companies encouraged PMs to take up basic pm skills, for those that wanted, because eventually everything affects a PMs decision when determining priorities and commitments.

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Do you have any thoughts on why being technical wouldn’t be important for a PM?

What is the role and responsibilities of a PM in your organization? That will dictate how much technical knowledge is needed.

A lot of people can put it much better than I can, so here are some articles that I’ve found insightful:

Disclaimer! It’s entirely plausible that I’ve sought out articles to confirm my biases based on my education, work experience, and preferences.

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Even having some background as a designer can be helpful in a similar way as well. Basically anything that allows you to better understand what it takes for other team members to do their jobs will help a ton when communicating and when making decisions.

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@JoelSchulman, I totally agree with this! But I think the difference is that design concepts and skills can be learned in small chunks over time. Learn something in a design review with a designer who explains why they did X instead of Y, learn something from reading a blog post, learn a bunch of things by reading a good book on design, etc. With programming, there’s a chasm of sorts that needs to be crossed by learning a number of foundational concepts and skills that take time (months of almost daily, focused and difficult practice, in my experience) to understand — before you get to the point that you can really learn much from a conversation with an engineer or a blog post or a book about technical concepts.

That’s why I’d put programming at the top of my “wish I’d learned this first thing” list.

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I second this. Learning to program is super valuable for PM roles in many ways. Here’s the important bit that makes this the best answer (based on my own experience in my career) for the question posed — while there are plenty of other good answers (e.g. UX design, data analytics, business strategy, communication and storytelling, etc.):

You will not just pick up the kinds of technical skills you learn programming “as you go” or “on the job”. Almost everything else that matters for product management is combining or learning to apply some basic knowledge or skills you already have. If needed, I can teach the rest of the job to an interested programmer or former engineer over time, as long as they have the right temperament and a bit of aptitude. It’s all explainable to them, even if some of it will take some reps and focused practice. UX design concepts can be picked up over time. Business strategy and metrics can be picked up over time. Effective communication can be picked up over time. In stark contrast, programming takes months of frequent, focused sessions of learning and practicing and struggling to really get, because in introduces novel concepts that don’t just combine or repurpose things you already know (unless you already have a CS background or prior programming experience). A PM with a non-technical background is just never going to learn true technical skills and concepts by osmosis over time. Or at least, I was certainly never going to be able to.

I don’t think all PMs need to be programmers, although I think there are some technical/platform kinds of PM roles where they probably should be. But it never hurts and is pretty universally nice to have in all PM roles, I think. My ability to quickly and effectively communicate with engineers increased dramatically once I learned some pretty basic programming (I’m not skilled at programming, never done it professionally, and have never built anything in production). And engineers respect me much more now, because they don’t need to figure out how to explain technical challenges and tradeoffs “to a business person”.

And lastly, learning to program gives you the option to build a product yourself (evenings and weekends) without needing to hire out development, if you ever have the ambition to start your own company — even if you’re only good enough to build a prototype/POC to prove out the idea.