Cultivating the Unicorn Software Product Manager

A really good product manager is a unicorn, a remarkable person that always stands out from the crowd. A product manager is a complex role that requires a balance of soft and hard skills to identify and manage product requirements, and to deliver quality products that align with the business’ goals. Think of a product manager as the CEO of the product line, responsible for successfully delivering value to the company. A really top notch product manager is an evangelist for the products, promoting it with prospects, customers, and the broader market. Such a mastery of the trade can only be achieved with years of hard work and toil. In this article, we will examine the role and responsibilities of a product manager, the attributes of a good product manager, and best practices for successfully delivering in this role that has steadily gained visibility over the last 10 years.

Who is a Product Manager?

The product manager is a critical team member that is responsible for the identification of the customer needs and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality. Product Managers are responsible for understanding the market, audience and demand for a software, hardware or service. They typically act as the point person throughout a project’s life cycle. Product Managers must balance input, concerns and feedback from multiple departments, key stakeholders, business leaders, customers and clients. They hover at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience (UX).


What are the Product Manager’s Responsibilities?

Now that we broadly defined the Product Manager role, let’s consider their specific responsibilities.  Unlike a fireman or a barista, a Product Manager does not have unique and consistent job descriptions because their responsibilities vary across industries and businesses. Whatever their specific responsibilities, all Product Managers share a core function, which is to drive the development of products and ultimately be responsible for the success of those products in the markets they serve.

In the case of a Software Product Manager, the software development lifecycle (SDLC) dictates the responsibilities. In the Discovery Phase, the Product Manager’s role is to understand and define what customers require in order to create products that meet their need.  An essential aspect of this role is to conduct detailed market research which involves analyzing the competitive landscape to check what products are available on the market and what customers value about them.  It also involves collecting information from current customers, and prospects, to identify pain points and desirable features. The outcome of this work is the development of an ideal customer profile that will dictate what the product will look like and how it will be positioned.

In the planning phase of the SDLC, the Product Manager translates the market research and customer profile into a prioritized list of product requirements. The Product Manager needs to collect and maintain a solid understanding of their product’s use cases based on input from customers, prospects, sales, and market analyses. Distilling down the customers’ needs into product use cases is an art in itself that can be honed with experience.

This list, in turn, is used to develop a product roadmap to provide a plan for a team with timelines and actions that must be completed. They need to bring innovative, differentiating product ideas for consideration on the roadmap. The Product Manager is also responsible for directing the preparation of the product requirement documents and functional specifications document, using collaborative tools.

In the development phase of the SDLC, the Product Manager works closely with the development team, including specifying developers’ requirements, creating UI mockups and continuously communicating with project stakeholders. They also collect and maintain a solid understanding of their product’s use cases based on input from customers, prospects, sales, and market analyses. They need to actively participate in sprint planning and daily standups to keep a close eye on the feature delivery process.

After the product launch, the Product Manager works with marketing and sales teams to promote the product and gain exposure in the market. The Product Manager regularly monitors and analyzes the product performance including customer feedback, revenue growth and other product-specific key performance indicators (KPIs).  Product Managers are also responsible for identifying product upgrades and improvements based on product performance and customer feedback.

What Makes a Good Product Manager?

Good Product Managers must have a diversified skill set spanning marketing, sales, business, and technical acumen. In many teams, a Product Manager may have the benefit of having accompanying subject matter experts in such areas as market research or software architecture. But often times they need to take on these auxiliary roles themselves and excel at it.

That said, the Product Manager should have rudimentary knowledge and experience in basic competencies such as:

  1. Interpretation and analysis of market research;
  2. Conducting customer interviews and user testing;
  3. Translating business requirements to technical requirements;
  4. Prioritization of features;
  5. Product road map development;
  6. Defining and tracking success metrics.

In addition to these core competencies, a good Product Manager should have solid soft skills in:

  1. Team communication and rapport, including both internal and external stakeholders;
  2. The ability to collaboratively navigate both internal and external hurdles;
  3. Participate on customer and sales meetings to hear and better understand customer needs
  4. Strong self-management skills, such that schedules are met, resource constraints are dealt with, and priority decisions are made;
  5. Consistent objectivity such to avoid projecting one’s own preferences onto project stakeholders and ultimately the users of the product;
  6. Organizational awareness, including a deep understanding of the product teams concerns, strengths and limitations, in such a way that successfully navigates the particular constraints (budget, resources, skills) in order to successfully produce the desired product.

