February 22, 2021

The "Full-Stack" Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

What is a full-stack product manager? Although the term is not new, I have seen it in a few LinkedIn profiles recently. And it made me wonder how people are actually using it. A bit of digging revealed that most folks are using it to indicate a deeper level of technology expertise. Others adopt it to show their full breadth of experience bringing products to market. There are plenty more permutations and all have something in common.

There is no consistency — it is not really clear what a full-stack product manager is. Maybe it just means that you do all of your job?

When you look around online, the results are mostly think pieces and a few bootcamps and certification programs for product management. Now, I know that term is a riff on full-stack developer. But for it to make sense, there would need to be a defined technology stack for product managers to master. And product managers should not be focused on how a product is built anyways — your job is to define the "why" and the "what."

But when people are reaching for a way to categorize things, it usually means that there is a real need. So let's think about this more broadly. What if we reimagined the product management stack to go beyond technology and encompass skills too?

Because full-stack really just refers to folks who can do everything needed within a discipline. For product managers, that is someone who can own the full spectrum of the product lifecycle — everything it takes to plan, build, and deliver a lovable product.

If we were going to create a profile of a full-stack product manager, it would represent the best of the best. You have to be fluent in these 10 areas:

Strategic clarity

Product managers have vision. But what sets you apart is that you have refined that vision to its essence and apply it to everything you do. You have strategic clarity when setting goals, evaluating ideas, and prioritizing what to build next. And that clarity inspires everyone in the organization to rally around your vision too.

Market awareness

Even the most creative ideas flop if there is no market fit. You are tenacious about really understanding your industry, market, and competitive landscape. But data and demographics only tell part of the story. You analyze the needs and motivations of potential customers so you can make informed decisions about what to build next.

Business impact

Building is fun. But the investments you make have a real business impact. As deeply connected as you are to the vision for your product, you know that there are tangible outcomes. You use your knowledge of what the company's goals are, where your product fits in the market, and what customers need now to inform your roadmap.

Idea responsiveness

You have a process in place for gathering ideas from your community. But that is not what makes you stand out. You vet and respond to ideas with urgency. Maybe you have even made review times a performance metric for the product team. Because you know that a healthy pipeline of feedback and requests will make your product more successful. To keep that cycle going, customers deserve a timely response — even if the answer is "no."

Genuine empathy

Simply capturing feedback is not enough for you. You are passionate about understanding what drives those needs. You use your own product. You talk to customers frequently. You consistently engage customer-facing teams. These conversations allow you to ask deeper follow-up questions and gain more insights. True empathy is behind your product prioritization choices and is based on your deep care for customers.

Product expertise

You know your product deeply. Not just the feature set. You actually use it as much as you can in order to understand its real value in practice. And you want to hear about the technical aspects directly from the development team. When deciding what to build, this knowledge helps you make trade-off decisions about what is best for the business and the customer.

Delivery diligence

There is no "if you build it, they will come." You know the value of a high-functioning product team. So you cultivate strong relationships with cross-functional colleagues across the organization. You meticulously plan dates, dependencies, and phases of work so that everyone knows exactly what they need to do and when to go to market triumphantly.

Go-to-market wisdom

You understand that go-to-market success requires its own strategy. How will you bring a specific new experience to market? Pricing, positioning, messaging, channels — you know owning the product means understanding every aspect. You are acutely aware that the product launch is just one part of a broader set of launches across the organization that comprises the overall go-to-market. And you can offer savvy input because you are thinking beyond the feature set to the broader business impact.

Cross-functional guidance

The people your customers interact with have a real impact on how users perceive your product. So you regularly meet with marketing, sales, and customer success folks to make sure each group understands what is coming and what is needed to support customers. Marketing has the information they need to create compelling campaigns. And you offer firm footing to sales and support folks — who are then empowered to help customers with your guidance.

Data smarts

You monitor a core set of metrics to track progress against your goals. But you also know to question your instincts about what might be causing trends in the data. Correlation is not causation. You think beyond the features and functionality and consider every point of interaction your customers have with your product. Actions in response to data are always viewed and vetted against your strategy.

It is a privilege to build products that solve real problems and generate meaningful business impact — no wonder it takes a range of skills to do it well.

Reflect on your skills and identify areas where you have room to grow and improve. There will be some areas that you gravitate to more naturally than others too. You will not become an expert overnight — especially if you are early in your career and are still learning what it means to be a product leader.

So while it may be difficult to assign just one definition for a full-stack product manager, we can all agree that there are exceptional product managers among us — inspiring customers and teammates along the way.

What else would you add to the list?

The road to building better products starts here

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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