You hear a lot about the need for soft skills in product management, but product managers also need hard skills. In fact, any discussion about product management soft skills should presuppose you’ve already mastered the specific abilities required for the job: the hard skills. But what are they?
In this post, we’ll address some of the hard skills we believe product managers should develop. But first, let’s clarify the differences between soft skills and hard skills. Ashok Bania, Director of Product Management for the popular meditation app Headspace, recently shared his definition of the two with us.
“Hard skills are very pertinent to your role and the work you are doing. They are your technical skills. For example, if you’re a data engineer, hard skills represent how much you know about data, how much you know about models, how much you know about statistics, and so on.
Soft skills, however, are not directly pertinent to your job. Soft skills will help you in just about any job, and even in your own personal life. Things like communication, time management, and focus.”
— Ashok Bania, Director of Product Management, Headspace
So what are the hard skills that product managers need?
6 Hard Skills Product Managers Should Have
1. Basic Business Competencies
You don’t need a degree in business or finance to be a product manager (although it wouldn’t hurt). But, you will need some fluency in business basics.
For example, you’ll need to know the difference between revenues and profits, and you’ll need to understand budgeting, cash flow, and possibly even how to read a profit-and-loss (P&L) statement.
As a product manager, your role requires you to know not only the details of your product’s development, but also how things happening elsewhere in the company could affect that development. Additionally, if a stakeholder asks you to discuss revenues for specific products over a certain timeframe, or to offer your forecasts for future revenues, you’ll need to know how to read, interpret, and articulate these details.
2. Basic Product Management Knowledge
Product management is a sweeping discipline. There are many ways to approach product development, so getting started can seem overwhelming.
One of the most important hard skills in product management it (surprise!) basic knowledge of best practices in the trade. It’s advised that product managers learn about the various different frameworks, processes, and methodologies out there. Fortunately, smart product managers before you have done a lot of this work already and codified it into various product management strategies.
The Journal Blog, for example, has built a page listing 11 great frameworks for product managers. Dig into some of the frameworks on this list and learn the different strategies available for researching product ideas, acquiring new customers, delighting existing users, and the zillion other things you’ll have to do as a product manager.
3. Ruthless (Objective) Prioritization Skills
In our recent webinar, Essential Skills All Product Managers Must Master, panelist Isabelle Berner, Senior Product Manager at Pivotal Labs, said that one of a product manager’s top responsibilities is to be a ruthless force for prioritization. This is critical to ensuring the engineers are always working on what’s most important. But as Isabelle explained, this means that “a lot of our job is saying no… to requests coming in from sales, marketing, customer support, even our stakeholders.”
Knowing how to prioritize, and how to respectfully turn down requests that could upset your product’s strategic priorities, is an extremely valuable skill. And yes, it probably covers a grey area between hard and soft skill. The webinar panel itself was torn as to how to categorize it.
But we believe mastering this ability is important enough to a product manager that it deserves a place on this list of hard skills. Particularly because you can apply science to it. Objective prioritization frameworks are helpful for many prioritization decisions. And we think working knowledge of these frameworks and when and how to use them is a critical product management hard skill.
4. Proficiency in Research and Analysis
Pivotal’s Director of Marketing Ronan Dunlop, put it this way: “Data is vital to a product manager. All forms of data.”
As we’ve pointed out here many times, your product roadmap decisions should be data driven, not based entirely on your intuition (no matter how well-honed that intuition is). Data can help alert product managers to opportunities or threats in the market. It can guide them to the right places to focus development resources, and it can even help them validate product and feature ideas before allocating resources into them.
But all of this assumes that the product manager in question knows:
- How to conduct market research
- How to use (or build) tools to compile and analyze data
- And, how to interpret all of the data these tools generate
During our webinar, panelist Kevin Steigerwalk, Jama Software’s Vice President of Product, made an interesting point:
“Data can catch you off-guard. You might do your research and think, ‘Now I have all of my data points; I’ve told my story and made my business case.’ But then if you present it to someone with more of an understanding of data than you have, they might be able to easily poke holes in your plan.”
So we, like Kevin, believe that gaining proficiency in metrics, analytics, and research definitely represents a hard skill every product manager should develop.
5. Familiarity with Economics
You don’t need a degree in economics to be a product manager (although that degree couldn’t hurt, either), but you should acquire at least a basic level of understanding of this discipline.
Think of it this way: Economics is the study of how people and societies deal with scarce resources that have alternative uses. As product managers, we almost always have some form of this issue. We have too many requests for our team to handle, a planned launch date that doesn’t leave us enough time, or not enough budget to hire the personnel we need.
Having a basic understanding of economics goes a long way toward understanding concepts you’ll use every day in this career. These concepts could include the need for tradeoffs, costs vs. benefit analyses, future consequences of current actions (think technical debt!), and others.
6. Knowledge of Development Principles
This was THE BIG QUESTION on our recent panel, and we’ve previously raised it ourselves here on the ProductPlan blog: Do product managers have to be technical? In other words, does a product manager working on a technical product need to come from a technical background such as engineering, like Headspace’s Ashok Bania did?
During the webinar, panelist Annie Dunham, ProductPlan’s own Director of Product, pointed out that there are certainly circumstances where career experience in a technical field is helpful for product managers. For example, if you’re managing products designed for technical users, such as engineers, a technical background may give you both the empathy for and a deeper understanding of those users.
But Annie, who has a technical background, also said there are situations when an engineer-turned-product manager could be undermined by that engineering background. “I’ve had technical conversations that go way too long,” she explained. In other words, there’s some risk of highly technical product managers putting on their engineer hats and losing focus on the big-picture strategic issues that they should be focusing on as product managers.
So the answer, we believe, is to strengthen your technical muscles—learn to code, take online courses on the technical disciplines in your field—so you can develop a deeper understanding of your products, your users, and your technical colleagues. That’s a hard skill worth honing, and it doesn’t require you to start over and earn a degree in engineering.
First the Hard Skills, Then the Soft
Soft skills, such as the ability to work comfortably with others or excellent listening skills, can help a product manager’s career.
But before you tackle those, you’ll want to master at least some product management hard skills. These commonly include research skills, an understanding of how businesses operate, and general knowledge of product management best practices. Once you have a solid foundation of hard skills, you can start focusing on how to best improve your soft skills to be a well-rounded product manager.
Can you think of other hard skills product managers should acquire? Let us know below!