Key hard and soft product manager skills: what the experts think are underrated (and overrated)

Key hard and soft product manager skills: what the experts think are underrated (and overrated)

Nikita Baydyuk
Nikita Baydyuk (Smartlook Team)  |  Last updated: Feb 17, 2023
12 mins read
Article about key skills that define a good product manager, including input from real PMs on underrated and overrated skills.

A lot is written on the breadth of the product manager’s role. PMs are responsible for so many things that the full extent of their job is often hard to define. As the scope of every product is so different — a one-size-fits-all approach is impossible. Every PM develops a distinct set of skills, drawing from their experience and personal qualities.

But for those who want to improve as a PM (and anyone entering this demanding field for the first time), the question remains: what skills to focus on?

With this article, we aim to shine a light on this topic. Let’s take a look at the specific hard and soft skills that successful product managers leverage to lead cross-functional teams and deliver competitive products. 

What is a product manager?

A product manager is a leader without direct authority that oversees a multidisciplinary team that develops and supports a product.

A “product” is a general term that refers to anything from software, websites, and service to physical items like pieces of equipment. Although the technology and process vary across industries, a product is something that satisfies a user’s need.

The typical job description of a product manager looks something like this: a professional that is responsible for the entire lifecycle of the product — from development and market positioning to its eventual success. PMs create product roadmaps, oversee the backlog, work with customer feedback, and implement sales and marketing strategies.

It’s important to note that a product manager is different from a project manager, even though both roles are often abbreviated as “PM.” The former focuses on product strategy, while the latter is in charge of more tactical decisions. 

Simply put, the product manager owns the vision of the product. They have a complete understanding of the problems the product solves, including how it makes the user’s life better. It’s not uncommon to hear a product manager referred to as “the CEO of the product.”

With the definitions out of the way, let’s explore the skills that define a great product manager in today’s workplace. 

Indispensable hard and soft skills 

Product management is a challenging field. A PM has to understand the needs of the users and balance them with the capabilities of the engineering team. Depending on the stage of the product life-cycle, the priorities and day-to-day activities of a product manager are very different.

What skills are truly indispensable? We asked the experts.

Research skills, data literacy, and critical thinking

A product manager’s job often involves coming up with a robust strategy, and the only way to do this consistently is by relying on data.

Both quantitative and qualitative research methods come in handy and form the backbone of future product decisions, like the introduction of new features to address specific customer needs or alterations to the user experience to address reoccurring issues.

If you want to know more about the difference between qualitative and quantitative research methods, check out our article.

Many experts agree — knowing how to apply analytical thinking to remain ahead of the curve is a crucial skill for a PM:

or a product manager to truly excel, a key skill they must develop is “the ability to tackle problems at scale.”

In other words, they can’t just solve the problem that they’re immediately faced with. Rather, they need to look for opportunities to solve “the problem behind the problem” in a way that unlocks exponential impact for their company.
Clement Kao
Founder of Product Teacher
I’d say that critical thinking sets great product managers apart. It sets the basis for asking the right questions. Critical thinking implies you question anything and you always look to validate or invalidate hypotheses through data analysis.
Claudiu Murariu
Founder of InnerTrends

Dealing with a constant stream of information from customers and stakeholders requires research skills coupled with problem-solving. The product manager can verify it, get the necessary context, and understand the “why” behind it. 

Time management and prioritization

Product managers are in charge of roadmaps and feature prioritization. This means that time management, organizational skills, and ensuring that all specialists have everything they require is paramount.

In smaller companies, product managers often take on some of the responsibilities of a product owner, taking charge of the backlog and working on the nitty-gritty of the development process.

A big part of this skill is knowing how to say no. For a typical product manager, marking everything as “done” in the to-do list is an unattainable dream. Something always has priority over something else. There is always one more thing.

That said, a good product manager must know what to prioritize and what to sacrifice. Otherwise, they risk taking on Sisyphus’s struggle, trying to accomplish the impossible.

And organizational skills are just a piece of the puzzle here. Ownership of the product and the roadmap, clear planning, and efficient communication — it all helps manage the expectations of stakeholders and keeps the process running like a well-oiled machine.

Industry knowledge

A PM must understand the market and all aspects of the development process like the back of their hand. Product managers work with a diverse team of professionals. Without understanding underlying business processes, it’s impossible to leverage their unique skills and experience. 

A solid grasp of market research and the ability to analyze the work of competitors — and learn from it — can make or break a product manager’s career.  

Product managers should have extensive business knowledge. They should grasp how funding, profitability, and cash flow affect product development.

Skilled product managers can swiftly evaluate [if] a product idea has commercial potential.
David Bitton
Co-Founder and CMO at DoorLoop

Mastery of marketing

A product can be built on cutting-edge tech and push the boundaries of innovation, but if it doesn’t sell — it’s a failure. Marketing knowledge is key to avoiding this fate.

Even though it’s not the singular focus of a product manager (after all, it’s often the job of a product marketing manager), an understanding of market positioning and focus on commercial performance greatly contributes to the success of a product. 

The ability to market and deliver products and services is a must-have for a product manager. Create price frameworks, establish product launch strategies, and learn to adapt to shifting demand.
Lachlan de Crespigny
Co-Founder and Co-CEO at Revelo

Interpersonal skills: not talked about enough  

People skills are hard to define, assess, and put on resumes. But for a person that has to work with engineers, marketers, and C-level executives, communication isn’t simply “a nice to have.” A big part of a product manager’s job involves balancing the interests of stakeholders, resolving conflicts, promoting cooperation, and steering teams toward success.

Mental fortitude and confidence are also hard to quantify but are immensely beneficial, as the role of PM comes with plenty of stress, responsibility, and — very often — adversity.

