Back in 2011, the future of Product Management wasn’t looking so good. The world was still recovering from the 2008 Financial Crisis, and search interest in product management was at an all-time low. Fast-forward a few years and product management has become one of the fastest-growing, most in-demand, future-proof industries going around (in 2019 alone, LinkedIn noticed a 29% bump in Product Manager job openings).
There’s a few reasons for the recent surge in product interest—increased need to manage technical products in finance and logistics, the huge growth of tech giants like Amazon and Google, the general Ecommerce boom—but the big one is that product managers ride the bumpy line between challenge and opportunity. And no year has been more challenging, or offered more opportunity, than 2020.
“Product Managers are the individuals responsible for evolving the success of the product in a manner that balances customer, commercial and technical needs,” says Tess Ng from REA. “It’s a tough job. They drive and champion the vision of the company, they rally the troops, and keep the product evolving to meet market demands.”
The big argument for hiring dedicated product managers is the so-called ‘market-driven’ approach. Basically, instead of trying to find a market for your tech product, you should be developing tech products for specific markets, and that requires a very particular set of managerial skills. PM expert Barbara Nelson put this a good way: “It’s vastly easier to identify market problems and solve them with technology than it is to find buyers for your existing technology.”
“Usually the product designer and your technical team uncover leads and ideate solutions,” says Djemre Uludag from Tigerspike, “but at more senior levels, product managers should be working closely with their CEO to define product strategy, set outcomes, upskills their team and build a scalable product.”
This is the real secret behind a market-driven strategy, and the real value of product managers: they manage both up and down. They help CEOs and CFOs to remain focussed on solving actual market problems, rather than simple business problems, and (according to Uludag) they oversee product development at a “tactical level” in order to drive “strategic outcomes”. Research has already found that companies with a proper market-driven approach are 31% more profitable than those driven by other factors, which is a huge tick for product management in general.
The second big benefit of hiring dedicated product managers is simple efficiency. Good PMs come with a finely tuned growth mindset, and they can help companies reduce both time-to-market and time-to-revenue. Product managers help strengthen relationships between internal teams, analyse and cut-out inefficiencies, and (most importantly) identify which products have already been validated by the market. Companies can spend less time building products they ‘think’ will work, and more time solving very lucrative digital problems. This is also why good product managers tend to come from diverse departments—they bring a well-rounded, holistic management skillset.
“Most people tend to ‘fall’ into product management through either tech, design, customer experience or commercial roles,” says Ng. “But I think learning on the job—particularly from other great product people—is the best way to go. Companies should look for candidates with people and leadership skills, time management and a growth mindset, rather than a particular background.”
Product managers need to be all things to all people. Your BDMs might not be great at systems layouts, and your engineering department probably doesn’t understand the day-to-day pressures of the sales team. But a product manager straddles multiple worlds at once, making sure each department is working smoothly (and cost-efficiently) towards a common launch.
“Product managers need to understand your stakeholders, customers and the wider team,” says Uludag “Their job is to continuously manage the conflicting needs of all these parties and find narrow paths to deliver value to your customers, all while keeping the team motivated. Results like this take time, so you need someone who can stick to their goals, despite the ups and downs.”
Product management certifications aren’t yet standard practice in the industry (“I personally don’t look for them,” says Ng) but the field is trending towards specialisation. Tertiary institutions, like RMIT Online, are beginning to offer dedicated product management qualifications. These courses are by no means mandatory for filling product roles, but they can give existing employees (or potential candidates) a useful head start. The important thing is to look for product managers with a good suite of soft skills, as well as the technical know-how. “Definitely look for resilience,” Uludag says. “Product management is such a fresh discipline that I don’t think there is any single qualification out there that would make-or-break a candidate. We’re still learning what the role actually means.”
If in doubt, hire product managers that inspire confidence and trust, because that’s the skill they’ll need on the job, day-in and day-out. Technical knowledge can be learned, but trust has to be earned. Good PMs understand the difference.
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