5 Skills an Aspiring Product Manager Needs to Have


A product team without a product manager is a bit like an orchestra without a conductor. No matter how talented the musicians, the sound would quickly devolve into dissonance without a conductor’s lead and guidance. Much like the orchestra conductor, a product manager must conduct the communication and workflow between all the units and departments within a company to ensure everyone on the team is aligned toward the same goal: satisfying the customer, meeting their needs while reducing their pain and increasing their gain in their most important job.

The internet has completely changed how people find products that meet their needs, so the emphasis on product management has grown. It’s to the point that now, the primary difference in what sells is not just the best-marketed product, but the orchestration of marketing, design and delivery for product companies.

To handle a role as complex as this, a skilled product manager should have a clear grasp on how the rapid growth of technology usage in company processes requires that good product management grow at the same pace to stay in the game. The product manager’s finger stays on the customer’s pulse and understands how to execute the product roadmap to stay on top of the market trends, while keeping an eye toward long-term success.

Experts say critical elements have changed in the job market in the last two decades. Today, everything is connected to the internet through protocol services, and as a result, product management is rapidly developing. It’s highly analytics-based and it has birthed many new techniques. This is what is meant by the internet of things (IoT).

In the last 10 years, product management has become a much more highly sought-after position because it involves all the latest technology, it’s very well rewarded financially, and it’s a breeding ground for future C-suite executives. Those aspiring to become a product manager should know they’d be in great company—Jeff Bezos (Amazon,) Kevin Systrom (Instagram) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) all began their careers as product managers before they became CEOs.

Here are five skills that an aspiring product manager needs to know in order to step into that critical role that can be the difference between a product’s success or failure:

  1. Learn to navigate in and out of the engineering, marketing and sales teams.

    A product manager can identify and tackle risks for bringing a new product to market. Product managers own the decisions surrounding what the team should do, understand the risks associated with what the team will do, and know how to reduce them. A person who embodies these abilities is highly sought after in product management, but rare to find. The solution is to increase the pool of skilled people who can focus on what the work should be, what should be built, and how to address the risks associated with bringing that product to market as well as new or burgeoning risks to existing products.

  2. Learn to work as an influencer, not a direct supervisor.

    The product manager navigates between the customer, the marketing team and the engineers. He is in the middle, helping everyone move in the same direction without being in commanding control. The product manager has to learn to manage through influence, creating a convincing argument and road map of how the different functions within the teams should interact. He knows how to influence his team with clear arguments about the customer’s exact needs, how those needs affect the product, and why.

  3. Learn what is customer development, and how to do it.

    Customer development is not about good advertising or targeting people within a certain demographic. It’s about rapidly bringing products to market that meet the needs of people, targeting the jobs they do and providing a product that helps get that job done. Product managers keep their eye on the target—getting a product to market cheaper and faster, while integrating the customer’s needs and wants from the beginning and throughout the process.

  4. Learn product design to create great customer and user experiences (CX/UX).

    Design was once something that was considered only after the functionality and the targeting of a product. Now, design is considered to be equally as important as targeting and development. A skilled product manager must learn how to design using Design Thinking and other customer and user experience techniques, including Empathy, Ideation and Wireframing, to create the exact product the customer has in mind. Gone is the old paradigm of “form follows function.” The quality of a product was once evaluated first on the basis of its performance, then about its design and adaptability. Today, design is still central to assessing the quality of a product, but extends into a critical question: What is the design experience? A product manager’s skilled guidance can be the difference in ensuring a favorable answer to that question.

  5. Learn Agile and rapid prototyping to manage risks, your primary responsibility.

    Leveraging Agile teams and design has effected critical change in how products are created. Through the use of Agile development, product managers need to deliver rapid prototypes that test risk, including usability and value as well as feasibility, marketability and scalability. Learning the design process and understanding the demand for a great design can be a differentiator. Product managers must know how to leverage for design experts and Agile teams, and learn the latest product design and development processes.

Understanding the keys to successfully navigating the roles and responsibilities of being a product manager can make you qualified to take your place in one of the fastest growing, most lucrative careers on the job market today.

The University of Maryland’s Project Management Center for Excellence is providing the opportunity for aspiring product managers to become champions of change with internal and external collaborators and influencers through an online, self-paced course, Product Management Fundamentals, available through edX. Recently ranked in the top 10 on Class Central’s Best Online Courses of All Time, the Product Management Fundamentals course is the first of five courses that make up the Product Management Professional Certificate.

The five skill-building courses included in this Professional Certificate in Product Management include:

  • Product Management Fundamentals
  • Achieving the Product-Market Fit
  • Designing the User Experience
  • Data Science and Agile Systems for Product Management
  • Modern Product Leadership

“The Product Management Fundamentals course is important because we have had new product managers thrust into the role without any formal training about what product management is,” says Dr. James V. Green, director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Education for the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute at the University of Maryland and author of the fundamentals course. “Technologists were promoted into this function, but they were missing a lot of what a good product management person does in the non-technical areas. With this course and certification, we can better equip people who are new to the space.”

The field is open, fertile ground to those who can think creatively, love solving problems, and are endlessly curious—but need guidance to hone in on those skills. “Perhaps some people are interested in becoming a product manager, but they are finding that there aren’t many resources or programming that are accessible and affordable to build this credential,” Dr. Green says. “This course is that resource.”

Dr. Green adds that this essential product management course explains key principles around personas, story mapping and prototyping. “Product managers need to know and appreciate product designer tools and processes,” he says. “By combining these principles with good scrum processes, you’ll learn to create great products that don’t sacrifice design for functionality or feasibility.”

Learner reviews of the course on Class Central rate it at 4.8 stars.

  • “It’s just excellent. I have an engineering educational background and minimal experience in IT but it broke down all the fundamental principles of product management and delivered it so brilliantly that it was really easy to comprehend and follow though. I’m definitely going to be taking the next course in the professional certification series.” - Benedicta
  • “Very streamlined, easily digestible and applicable information. I learned a lot of practical skills. Product management is not an established course in traditional academia so it's helpful to have one condensed course like this one.” - Anonymous
  • “It was quite a comprehensive introduction into the product management space, well structured to touch on all aspects without overloading you with information. ” - Anonymous

The Product Management Professional Certificate covers the skill sets needed for the entire product life cycle. Starting with the fundamentals of product management which helps those aspiring to this role to explore their responsibilities and identify its relationship to internal and external stakeholders, including customers, engineers, marketers, and others.

This is important now because those are the techniques used by corporations to engage more deeply with customers, and the game has changed on product development and services. Not knowing these techniques means you can’t compete. That’s why product managers are among the most highly-paid people in the job market today.

CEOs and technology leaders are identifying the role of product manager as one of their top talent priorities. Although the most populous function in product creating is engineering, the product manager function has risen to become a high-leverage, central function. CEOs see product managers as conductors who know how to define strategy, understand the customers and their needs, prioritize, and then drive to outcomes.

In 2013, Dr. Green launched the University of Maryland’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with Coursera’s “Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies,” enrolling over 800,00 students worldwide. With the Project Management Fundamentals course, he is continuing his method of bringing entrepreneurship and innovation into the massive open online courses (MOOC) space.

Learn more about the Product Management Fundamentals course plus the Product Management Professional Certificate and enroll today.