What makes a great product manager?

This topic has been covered by many, many bloggers.  Yet most have written from locales such as the U.S., where things are different from my current home.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge of building a great product management team here in the Czech Republic.  Particularly given the relative dearth of software vendors, which means that experienced product managers are in scarce supply.

Experience is a tempting credential to rely on when hiring.  Product management, to paraphrase my esteemed colleague Alan Lefort, is more like a trade guild than a university-taught profession (despite the lively debate over on Cranky Product Manager a few weeks ago).

First, I started thinking about good product managers I’ve known in the past, from places such as San Francisco or Boston.  What was in common beyond the obvious experience they had in software product management?

I also thought about the less-than-great product managers I’ve known, and even hired.  All had the requisite experience, but somehow that wasn’t enough.

So if it isn’t experience per se, nor a formal degree, what is it?

Intellectual curiosity.

Without exception, great product managers are great learners.  Their innate curiosity means they are always in a mode of learning.  It could be reading a book, or asking great questions of others in their own company, or networking with experts, etc.

I’ve recently toyed with intellectual curiosity as a primary interviewing topic.  You would be amazed at the disparity of answers from otherwise qualified candidates.  Some couldn’t cite any example of how they pursued their curiousity to better their work.  Others gave tremendous answers.

The most memorable example of late: a user experience designer told me he learned anatomy in order to better understand how people interact with computer interfaces.  And that he studied corporate finance in order to better measure the impact of usability improvements on his product’s financial performance.  Wow.

(Note from the cynic in me to future applicants: don’t confuse knowing my hiring criteria with meeting them.)

One of the greatest effects of the Internet is the extreme democratization of knowledge.  There’s no reason to not be curious; so much knowledge is free.  Those product managers who are curious will be richly rewarded.  Those who aren’t are going to be left behind.

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4 thoughts on “What makes a great product manager?

  1. Don,
    I couldn’t agree more re: importance of intellectual curiosity in hiring a PM. I would go further and say that it is an essential aspect of the best in any field. Along with qualities that are more associated with integrity or devotion to purpose, intellectual curiosity is often the driving spark that make a good practitioner a great one.
    – Pat

  2. I’d say that intellectual curiosity is important for every role, it isn’t something specific for a good Product Managers only. Good technologists should also be eager learning new things, being intrinsically interested in subjects of their tech expertise. The point I wanted to make is that learned things don’t automatically make one better at her job. In other words, I believe that person is more defined by things she can do (and has done), and less by the things she learns/knows.

    And for the product manager I’d mention passion (by which I mean to naturally care about the particular product; in other words, I don’t believe that one can be a good product manager for any product), having strong opinions on what’s right and wrong, and being open minded and a great listener. The last two are quite contradictory though =)

  3. My hiring criteria for all positions has always been :
    – Smart
    – Learns
    – Interested
    Interested in this case is interested in what you do – i.e., intellectual curiosity – not interested in getting the job I’m offering. I think this is right in line with your post, but I second the others, it’s not specific to product management.

    I find this relatively easy to discern in an interview of technical people. It’s fairly easy to ascertain if people actually understand why they do things the way they do them. For example: Every Java engineer knows it runs in a virtual machine. Do they know why? One oft repeated answer is portability across platforms… Any other reasons? Have you thought about why? What’s bad about it? What’s good about it? This is one example, but there are a whole lot of these in technology that can be used to gauge the candidate’s level of intellectual curiosity.

    As a leader of engineers, I’m less clear on how one discerns this in the other domains. The examples you give are great answers, but asking them to cite an example hasn’t served me well as it is so open ended. It doesn’t tell me if they think about what they do. Any suggestions on how to structure a reliable set of questions to discern the level of intellectual curiosity in non-technical candidates?

  4. Don,

    I find your topic about intellectual curiosity very interesting. I agree with Pat that it is not only product managers who should be intellectually curious in order to be successful.

    Why?

    I think curiosity is associated with creativity. The more you know the more you know what you can discover – you hit the unique. The more you know the more you know what you cannot discover – you know your limits. This of course applies to the absolutely creative jobs like scientists, who try to discover something unique to the world. But it also applies to more common jobs, which try to discover something unique to a company, to a customer, to a family. Something which may be used already elsewhere, but in the company or family context it is new.

    Curiosity is also required in a fast changing environment. One needs to discover – learn fast – in order to capture all aspects of a new context to make decisions and design new solutions. For this reason, a great degree of intellectual curiosity is required for program/project managers. With etch new assignment they are placed in a new context, which they have to learn fast to understand it and to be able to effectively manage the project and people.

    To summarize it, focusing only on the business world, I believe intellectual curiosity is mainly required in the roles where creativity is required – scientists, product managers, software designers – or in the roles, which are exposed to a fast change – project and program managers, people in a fast paced business. When you have it both at the same time – creativity and fast paced business – the requirement for curiosity gets to the second power.

    Regards,

    Vrata

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