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5 Product Management Experts

Academy Xi Blog

Why Product Management is having a moment right now

By Academy Xi

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We asked a group of talented product specialists for their take on why 2021 saw product management continue to gain momentum in business.

Key themes include: 

  • Kinesthetic learning
  • Storytelling
  • Product Management role ‘archetypes’
  • Problem definition and articulation
  • Hiring strategies
  • Good humour

Anton Stout – Senior Product Designer, Myer

Anton is also a Founder of Clue Group which creates tools and strategies to support Experience Designers.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

It’s certainly a busy time for Product Managers, and it’s not likely to change soon as the demand for digital offerings has increased. For business, it’s simply been a question of survival. If they never had a digital presence or operated under a lackluster digital strategy, lockdowns have changed all that.

It goes without saying those already invested in digital saw a significant uptick in demand through digital channels, putting downward pressure on team capacity as backlogs started to fill up.

The rapid hiring of digital talent has seen teams balloon, calling on greater people management skills. This lands squarely at the feet of the Product Manager.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, it’s all about the people. Without a doubt, your most important skill is communication. Communicating clearly and frequently in terms of performance, bottlenecks, and workarounds to key stakeholders and equally co-ordinating and keeping the team focused on the right tasks is critical.

Second, lean heavily on your area of expertise. Those with design, engineering, architect, etc backgrounds will definitely find traction with team members that occupy those disciplines. It’s important to determine if the gravitas of the team’s challenges marry well to your area of expertise if you want to better guide team outcomes.

Third, release the pressure valve. It’s not all about hard business skills. Good humor is a hidden superpower of great Product Managers. You need to let go and inject a few laughs into the process, knowing when and how to do that brings and keeps the team closer together is often an unrecognized talent.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Make sure you have the right team for the job. If you have the opportunity, hit your network if you need a solid team, if the Job/Position Descriptions haven’t been written, ask yourself, who do I need that has done this (and done this well) already. While controversial, I’d want to know the hiring strategy and the skills/talent match based on the OKRs/desired project outcomes.

Performance is completely based on the team capability, if you don’t have a fortified cross-functional team, a clear resourcing pipeline and if you suffer from any team attrition you’re going to be underperforming.

Lai’i Dowsett – Senior Consultant, Product Development (previously Tesla, Apple)

La’i loves building new things. After graduating college in Boston and working in Silicon Valley, she returned to work in Australia in 2018 to be close to her family.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Absolutely. And with this demand being driven by the pace of technology, increasing customer expectations and competition, businesses (tech & non-tech) realise their continued success will depend on building a more dynamic (broad and deep) level of ‘integrated competence’ and collaboration. Businesses don’t necessarily have the same luxury of time when it comes to R&D and launching new products to market. They need to test & learn quickly. As products and services become more sophisticated, the way we work, self-organise, and deliver value to customers has also had to evolve; a sharper operating rhythm and rapid adaptability to change is required to thrive. (Cue product management.)

I think there’s still a lot of change ahead with various PM role ‘archetypes’ evolving from different business’ needs (i.e. having a technical, strategic, and/or execution/delivery slant). This presents a lot of opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to enter the Product space; customer support, marketing, and engineering are just a few functions that people can make natural pivots from.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, communication. Articulating ideas and problems for different audiences, but also being able to collaborate with a diverse set of stakeholders. It’s important that a PM has the ability to move between strategic discussions and then quickly pivot and dive into detailed product work. Because PM is a fast-paced, multifaceted discipline, I’d say this is an underrated and very important skill.

Second, adaptability to change. Having a level of resilience, stick-with-it-ness and adaptability to change in the face of ambiguity is important. I think this is something learnt through exposure, being thrown in the deep-end, or being responsible for avoiding failure at all costs. As a result, exposing yourself to new environments/projects as frequently as possible could be a good start.

