Ben Horowitz’s seminal essay ‘Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager’ is a well known gem. Although it hasn’t stayed 100% true into 2020 as the Product Manager role has evolved, its core messages still accurately portray the foundations of what makes a good product manager. It also presents a great foundation for product managers to assess and make sure the environment they’re stepping into will actually allow them to do be a good Product Manager. With that in mind, I’ve broken down some of the key elements of Horowitz’s essay as a guide to what to be mindful of when preparing, as well as what to look out for during the interview process to assess the culture, promise and maturity of the business.
“Knows the market, the product, the product line and the competition”
Do your homework. Employers expect that if you have an interest in working for them and improving their product, that your interest goes beyond liking their logo. Develop a sense of where they play, and how they plan to win. Read up and come up with some questions about the company and product that spark your curiosity, whether it’s their business model, how they see themselves in the market or where they think they’re going. You want to know this is a product you actually want to work on, that it stands a chance of succeeding and there is a strong, ambitious strategy behind it that can be clearly articulated, so you can execute accordingly.
“Takes full responsibility and measures themselves in terms of the success of the product …devising and executing a winning plan …responsible for right product/right time and all that entails”
As a Product Manager, you want to make sure you’re going to be given some level of autonomy and control of actually managing the product. It’s important to enquire about what level of responsibility you’ll have. Importantly, this often means you’ll need a good level of exposure to senior management and executives in case you need the final word on anything important. It’s a PM’s worst nightmare to be stuck in a feature factory working on invalidated ideas that the loudest voice in the room wants executed.
“They don’t take all the product team minutes, they don’t project manage the various functions, they are not gophers for engineering.”
Ask about the culture of the company. Ask about who’s responsible for what. Try to gauge whether there are sensible, clear boundaries and that there’s a clear sense of accountability, responsibility and quality across the teams. Although PM’s are known and expected to be a jack of all trades to an extent, that doesn’t mean you should have to chase people or bear the full responsibility for everything. At the end of the day you’ll be part of a complex team with many moving parts and play a key leadership role in that team, you just want to make sure that load is shared.
“Crisply define the target, the “what” (as opposed to the how) and manage the delivery of the “what.”
This is where your experience comes into play. Have a few examples to talk about up your sleeve that clearly articulate initiatives you’ve managed from research through to delivery and beyond. Show you can clearly articulate the why and the what of the things you’ve done in the past. Craft the story and practice telling it clearly in short form. Don’t leave out the challenges and certainly don’t pretend you didn’t have any, it’s a more important skill to be able to overcome difficulties than to avoid them.
“Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. Good product managers don’t give direction informally. Good product managers gather information informally.”
Your communication skills are critically important as a Product Manager. Be prepared to demonstrate how you interact with your designers and engineers, how you learn to work with them, how you guide them in the right direction and keep things tight and focused. Engineering and design are inherently creative, it’s important you are, too, but are also capable of mixing in a healthy dose of reality to the more dreamy ideas that tend to arise. Show you have a way of doing this and a history of forming and operating within high performing, driven and happy teams. Have some peace and war stories ready.
“Create leverageable collateral, FAQs, presentations, white papers”
This may not be part of your role in a more mature company that has its product marketing sorted, but even your PMM will need to lean on you to be the subject matter expert on everything your team is producing. It comes down, again, to knowing the why and the what like the back of your hand. If you can’t clearly articulate that in writing in a way that’s natural and compelling, it’s probably a good sign you need to revisit what’s driving the things you’re building. You’ll almost certainly be expected to present to varying levels and on various stages, the best way to be confident is to be prepared and confident in what you’re saying, so know why you’re building the things you’re building, what they do and how and the impact you think they’ll have. These are the things people care about and it’s the foundation of the Product Manager’s role to devise and articulate them.
“focus the team on revenue and customers”
This may be the single most important part. How focused is the company on its customers and making sure the product is constantly optimising the way it helps them do whatever it is it helps them do? How accessible are customers and customer data to the team? How focused is the strategy on driving customer value?
All products and product companies that don’t focus on this stuff properly and build systems and processes to hone in on it get found out in the long run. Good enough should never be good enough. That has to be the mindset. And ultimately, you want to make sure you’re stepping into an environment that supports that mindset. You can’t innovate if your customers are inaccessible and/or invisible to your product teams. At the absolute minimum a robust data toolkit which allows you to analyse behaviour has to be in place, but in an ideal world, interacting with real customers regularly should be a part of the way the product team operates.
“define good products that can be executed with a strong effort”
This is a skill you’ll need to be able to demonstrate. You need to be able to show you understand and have a good feel for value and the effort it takes to create it. Have a few examples at the ready of lean experiments and/or features you’ve worked on and how you made sure they still did the job customers needed them to do, but required the least amount of effort possible so you could learn how to scale them effectively.
“think in terms of delivering superior value to the market place during inbound planning and achieving market share and revenue goals during outbound”
This is the constant push pull of delivering value to customers and proving it’s having a positive business impact. Know the difference. Sometimes things that make customers happy make your product more valuable to some, but don’t necessarily have an impact on your position in the market and/or the revenue performance of the company. You’ll need to show you have a keen eye for each, as well as an ability and priority to blend the two and find ways to make customer drive value drive business performance as much as possible. In an ideal world, everything you do has an effect on both, but sometimes you just have to do things that have to be done.
“think about the story they want written by the press … ask the press questions & assume press and analyst people are really smart”
You may not have a role to play here, but in the case that you do, it’s all about knowing the value you’re creating, crisply articulating it and treating people whose job it is to scrutinise with respect. Anticipate what they’ll be interested in and pressing you on. While you need to drink the kool-aid of your company to an extent, it’s also critically important as a Product Manager to know what the real sentiment is out there. Your job is to make sure what your team builds is responsible, sustainable, genuinely valuable and considerate of the environment in which it operates. The press are good at slamming companies and products who neglect this.
“send their status reports in on time every week, because they are disciplined.”
Expectations on this will vary depending on the operating rhythms and processes in the company, try to get a feel for what this will look like and how you can improve or add value to it. What doesn’t vary is the importance of strong, clear communication and updates on performance, successes and failures. This is the proactive heartbeat of the Product Manager’s role, you can only improve what you measure, so make sure your metrics are in place and structured well enough to help you determine success or failure and learn something from what you’ve shipped. Your leaders and your team can only make informed decisions, collaborate effectively and creatively solve problems if they’re being informed with good data and are given the space and opportunity to respond to what’s happening. Consistency, transparency and clear articulation are the golden rules. An up to date team that’s across all the information they need will be less likely to be surprised and more likely to be grounded in reality, engaged creatively and proactive about solving problems.
Keep in mind these are all things your potential employer is also looking out for, among other things. Be sharp, be prepared and back yourself knowing you’ve got these aspects covered and solid examples to talk to. Good luck out there!
If you’re looking to sharpen up your product skills, knowledge and/or toolkit, keep an eye out for one of our training sessions at https://www.thigaproducttraining.com/.