Handling the various aspects of product management requires a broad set of skills. For example, when negotiating product requirements with engineers, product managers must understand the feasibility and implementation costs of various features. On the other hand, when working with sales, product managers need to be conversant with business lingo and understand sales processes. The “ideal” product manager in a hi-tech company must possess the following skills:

  • Technical skills: have basic understanding of the technology and tools (e.g. software, hardware) used for developing and manufacturing the product. This becomes valuable when assessing what can be accomplished within a given time frame and a set of resources.
  • Negotiation skills: product managers do not directly control the resources required for their product success. They need to negotiate and build alignment with other company managers and sometimes with partners.
  • Communication skills: verbal and written communication skills are essential for any product manager. They become invaluable while communicating with internal teams, customers or partners.  
  • Presentation skills:  product managers are asked to present on a regular basis: updates to upper management, training and motivating sales teams, briefing customer executives or briefing news editors – all require high-impact presentations.
  • Financial skills: understanding cost structures, calculating margins and profitability, building return of investment models are but some of the financial tools a product manager needs to use.
  • Sales skills: while product managers may not be directly responsible for selling, their involvement in key customer deals requires they understand the sales process and master some of the related skills.

I am sure there are a few other skills I left out…

But raw skills aren’t enough. A product manager must rely on some prior experience to be able to do their job. Very few people start their career directly in hi-tech product management. Many of the product managers I personally came across started their career in a technical position. They moved into product management after working for a while as development engineers, test engineers, support engineers or field/system engineers. Interestingly enough, almost every engineer who moves into product management expresses a similar desire: to be able to drive the product direction. But clearly being an engineer is not the only path into product management. There are many other skills and experiences that a person can leverage into becoming a product manager.

The diversity of skills and tasks associated with product management makes it difficult to find people that can handle the full spectrum of activities. This leads many companies into dividing the product management responsibilities into different roles. Of course having multiple people handle different aspects of product management – for the same product – does occasionally create overlap, conflicts or gaps. It is the organization management responsibility to ensure that those do not hinder product success.

There are many different ways to define “roles” that fit under the umbrella of product management. The most popular division lines I came across were: ‘inbound vs. outbound’, and ‘technical vs. business’. The titles may vary from one company to the other, but the roles are fairly similar:

 

Inbound

Outbound

Technical

Technical Marketing

Systems Engineer

Business

Product Manager

[Product] Marketing Manager

Inbound roles tend to focus on the interactions within the company: working with engineering, manufacturing, etc. Outbound roles focus primarily on interactions outside the company: with the media, analysts, customers, channel partners, etc. There must be close collaboration between the inbound and outbound teams: the former has intimate product knowledge, while the latter knows how to broadcast the message to the outside audience.

Technical roles tend to focus on the “how” – the inner workings of the product, while business roles focus on the “what” – the benefits and utility customer gain from using the product/service. Here again collaboration is the key to success. For example, on the inbound side, the ‘business’ person prioritizes high level requirements based on market needs,  while the ‘technical’ person works with engineering through the fine details involved in implementing those.  On the outbound side, the ‘business’ person may craft the benefit statements for the product, while the ‘technical’ person builds splashy demonstrations to illustrate them.

Whether you are on the inbound, outbound, technical or business side of things, the common objective you should strive for is the product’s success. As long as each member of the “product management” team understands the strategy and how their activities fit into it, the product will succeed. The challenge with distributed roles is to maintain open communication and close collaboration between team members – especially when they report into different organizations within the company. 

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