Product managers tend to come from all sorts of different educational and professional backgrounds – just ask them after work in a pub and chances are they will tell you widely varying and occasionally colourful stories about how they got into the job. Some shift course from engineering or design; others grow into the role organically by filling a niche in an organisation; whilst certain people simply stumble into the role due to sheer conspiracy of time and space (as in the case of “I was there when they suddenly needed one”).
Whatever the history of entry is, I like to think of the ideal PM as an edge-dancer: someone who balances at the intersections of tech, business, UX and marketing, constantly hopping from here to there, somehow finding a footing in each area.
If we look at the generalist-specialist skill spectrum, this kind of work usually requires being much closer to the former one than the latter (though of course there are products where deep engineering knowledge is a must).
Being a solid generalist is therefore essential, no doubt. I would argue, however, that a form of stubborn curiosity can also prove very beneficial in this job.
What do I mean by that?
It is the desire not just to follow products and market trends (which is in the job description by default), but to also try to understand how things work. This is an attitude to encountering new things by not taking them on face value, but asking some questions about how they are put together and trying to dig out the answers for yourself.
- This statistics is interesting, but is that corroborated with other sources?
- What a great 3D visualisation! What components have they used to create that?
- Stunning website! Is this design language applied elsewhere too, perhaps becoming a trend?
- I noticed several apps with similar AI-based personality profiling features. Is there a common API behind this?
- And the most important of all: how can I use these insights to improve our product?
Finding answers to these kinds of questions is seldom easy – hence the stubborn part in curiosity. It may require you to roll up your sleeves and conduct research, perform statistical analysis, read through technical documentations with arcane language, pick up some basics of a new skill (data analysis, basic coding, UX design principles) or even try to build something on your own (a simple web app).
The goal here is to ‘get dirty’, but not too dirty. You want to learn something new and deepen your understanding, but you don’t shoot for getting any real expertise – that is always supplied by your specialist colleagues.
If you adopt this attitude (and it may well involve courses or side-projects you may be tackling in your spare time), you may occasionally feel that you are out of your depth or that there is no point to this. I would advise you not despair — you don’t need to become an expert to gain some insights into a subject; and any knowledge is better and more useful than none as long as you stay humble about your limitations.
As PMs’ skill-sets come in many flavours, they will find difficulties with different aspects of inquisitive exploration (unless you are an all-around polymath, but they are a rare breed ). For an engineer, it may be the design and styling nuances; for a designer, this can be back-end technologies; for someone with a social science degree it can be any number of things. The common part is the willingness to dabble in stuff you are not trained, practised or even particularly good at. For product!
If you give yourself some time to mess around with new technologies, take some courses or just try to read a tech documentation aimed at developers every once in a while, you will eventually realise major benefits from them. I will list my three favourite ones.