Yes, product managers must prioritize tasks and deadlines and manage development, but when the engineering team isn’t on board with the process — for example, if they don’t adhere to deadlines or aren’t transparent with their workflow — then it’s the product manager’s responsibility to handle it in a way that is acceptable for all parties.

Many PMs work closely with founders and CTOs, and have to work with their ideas and feedback, incorporating their vision of the product into their own.

A product manager who doesn’t possess empathy and doesn’t know how to be diplomatic will have a hard time navigating these challenges. Some founders, like Jane Portman, CEO of Userlist, consider communication skills to be absolutely critical for the product manager’s job.

The number one skill is the ability to read between the lines when it comes to people’s motivation and needs. Not just with customers but also with stakeholders and team members. The entire profession is about understanding and satisfying human needs.
Jane Portman
the Co-founder and CEO of Userlist
Communication is the most important skill for a [PM] to have to help them excel. [As PMs] work with multiple other departments and therefore need to be able to communicate updates, changes, and feedback with at least a few other leaders and employees. The better the product manager’s communication skills are, the more success they’ll have at getting the results they want, especially when communicating changes with the product that needs to be approved by other departments.
Logan Mallory
VP of Marketing at Motivosity

Leadership is another valuable quality that PMs should possess, as they rely on rapport rather than authority to convey their vision. A big part of working with developers is knowing how to motivate team members and explain why specific changes must be implemented. In a way, it requires product managers to translate customer needs into a language technical professionals understand.

An empathic PM, who pays close attention to team members, is able to spot the signs that something is wrong before the worst happens. The ability to remove obstacles and support people when needed is like a secret weapon in the arsenal of any successful PM.

Valuable (but possibly overvalued) product manager skills

A product manager’s role is complex and multifaceted. While many skills and competencies can give a PM an advantage, in reality, no one is equally well-versed in everything. 

Some skills that were considered absolutely necessary in the past can be substituted with modern software tools in today’s workplace.

SQL used to be something every PM had to know (accessing and filtering data, understanding simple and compound queries, and just knowing how databases are populated), yet its importance has declined over the years.

In the past, this skill was highly valuable because there weren’t great tools out there to be able to visualize the answer to complex questions. Product managers who knew how to write their own queries could quickly jump ahead of competitors because they weren’t bottlenecked by the limitations of traditional business intelligence (BI) tools.

However, today there are so many tools that enable people to answer data-informed questions without needing to know how to write in the specific syntax for a particular data query language. For example, product managers can use tools (…) to quickly vet hypotheses and identify current behavioral trends, all without writing queries in SQL.
Clement Kao
Founder of Product Teacher

In short, while product managers certainly benefit from SQL knowledge, not having it is no longer a deal-breaker.

UX knowledge is also extremely valuable, but as the leader of a team of highly specialized professionals, there is often more value in entrusting it to a teammate.

Among the overrated skills, probably design and UX chops. Sure, it’s amazing if your product manager can produce pretty mockups, but they’ll be just fine delegating this to a UX professional.
Jane Portman
the Co-founder and CEO of Userlist

Certainly, a capable product manager must have a good feeling for the user experience, but it’s totally fine to focus on decision-making based on the schematics and wireframes prepared by a qualified colleague. 

A business degree, like an MBA, is a popular requirement for PMs that doesn’t always directly translate into success. Plenty of specialists excel in product roles, relying on their understanding of user needs and practical experience in fields related to the product they are working on.

However, there are certain advantages that come with business education: basic knowledge of commerce and project management, as well as connections that can prove very useful down the line — and that’s just to name a few.

Specialized technical knowledge definitely helps communicate effectively with the development team. A PM who knows how the product is built and is familiar with development methodologies, like Agile or Waterfall, knows for a fact what the engineers are capable of. These product managers have the hard skills required to back up their product vision and can anticipate the time frame and complexity of implementation of a new feature or functionality.

That said, overreliance on the technical intricacies of software (or hardware) development can lead you down a slippery slope. Consider the now legendary example of Juicero — a team of experts who produced a machine that was as over-engineered as it was unnecessary.

At the end of the day, regardless of background — whether they come from computer science, sales, or management — a product manager’s job is to put the interests and problems of the end-user before anything else. 

Nick Caldwell put it nicely in his 2019 interview for Product school. When talking about engineers moving to PM roles, he said:

The biggest stumbling block by far is over-emphasis on software architecture. Which is understandable. As engineers, we start our careers thinking about building fast and performant systems. But most users don’t care about how things are built; they only care about whether their problems are getting solved.

Every product manager’s objective 

The long and short of it is that product managers have a lot on their plate, but all this work is for the benefit of the end-user. A product is there to make somebody’s life a little easier. And delivering a product is never a job for just one person — it’s a team effort.

Every new product on the market (any market) only has value if it addresses customer needs. Delivering this value is the main responsibility of every product manager. It’s the main focus of the job.

The best product managers I know don’t rely on tech skills. They don’t code. Instead, they know how to tell a story. This capacity for storytelling allows them to communicate the needs of the customer to the teams, and bring maximum value to the end-users.

Love for the end-customer is what makes them so successful.
Claudiu Murariu
Founder of InnerTrends

Product manager connects development, UX, and commerce, keeps it together, and unites all teams involved in the process behind a singular vision. At the end of the day, every PM has a unique blend of competencies.

If you want to learn how a product manager’s skills translate into a scope of work and a specific framework, read this article about product manager workflows.

Nikita Baydyuk
Nikita Baydyuk

is a content writer at Smartlook. He is passionate about technology, startups, and marketing.

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