Differentiators for “Unicorn” Product Managers

From our experience, here are some attributes of the “Unicorn” Product Managers that can separate them from the pack:

  • Understand the Company’s Objectives. Understand how the product fits into the company’s business objectives. To be successful, it is necessary to determine and align yourself with the company goals.
  • Understand the Customer’s Needs. Before one can design a successful product or feature, it is essential to understand the customer’s needs. For new products, this requires some thoughtful inquiry with an eye on features and benefits of competing products.  For existing products that will undergo upgrades or enhancement, seeking poignant and objective customer feedback is the key.
  • Analyze the Market. A succinct, but reasonably thorough, market analysis is needed to understand the current trends in demand, particularly for new products as well as for products entering a market rich in competition.
  • Intimately Know Your Product. For existing products, know the customer set up (particularly barriers and pain points), key features and the overall user experience first-hand before getting feedback on it.
  • Analyze Competing Products. Know the strengths and limitations of competing products. This information will help you form differentiators to help promote and sell your product.  And, candidly, there may be features that may be worthy of implementing in your design. Similarly, keep track of competitor product features that you have found troublesome. These features in your product, might earn it negative feedback.
  • Develop a Strategy and Prepare a Plan. Based on the information derived from the steps outline above, develop a succinct, right-sized strategy. The strategy starts with the product’s vision and goals. The vision is the core essence of your product or what you want it to achieve in the future. The goals are more time-bound and define what you want to achieve in a finite time period (e.g., quarter, year) to build toward that vision. You must have a clear strategy and high-level roadmap that was created based on careful review of customer requirements, and subsequent company vision to achieve these requirements, before embarking on a structured method to prioritize features.
  • Conduct Practical Feature Prioritization. Feature prioritization is one of the most crucial aspects of product development and one of the most important jobs of the Product Manager. Use one of many known methods (See DreamCatcher Blog link) to collaboratively identify features and objectively evaluate each with some structured, but practical, criteria and metrics.
  • Work Collaboratively Across Teams. Building great products quickly requires frequent coordination with multiple teams, including marketing, sales, design, development, testing and customer support. A product’s lifecycle includes contributions from all the teams and each team will likely require different types of guidance.
  • Work Closely with Customer Support. Work closely with customer support to understand issues and pain point with customer onboarding, set up and data integration.
  • Continuously Re-Evaluate Your Plan. It is likely that you will encounter changed conditions, new information, evolving requirements and unforeseen hurdles as you work through the plan. Flexibility is the key, and it is essential to recognize the need for changing the plan.

A healthy obsession with Metrics

Product Managers that are high-achieving and successful nurture a healthy obsession with business metrics. They constantly define and evolve the set of metrics that will be captured to measure the success of their products. Such metrics can cover a broad swathe of business subjects such as – marketing and sales (measuring the effectiveness of the marketing message and sales process), product development (cycle times, on time delivery, defect metrics etc.) and customer success (onboarding metrics, customer support metrics, retention metrics). Indeed the goal is to maximize the value delivered to the business in the form of higher LTV (Lifetime Value) to CAC (customer acquisition cost) ratio. Defining and agreeing on the metrics is the very first step that needs buy in from the management. Once the metrics are defined, the next step is to collect data and continuously monitor the key metrics. Once the key metrics are monitored and available for management to review, it becomes much easier to refine and optimize various strategies and tactics. These metrics can be monitored on a monthly, quarterly and yearly frequency. Usually the senior management will be very engaged in these metrics because they directly affect the bottom line and shareholder value creation.


Final Thoughts

A really good Product Manager is a Unicorn, a special breed of people that are hard to find. These are the people who achieve, develop, and constantly widen a unique skill set that the average person can’t process. Because a Product Manager acts as a CEO for the product, this role is very critical in achieving business value. A Product Manager has to handle a lot of cross-functional activities simultaneously, and deploy soft skills in working across the organization. They must start with a plan, but also be prepared to address hurdles and evolving conditions. It is essential to be flexible, unwavering and ingenious. Finally, a healthy obsession with metrics is absolutely paramount.