Third, problem solving. There will be many things you don’t know the answer to – but the job of a PM isn’t to know everything – it’s to know the questions to ask, and to strategise, prioritise and drive outcomes. A willingness to learn, genuine curiosity, and an appetite for wearing multiple hats/leaning into being a multi-faceted contributor is important.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Once the problem you’re solving for and opportunity have been shaped, making a few initial, intentional technical/product hires is key (Tech lead, Engineering, Design). These will look very different depending on the problem you’re solving/product you’re building. However, finding a small founding team who can wear multiple hats is the starting point.

It comes down to this: when you don’t know the answers, you want to be in a room with people who 1) know the questions to ask, 2) have the perseverance and adaptability to change to keep breeze in the sail, and are 3) resourceful, curious, and reliable team players.

Zeke Condon – Business, Innovation & Product Consultant, Director & Founder, Telos PM

Zeke’s business, Telos PM, sees him launch media, & web mobile applications, deliver product go-to-market campaigns & consult on organisational-wide product transformation programs.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Would you like to buy Tickets for a Rocketship anybody?

The joke at the beginning of the work-from-home was “Q: So who was responsible for driving your digital transformation? CEO, CTO, CIO, CPO? A: the global pandemic”. And it’s true. There has been more digital change in the past two years than any forecast x10 would ever have predicted. But the thing is, most of the corporations out there adopted existing technology – both for servicing their internal and their external facing customers.

Now that all of those businesses are coming out of lockdown, confidence is increasing and companies are realising the need to customise on top of the technology they have adopted, or are now in a much better state of digital readiness that they are ready to bring forward their big hairy audacious innovation goals. Likewise, consumers’ digital readiness is through the roof. Simple adoption trends like the humble QR code are opening up new markets for product interactions that were previously reserved for early adopting markets.

With all of this tech and innovation comes more competition, and then the new wave of understanding, adoption, and adoption of better product development and management principles. Someone has to drive all that change and product management is finally moving from niche tech companies to mainstream industry. Read more about the Product job market in The Enormous Growth of Product Management.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, kinesthetic learning. It’s one thing to read or hear about something, but doing something yourself. It creates an entirely different mindset & set of insights that a product manager can product, plus it sets you up for the next skill.

Second, storytelling. It’s impossible to know every single data point and trend, let alone piece that all together into a coherent statement. There’s just not enough time. A PM who can instead tell a story about a customer experience, an observation of a trend in the market or articulate the patterns that make certain technologies work over others is most likely to elicit imagery and free thinking in those they work with. This is about empowering the teams to build on top of ideas and make them even better.

Third, coaching & mentoring. PM is one of those roles that has a ‘manager’ title, but (normally) nothing they are responsible for… but you are accountable for the results… so influence is a big factor in the success. A great way to influence others is to start by coaching & mentoring, being the selfless leader, putting the people ahead of you and sharing what you know and learn freely. A good coaching PM can create an entire product without ever making a decision, just asking good questions, listening deeply & intently to those around them.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Invite the whole team to a full day treasure hunt somewhere in the city. There is no map, there are no instructions, there is no clear goal. They can’t ask me for advice or tips because I technically don’t exist, nobody knows what they are looking for and nobody tells them what tools they can use. All they get is a vague but powerful vision statement that tells the people who participate that at the end of the day everyone will be better off.

Then watch that team learn all about what it means to really understand what it means to be a team that is flying blind towards a vision.

Luke Hymers – Chief of Staff to CEO, Baraja

Luke leads executive, product and engineering operations at Baraja, a rapidly growing start-up which makes self-driving car technology.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

I think the perpetual trend is just masses of new product companies popping up solving old problems better with new tech. There is also greater appreciation for the mindset shift from one-dimensional focus to more ‘product thinking’ focused on value creation and outcomes for customers and the business. Increasingly you’re seeing this shift in functional/operational areas where the customer is the business but hasn’t been thought of that way before. In short, more people in more places are starting to think of more things “as a product” with an aim to inspire more innovation and impact.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

