Microsoft created the “modern” role of product manager 25 years ago, and the job holds an aura of myth even today. Two-and-a-half decades later, the role of product manager is still misunderstood and ill-defined, and the most important qualities in a product manager are often overlooked. As a result, startups are missing out on valuable opportunities to improve their product, teamwork, and efficiency, not to mention chances of success.
Large Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo, have standardized the function of a product manager, but many mid-sized and younger tech companies continue to churn out one-dimensional product managers that primarily exist to fill gaps within the company. Without the proper experience and training, many of these brilliant “PMs” become one-trick ponies. They are either a design/UX maestro or an expert project planner or a user acquisition guru, or maybe even someone whose main job is keeping engineers motivated with Redbull and pizza.
When a product manager limits their focus to one task, the whole company loses. The best product managers do all of the above, and often, none of the above. They are essentially the CEOs of their product — leaders who draw on a diverse set of knowledge and tools to ensure every aspect of a project is on track. However, what is arguably more important than what PMs do is how they think.
Investors frequently talk about how they only want to invest in “product-driven” companies. I look at the world from a slightly different perspective. When I meet a team of entrepreneurs, especially a team without a founder who has worked as a PM at a large tech company, I always try to decide if they have “The Product Mindset.” This means they can straddle the soft and hard sides of being a product manager. In my experience, the specific skills needed to be a product manager can be taught, but without the right mindset, they will never have an intuitive sense of how to build a thriving, revenue-generating product.
The Product Mindset is the ability to bridge the gap between the left brain and the right brain, between the quantitative and qualitative. At Stanford, we described these sides as the “techie” and the “fuzzy.” The Product Mindset involves knowing when to move from free-formed creative destruction to disciplined execution. It is understanding the conceptual distance between a vision and a business model. It is the ability to innovate and create on a blank canvas with large brush strokes, while also being able to iterate using big data and analytics. The Product Mindset means a PM can design great user experiences and use data to A/B test to the optimal page layout. They can hack for viral growth as well as tactically manage paid acquisition channels to optimize for lower CPAs. The Product Mindset is a balancing act.
PMs take ownership over a product and everything that goes along with it. They guide an idea from its infancy through the typical product development cycle and towards market adoption. This requires tasks, skills, and knowledge that draw on both the “techie” and the “fuzzy.” The key is not only doing these tasks well but being able to fluidly switch between the two sides of the brain when the situation demands. Someone with The Product Mindset knows when to be creative and when to let data be the guide. They know how to brainstorm ambitious, innovative ideas and when to narrow their focus down to the smallest detail. They wear many hats and know when to wear which. This is the hallmark of a great product manager — and great entrepreneur.
You can go to school to learn to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, and even a software engineer, but there is no school that teaches how to become a successful product manager. You might be able to do this by cobbling together Stanford classes from the engineering, management, design, and CS departments, but that is not enough. This gap is what led Google to establish its associate product management track, which “properly” creates and trains a steady supply of PM talent.
For many engineers, moving into the PM track is a way out of the daily grind of coding and onto the path towards the CEO suite. For many MBAs, landing a job as a PM is a rite of passage to earn the technical credibility needed to be considered for the job of CEO at a tech company. For aspiring entrepreneurs, experience as a PM is the stamp of approval many VCs look for before funding their ideas. Regardless of your motivation or your background, someone without The Product Mindset will never be a great PM. Part of the reason why the role is so difficult to define is that it consists of many, smaller roles, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But when someone has the right mindset, the definition doesn’t really matter. They intuitively know what to do, and that gets reflected throughout the organization.
William Hsu is cofounder and managing partner of Los Angeles seed-stage venture fund Mucker Capital.