Pathways to Success as a Product Manager

Or, “things I wish others had told me when I became a product manager”

Tim Sneath
5 min readApr 6, 2023

I was late to product management as a career. For most of my formative years at Microsoft, I worked in developer relations roles: working with early adopters, crafting messaging and demos for events, writing content for a broad developer audience, and helping teams understand their customers.

These skills and experiences are tremendously useful for any product manager, but they’re not sufficient. Product managers are fundamentally balancers: making endless prioritization decisions about strategy and direction across various dimensions (business or customer? now or later? growth or revenue? incremental or revolutionary? build or buy? open or closed? double down or cut bait?).

Product managers often are the DRI for strategy, but almost never have direct ownership of the resources necessary to deliver that strategy. So being successful as a product manager means having a lot of “soft power” — being respected for their track record, rather than because of their position in the management chain.

Recently I’ve been chatting with a colleague I respect greatly who has made a similar career transition, and they asked me to identify some characteristics that are critical to success in the PM role. This is a revised version of my response.

Good product managers are curious.

Read widely from outside your direct sphere. Catalog elegant solutions and experiences. Commission new sources of data. Identify your own prior biases and look for evidence that surprises you. Talk to people who challenge you, rather than those who agree with you. Assume things you “know” are actually hypotheses to be tested.

Good product managers are data miners.

Devour external sources of information: from your own product research and user studies; from non-users; from competitors; from broad community forums. Build a bookmark list of data sources and insights.

Good product managers are skeptical.

As a corollary to the last point, don’t trust everything you read. Look for evidence of selection bias. Be careful about listening to those who will be disrupted if you’re successful (the horse-and-cart consortium wouldn’t have given Henry Ford good feedback on the Model T). And beware of summaries that pre-digest results but miss all the texture of the feedback.

An anecdote: every quarter, we do a survey of nearly 10,000 developers for one of the products I work on. The longitudinal insights and quantitative data are always valuable. But we also invite respondents to give us verbatim feedback. And there’s often huge treasure buried in such individual insights. So I try and make time to read as many of those individual insights as possible (both good and bad), in order to ground myself in the actual voices of our customer. And we share those nuggets broadly around the team, with a chat room robot called “From {Product} Users” which posts new random insights every day.

Good product managers are hands-on.

Know your product well, rather than relying on others’ knowledge. If you work on a developer product and you haven’t ever built something with it, you should rectify that. Don’t be embarrassed that there are others who know more than you, but equally don’t be complacent about filling your knowledge gaps.

Good product managers are opinionated.

Have an opinion and be able to back it up. (And if you are curious but skeptical, data-oriented, and hands-on, the chances are your opinion will be a good default much of the time.)

Another anecdote: One of my team is fond of the saying, “have strong opinions, but hold them loosely”. There’s goodness here: even a bad decision may be better than no decision, since it generates data you can use to quickly pivot — so long as you are open to that new data.

But there’s also a trap in the first clause of the sentence. It’s valuable to be able to bring a well-articulated perspective to others’ problems, sure. But to do so at the appropriate time without drowning out others or being a jerk — that’s the real skill. So perhaps it’s better to say, “have strong opinions that are lightly given and loosely held.”

Good product managers are communicators.

Few product managers write enough for an external audience. Don’t be shy to ask your team dumb questions that aren’t documented, because that will almost always reveal user journey gaps. Write public documentation in favor of private customer emails.

Good product managers are future-looking.

Be bold and exploratory. Investigate questions that you’ve been told are off the table. Try to look further ahead and broader afield than your engineering counterparts. They might well be focused on shipping the next release; but your focus is the release after that. Don’t solve today’s problems; identify tomorrow’s problems instead.

Good product managers are innovative.

Don’t just look at what others are doing and focus on matching them feature-for-feature. You can never lead a race by looking over your shoulder. Breakthroughs come from challenging the orthodoxy. Be humble, for sure, but have just enough arrogance to be able to believe in yourself that you can find a better path than anyone before you has found.

Good product managers are positive.

You will find plenty of detractors. Plenty of problems to solve. Plenty of reasons why failure is possible, even likely. But positivity is a highly attractive trait. If you exude it, you will always be surrounded with talented, positive people, because talented, positive people want to find others like them.

In closing, a book I recommend without reservation to tech product managers of all levels is Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. Don’t put it on a bookshelf, though, nor try to read it cover to cover. Instead leave it on your desk and just turn to a random page once in a while. It’s full of vignettes and useful tools for product managers. If I’m feeling blocked on something, I’ll often skim through it and be reminded of or inspired by an approach.

Hope this is useful!



Tim Sneath

Director for Developer Tools and Frameworks at Apple. I used to run Flutter and Dart at Google.