Good product managers need to analyse, synthesize and define. They seek to understand the situation from all angles and can consolidate information to create coherent insight, clear vision, strategic narrative and focused direction. Those building blocks help determine the necessary decision points – what is priority, what is contentious, what needs to be communicated and what needs to be resolved. PM’s must also be exceptional communicators and ‘wood-chopping, water carrying’ leaders for their teams. But perhaps the most important role is simply being those eyes that see, distill and influence things across the business. Few roles have as broad and deep exposure as PM’s.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

One of my favourite pieces from MIT says that problem definition is ‘the most underrated skill in management’. Before you do anything or build anything, you need to deeply understand and articulate the problem(s) you’re trying to solve and know that they’re commercially meaningful enough to even need a product or product team! Paraphrasing Des Traynor – small, rare problems don’t make good foundations for products. There’s then the ‘plumbing’ which is critical to building impactful, motivated teams – you need to set clear strategic context. Marty Cagan’s new book ‘Empowered’ outlines a good framework for this: purpose, vision, strategy, KPIs/scorecard, measurable objectives, team ‘topography’ (structures, process and rhythms) – those are the guardrails which enable people to effectively focus on, explore and solve the right problems.

Tiffany McHugh – Head of Product (Learning), Academy Xi

Tiffany heads up Academy Xi’s Product function which is responsible for delivering cutting-edge, employment-driven learning experiences.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Due to the global impact of COVID, digital transformation became a matter of survival for many companies. The rise in popularity of product management accompanies and facilitates these necessary and important digital changes. There is a growing need for skilled professionals who can drive rapid development of new products and services to meet the demands of established and new digital industries and tech-savvy customers.

At Academy Xi, we have seen a significant uplift in interest in studying Product Management. We’ve also noticed an increase in hiring partners looking for PM graduates, and we have observed a variety of tech-adjacent roles adding PM skills into their hiring mix. “Help! I can’t find good tech talent” is a good read which outlines the demand in the current job market. We expect this trend will continue for many years to come, and believe that the diverse commercial, strategic and technical skills that underpin product management are beneficial for many digital professionals, not just those titled as “Product Manager”. Check out our Product Management Elevate course.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, analytical/strategic. Skilled at unearthing the “real problems” and opportunities. Second, pragmatic. Balancing the needs of the customer with the needs of the business. Third, persuasive and personable. Possessing the diplomacy to take on many (sometimes competing) perspectives, the capacity to understand the technical difficulties involved, and to motivate a team with a range of challenges towards a single unified outcome.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

First, understand the organisation’s digital strategy moving forward. Without a clear overarching mission, vision and strategic plan, product initiatives may remain unfocussed. It’s important to know what values most heavily influence business and product decisions. Cheapest, fastest, biggest, best? Know your company values and priorities.

Next it’s important to understand the capacity, skill and technical constraints of your teams from the outset. A product will only be as successful as the contributors that built, sold and supported it, so understand the capabilities that exist now, and the gaps that may need to be filled so you can find the right people to build the right products to meet the company’s goals.

Product Management can certainly occur in smaller companies without a dedicated product manager; cross-functional teams with good management (and a project owner) who collectively understand PM methodology can collaborate towards a unified goal. But as the business and projects scale up and evolve more rapidly, it makes sense to embed a PM professional (or more) to formalise and organise these collaborations. Better still, give your key people core product management training to allow them to practice key product planning moments in a safe environment. As to whether these teams follow agile ceremonies or formal PM processes will entirely depend on the nature of the work and organisation. As with any methodology, it is best to pick and choose the elements that suit the context of the business. It’s about overriding ‘business as usual’ thinking and not every tool and method in the PM textbook will be relevant in every business.

Want your business to harness a ‘product mindset’ to better solve problems? Why not give your key people a strong foundation in Product training?

Get in touch with us.

Academy Xi Blog

The enormous growth of Product Management

By Academy Xi

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We sat down with Ainsley Johnstone, Founder & CEO at Think Talent, to discuss the state of the Product market as well as why big picture thinking, natural storytelling and relentless curiosity are the trademarks of a modern Product Manager.

What picture do the statistics paint around recruitment of Product Managers in Australia right now?

