Three Must Have’s And Must Not Have’s Of A Great Software Product Manager

There are so few excellent product minds / product managers. I've been working with consumer and enterprise technology companies for 15 years. I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of businesses that have achieved varying levels of product success. I've only come across a handful of great product minds – and it's a small handful at that. We also have an insatiable appetite for hiring them, when we can find them. Aside of the more tactical aspects of the role here is a list of three things I look for and three things I look to avoid when I’m evaluating product talent.

Top 3 Must Have's for a Great Software Product Manager

  1. World-class, accurate pattern matching The best product minds I've met base much of their initial strategic product thinking on pattern matching to existing models. They've cognitively captured, sorted and archived a huge collection of product models that span many disciplines. As they're assimilating these models, they focus on a deep understanding of the customer acquisition strategy and the data assets the model produces. Additionally, they have a unique ability to rapidly recall and combine models and align the results to their current challenge. In the end, they can accurately evaluate and discard strategies that are likely to fail and strategies that are more likely to succeed, in extremely short order.
  2. Focus on acquiring the customer, first, second and third The greatest product thinkers I know spend nearly all of their initial time thinking through how the product will natively and necessarily drive customer acquisition. This is more than assuming that 'viral features' or 'sharing' will be slotted into the roadmap. This is a ruthless exercise in user growth and maturation models, capability conception and derivative asset evaluation. If this seems impossible to do before the product is largely defined, then it should be clear why great product minds are both scarce and expensive.
  3. Massively Influential The best product managers I've met are the most compelling speakers I've interacted with. Product management is an exercise of influence without authority. But, more importantly, great product managers compel an entire organization of great thinkers to align to an outcome that requires them all to see beyond a set of choices they do not yet understand (I think I stole that from The Matrix, but it's true).

Here is my list of Top 3 Must Not Have's for a Great Software Product Manager

  1. Must not be passionate about emerging technologies or methodologies The best product managers I know do not receive high marks for their software development expertise. While they may have been a developer early in their career, they are unencumbered by technology and no longer take great joy in being a deep technology expert. In fact, the best product minds I know feel as though technology gets in the way of their innovation processes and therefore, they tend not to invest deeply in it. I believe they feel the same way about software development or program management methodologies. There is a class of technical product managers who 'get off the blocks' faster with their products, but tend to run out of steam as they are over focused on technology at the expense of more important initiatives. I don't like to place bets here unless an individual is clearly on the path to abandoning their deep development roots.
  2. Must not be over-exposed to the domain This is likely to be a controversial entry on my list. Product managers that have deep domain expertise too frequently become de-sensitized to some of the most important characteristics of the market they are trying to win. These characteristics include:

    • The innovation groundswell that exists beneath the surface of every valuable market
    • Changing dynamics of the user community

    Additionally, the best product minds I know love working from the underdog position. It’s a critical part of the challenge, "to do something that's never been done before." Conversely, deep domain experts frequently fall into a "been there done that" malaise. I don't like taking risks on deep domain expertise in this role; I prefer to place a bet on a hungry newcomer.

  3. Must not have more than one agenda Great product managers cannot have more than one agenda. They do not serve two audiences; they do not answer to two bosses or attempt to appease two distinct points of view. They set out with one and only one agenda – to correctly identify or win the next challenge. Product managers that try to do more than one thing have catastrophic failure rates. It's easy to screen for this, great product managers tend to have their own recipes for inventing and commercializing a product and they'll walk you through those recipes.

Now, if only they grew on trees.