What Is a Product Person?

Hi! I’m Nina and I head up Product at Laurel & Wolf. I wanted to write up something short and sweet for this weeks blog posting, so I decided it would be interesting to address two questions I get asked every so often: 1) how one gets into product management and 2) what skills are required to be a great product person.

The answer to the first question is, in short: there are a million ways to get into product. I’m not sure I’ve ever met two product people that had the exact same story of how they came to be a product person.

I myself got a degree in Public Relations, then started my career as a business consultant for Bain & Company. After a couple years as a consultant, I jumped ship and started an event planning firm in the Bay Area before moving back to Los Angeles and joining the tech startup scene (my entrance into Product).

I’ve worked with, reported to, and managed people who came into Product from engineering, design, business, psychology, and lots of areas in between. Product as a role can vary significantly between companies and it encapsulates a wide range of responsibilities. The fact that people come into it from so many different areas and bring such varied expertise is beneficial to the profession as a whole, though it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what exactly you’ll be doing when applying to a product job.

So let’s talk about the skills one needs be a great a product manager. (Note, this list could go on forever; the “wears many hats” saying was likely created for our profession. I’ve picked out some of my favorites below.)

Be thoughtful in everything you do. You need to be able to think big and think small. You need to be thoughtful about how features impact other features, how functionality relates to level of effort, and how that fits with your available resources. While not thinking things to death, you need to think through all the use cases and scenarios for your product.

“Be a good communicator” is an understatement. You have to be able to communicate with everyone. Business stakeholders, customers, developers, designers, the CEO, the client services rep. And the message you relay needs to be tailored to your audience in the way they need to hear it to best understand it.

Be a visionary and a realist at the same time. This one I find to be the hardest. Instead of being able to do both simultaneously, I seesaw between the two.

Be a phenomenal listener, but be able to shut out the noise when needed (and you need to a lot).

Be able to say “No” (or “Not Now”). You must be able to stay the course while knowing when to change it.

I once heard a Harvard professor describe the PM as such: “As a product manager you have the most responsibility and the least amount of power.” You specify what needs to be built and are held responsible for 1) it being the right thing to build and 2) it getting built on budget/time/without issues, but you don’t actually take part in building it. And you have to be okay with that.

In a nutshell, (and this is courtesy of an article from Mat Balez, VP of Product for the Flatiron School), “Your success in making your product great hinges on your ability to be, at every moment in time, the most valuable thing your team needs you to be at that very moment.”

Have fun!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the things we’re doing at Laurel & Wolf, I’d love to hear from you about joining our team.

Nina Klein