I think it’s clear that digitisation is driving demand. Businesses are counting on digital to lead the COVID recovery and the demand for digital products – and the professionals who can help build and manage them – simply outstrips supply. There is undoubtedly a lot of quality, emerging talent in Product Management, but it’s still a relatively nascent profession here in Australia when you compare it to the US or the UK. The re-opening of international borders may help to address the talent crunch to some extent, but the focus really needs to be on upskilling the local market so we have a more sustainable, more experienced talent pool to draw from.

Product Management is clearly becoming increasingly popular. What factors play into this?

First and foremost, COVID has undoubtedly accelerated digital and that’s why we are seeing such a boom for Product Managers in sector areas like the banking and telecommunications sector; online retail; and platforms that enable remote working. The distance from company to end-customer has also been shortened by COVID; rather than buying from a middleman at a bricks and mortar store, customers are buying and engaging directly via eCommerce.  Product Managers provide vital conduit back to the business about what customers are thinking and wanting

And finally, I think bright young talent can see that Product Management is an enormous growth area both in terms of future career opportunities and earning potential. Organisations like Academy Xi are also making it accessible for them to upskill relatively quickly and create the network introductions that will lead to job opportunities.

“Product Management is an enormous growth area both in terms of future career opportunities and earning potential.”Ainsley Johnstone (Think Talent)

Australia is in the middle of a digital skills crisis. What practices are businesses putting in place to reinforce their talent funnel?

The shift to remote teams has opened the talent pool right up. We’re seeing clients more than willing to engage off-shore talent as roles become entirely remote. Another shift we’re seeing is that businesses are open to recruiting more junior talent and then being prepared to invest in their development. Tenure for Product Managers, like many in the digital fields, has typically been less than 2.5 years, but more and more, we’re seeing businesses re-evaluate their Employee Value Proposition (EVP) as a means of engaging talent longer.

On the issue of EVP, it’s evident that people’s priorities have shifted over the past 18 months. These days candidates aren’t simply avoiding the so-called black industries, they actively want to understand how a company is giving back or adding value to the customer. Not-for-profits, health tech and science driven organisations have a clear advantage here.

And finally, the importance of succession planning is highlighted as businesses face up to the likelihood of high turnover in the post-pandemic phase. This again reinforces the sense in a strategy that invests in developing a pool of emerging talent that can mature into leadership roles.

“The importance of succession planning is highlighted as businesses face up to the likelihood of high turnover in the post-pandemic phase. This reinforces the sense in a strategy that invests in developing a pool of emerging talent that can mature into leadership roles.”
Ainsley Johnstone (Think Talent)

What skills are key differentiators for Product Managers in the current market?

It’s well known that Product Managers need to be exceptional communicators, but three other or complementary skills that really set the best apart from the rest are: Big Picture Thinker, Natural Storyteller and Relentless Curiosity.

By hiring for these characteristics, you’ll attract a strategic, human-first Product Manager who can act as a conduit between customers and business stakeholders, and see your product as part of an ecosystem of solutions.

If you could list three trends that shaped Product Management this year, what would they be?

COVID has obviously had a fundamental effect on Product Management, and digital careers more broadly: the near overnight shift to remote-working, and likelihood of ongoing hybrid work models, has been a boom for collaboration platforms, workflow tools and a host of tools designed to improve the quality of online interactions. All of these will need product support.

We’re also seeing a trend towards specialisation within Product Management. This might seem odd given the pressure already on the market right now, but as businesses get to grips with their product offering, they want talent who are specialised in platform components, mobile, personalisation or operations. I think we’re going to see a lot more Product Operations Management roles in the future.

And third, it’s been very exciting to see more diverse Product Management teams starting to form. Businesses that integrate diversity and inclusion into their Teams will promote better problem solving for a much larger segment of their customer base and propel innovation. In Australia, 63% of Product Managers are male but I suspect we’ll be looking at a very different figure within 1 – 2 years’ time.

Read more about the compacted digital skills labour market in ‘Help! I can’t find good digital talent’.

Looking for solutions? We can help. Check out our Talent Services programs designed to give businesses the opportunities they need to reskill and upskill their people