So, you want to be an awesome product manager? (Hint: It won’t happen just by taking an online certification course.) Sure, there are the Pragmatic Marketing courses and UC Berkeley Executive MBA programs of the world that can give you a jump start. But in the long run, a “student-always” approach is better for your career.
Product management (PM) is such an interdisciplinary function, that I suggest you design your own self-directed PM courses. Based on my experience as a product manager and manager of PMs in the past 10+ years, I recommend these six must-do’s — an ongoing effort at continuing education rather than collecting a piece of paper.
1. Learn to write good product requirements.
This is a critical and urgent tactical skill to have. A PM is expected to deliver the PRD upon hire, since there is usually an expensive engineering team on the bench waiting to execute. For this, I recommend reading the following books as reference and use examples in the books instead of taking an online course.
2. Acquire the necessary domain knowledge.
In order to get respect, a PM has to know more about the domain than anybody else in the company. There is no course for this either, although much of the research can be done online.
Read up on anything related to the industry you are in: industry analyst reports, stock analyst reports, sign up for competitive products and try them, attend trade conferences and shows, conduct informational interviews with industry experts.
By doing this, the PM should get a very good sense of where the market is headed, and the broad lines of where the product should go. This may take longer than expected, so be patient.
3. Be the voice of the customer.
This is probably the most important skill for a PM (and what the Pragmatic Marketing course emphasizes deeply). The best way to do this is by observing customers in their natural environment, borrowing the ethnography method from anthropology.
That’s what Intuit’s Follow Me Home method is about. Google “how to do customer visits for product management” and research the results.
The key is to have an open mind and not lead the customers to follow your own bias. Customer needs translate into new ideas for features and products. Short of doing customer visits, interviewing customers or potential customers is the next best thing. Listen in to customer support calls. Make it a habit to call customers at random and speak to them.
4. Be an advocate of good user experience.
In order to speak the language of good User Interaction (UI), the PM needs to understand the principles of good user interface and the tools required for delivering them, although they don’t need to do them on a day to day basis.
There are many books and courses related to UI principles from the philosophical (“design thinking”) to the practical (“how to use three-column layout”). The Inmates are Running the Asylum (TIARA) by Alan Cooper is a good intro book. The consulting company founded by Alan Cooper offers several courses that you can pick to suit your need. Lynda.com and Udemy offer practical courses on how to use Omnigraffle, Photoshop, and other design tools.
5. Speak the language of engineering.
The PM does not need to be a coder. I know effective PMs who were history majors. But you need to understand the engineers’ language.
You have to understand the various technologies employed in “sausage making,” from the back-end infrastructure to the customer-facing interfaces. In software, this means understanding about MVC, SQL, object orientation, API, etc. If you are in mobile apps, you have to understand what Apple SDK means. Wikipedia is your friend.
This also means you understand at a high level the process for delivering a product from concept to release. Nowadays Agile is the norm, so you have to understand Scrum or other Agile methods from the point of view of a Product Owner. There are online courses for this offered by Rally Software.
6. Act like a business owner.
You have to be an evangelist and salesperson for your product. Beyond delivering a great product, think about:
- How can my product can be adopted by the target audience?
- What is the best business model to sustain and expand the product?
- How much does it cost to deliver a unit of my product (what are the required one-time investment, the annual overhead, and the variable costs)?
Depending on whether it is a mass product (for B2C or small businesses) or a custom-delivered product (B2B), you can focus on product marketing or increasing sales effectiveness. Either way, the PM is usually tasked with helping product marketing position the product, and educating salespeople and account managers about how to best pitch the product. Check out Business Model Generation for various business models that may fit your product.