10 Essential Product Manager Skills You Need in 2021

Published on 03 September 2021

Reading time 7 minutes

The product manager acts as a conduit between the customer and the development team.


They listen to customer opinions on how the product should look, then feed back those views to the developers who actually make it happen.


It’s a uniquely challenging role that requires a diverse skill set.


Looking to become a product manager in 2021? Here are 10 skills to guide your professional development.


1. Communication


Sure, pretty much every job requires excellent communication skills –– but that’s more true for product managers than most positions.


Not only do you need to be able to speak to people in the same role or location; you need intercultural business communication skills to understand the diverse viewpoints of people from different countries and backgrounds.


Intercultural communication is especially important for product managers working at large, multinational organizations, or whose internal teams and end users come from a wide range of communities and cultures.


Simply put, without effective communication, the whole feedback and development cycle can break down. When information is misunderstood or presented without sufficient detail, expectations become unclear. That makes it near-impossible to achieve the desired results while meeting tight deadlines.


2. Knowledge of Scrum Methodology


According to the latest State of Agile Report from digital.ai, Scrum is by far the most popular Agile working approach, with two-thirds of respondents identifying it as the methodology they follow most closely, and a further 15% following some sort of derivation on “classic” Scrum principles.


In other words, you’re not going to get far as a product manager without a solid working knowledge of Scrum methodology.


In essence, Scrum is a framework that empowers individual team members to tackle the complex challenges needed to deliver high-value products in a productive, creative manner.


However, while it’s intended to be simple and lightweight, there’s no denying that Scrum takes a little getting used to. If you’ve never worked to the Scrum framework before, you shouldn’t simply expect to pick it up immediately.


You need to understand how it works and feel comfortable working in a Scrum-based environment to thrive as a product manager, so do your homework (and pick up as much practical experience as possible).


3. Understanding of MVP Development


In the world of sports, an MVP is the most valuable player –– the absolute best person on the field.


But in the development realm, it’s something completely different. Far from being about peak performance, it stands for “minimum viable product”; something that works as intended and solves the user’s main problem, without featuring any high-level customization or granular detail.


You’ll need to understand MVP development if you’re going to make it as a product manager, because it plays an extremely important role in the development process. In fact, businesses that build a minimal valuable product reach the first release of their products much faster, which means they start generating revenue earlier.


4. Self-Management & Motivation


Product managers need to be self-motivated, because they’ll rarely have someone looking over their shoulder and scrutinizing their actions on a day-to-day basis.


In practice, that means you’ll need to be highly effective at managing your priorities and juggling various deadlines, from running a project management meeting to communicating with various stakeholders.


Fortunately, even if you consider yourself pretty disorganized in your personal life, it’s possible to learn and apply time management skills in a professional setting.


Start by blocking out chunks of time to spend on larger tasks that require your complete focus, rather than allowing your day to fill up with endless meetings and emails. For instance, try limiting time spent in your inbox to half an hour when you first sit at your desk, and a further half-hour at the end of the day. And don’t be afraid to say “no” to meetings that don’t directly involve you, or that could be better delivered as an email.


5. Product Awareness


Product managers need solid awareness of their product’s core purpose and functionality to help them prioritize development actions.


After all, your product will always have a primary “reason for being”. It might be designed for lead generation, education, recruitment, entertainment, or anything else for that matter.


This is important, because at any given moment, you might have dozens of potential iterations to plan and prioritize. Always focus on those that make the biggest difference to your customers and are most closely related to your primary purpose.


From a product management perspective, anything else is just a “nice to have”.


6. Troubleshooting


Being a product manager can sometimes feel like turning around a struggling business, because you need to figure out what’s holding you back and limiting your potential before you can plan any potential iterations.


That’s where user feedback comes in. Your end users are the people who have the most hands-on experience with your product, so their opinions matter. 


Dig into their suggestions and any problems they’ve encountered, grouping them together where possible. Then ask yourself: are these the real problems, or just symptoms of something larger?


Once you’ve identified the root cause of any product issues, you can start strategizing on potential solutions.


7. Technical Expertise


Okay, so you don’t need to be a developer to make it as a product manager. No one’s expecting you to code a new app from start to finish –– that’s a whole different job.


But if you’re going to make it as a product manager, you should definitely possess some level of technical understanding.


Particularly for product managers who work with software, apps, and other digital products, the more technical knowledge you have, the better. You’ll need to be able to work with engineers to identify problems, find solutions, and generally ensure your product meets the mark from a design, user experience, and functionality perspective.


8. Empathy


Sitting between the development team and the end users, while also speaking to other leaders throughout the business, means product managers have to deal with a whole lot of stakeholders.


Those stakeholders have different priorities and goals, as well as different levels of technical knowledge.


That’s why empathy is one of the most important soft skills a product manager can possess. You’ll frequently find yourself acting as the “voice of the customer” during internal meetings, so you need to understand their priorities, and explain them in a way that resonates with your developers.


9. Marketing Nous


Remember, no one has to use your product. There’s always another choice (or more likely, dozens of choices).


As such, product managers also need to develop excellent marketing skills so they can make their product as attractive as possible to their audience.


That means understanding the real-world benefits of your product or service, and positioning them in a way that stands out from the competition. You’ll also need to keep pace with changes in demand and develop marketing strategies to support the launch of new products or features.


10. Delegation


Remember: even the best product managers can’t do it all alone!


Effective delegation doesn’t mean giving all of your work to other people. Instead, it means understanding the strengths (and weaknesses) of individual developers, and assigning tasks accordingly.


Additionally, it’s about clearly setting out your expectations for a task so there’s no ambiguity around what needs to be achieved, and resisting the urge to micromanage individual actions. After all, if you spend the whole time scrutinizing every tiny action, you might as well have done the whole thing yourself.


Final Thoughts

As you see, becoming a successful product manager requires a variety of skills, ranging from technical knowledge to empathy and communication. Many of these skills are developed and polished in practice. The 5-month product management course at Wild Code School includes a lot of hands-on experience so that graduates would feel confident on the job. Its syllabus is based on the practical knowledge employers are seeking in today’s dynamic job market.

About the author

Phil is a freelance writer specializing in all things digital marketing. He worked agency-side in the UK for 10 years, before leaving when he realized he could basically do this job from anywhere. Beyond marketing, he loves travel, his cat, and wearing a vest under an open shirt. Connect with him on LinkedIn.