Do You Have What It Takes to be a Successful Edtech Product Manager?

Jobs & Careers

Do You Have What It Takes to be a Successful Edtech Product Manager?

By Jenny Abamu     Mar 28, 2017

Do You Have What It Takes to be a Successful Edtech Product Manager?

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Guide to Getting a Job (or Finding Talent) in the Edtech World.

The product manager (PM) position is a precarious one because the role can vary vastly between companies, depending on their mission, size and model. Hence, there is no one formula for becoming the perfect edtech product manager—but there are some skills that can help.

Depending on the company, the PM position can have a heavy computer science, marketing or design slant, requiring the person filling that position to be highly skilled in one or a combination of those subjects. However, after sifting through job ads and conducting some interviews, the EdSurge team discovered that some skill sets are required of any individuals seeking to become edtech product managers. Joann Agnitti, a PM for Teacher’s College in Columbia University’s EdLab, and Chris Nichols, a PM for the startup CollegeFindMe, helped us map out these skills in an interview.

Skill #1: Be Ready To Communicate Between Several Stakeholders

Edtech PMs usually work between at least three different actors: educators, students and internal development teams. Their job is to make sure all of those actors are heard, that their needs are met and that their goals are synthesized through the product. “There are a lot of products that are used by teachers, but are ultimately for students,” explains Nichols, “which is why it is smart to use more of an AGILE design process for development.”

The AGILE design process engages all stakeholders throughout product development and changes, so students and teachers using edtech products have just as much say in the design as company CEOs. It is a process individuals seeking to be a PM should familiarize themselves with.

“You can develop a fantastic product that students love, but if you're trying to monetize through a school system you have to convince the people that are writing the check,” says Nichols. “The same issue can arise if you have a product that teachers love but the administration does not see the value.”

According to Nichols, the value of the product has to be transparent to all the stakeholders and the people making the business decisions about that product. “If I have a great idea I am going to talk to at least half a dozen customers to see what they think first before I propose it to our internal team,” he continued.

Skill #2: You Have to See the Big Picture

“My motto as a product manager is: ‘she with a plan, wins,’” says Agnitti, which for her means PMs have to know where the product is going.

Agnitti’s plan serves more like a map to steer a product in the right direction. This planning skill requirement is a win for those who think “big picture.” Companies need PMs who can anticipate outcomes of product adjustments to communicate it to users and the design team.

Hence, for those who get stuck in the weedy details of development, being a PM might not be your calling.

Skill #3: You Must Be Able to Wear Multiple Hats

No, this is not about literal clothing—PMs sometimes have to assume many roles. According to Agnitti, it is important for people seeking to be PMs (especially in smaller organizations) to be able to fill multiple roles and be flexible.

“I find myself playing many roles based on what the company needs me to be, I am a product manager, but also a user researcher, counselor, cheerleader and leader,” says Agnitti, “I am whatever the team needs me to be so that they can all work efficiently.”

Skill #4: Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

Edtech products require patience and compromise to scale. Schools are cautious about adopting new products and investors want answers with a vision—two desires that can conflict. For Nichols, it is important for PMs to tame investor and customer expectations to the point that both balance. “You can’t promise certain types of market reception or outcomes. You should not get too far ahead of your customers in your planning,” he says.

Nichole goes on to add that there is often pressure to figure out scalability too soon or make something happen that customers are not ready for. “We [PMs] get overly-ambitious when we get put under pressure,” he says. This also means resisting the inclination to pitch new ideas without talking to customers—something Nichols believes it a critical part of the development process.

“A product manager who is talking to investors making wide predictions is the same product manager who does things without a lot of customer input. In my experience that is a mistake.”

Skill #5: Listen, Observe and Communicate

Agnitti, whose degree is in counseling and psychology, uses many of her counseling skills in her work as a product manager. “A counseling technique that I employ a lot here is parroting what people are saying,” says Agnitti. She does this to ensure she is an effective listener. “People need to feel like they are being heard or validated regardless of whether their ideas are good or not,” she explains.

She also believes it is important to be a good observer and synthesizer.

For Agnitti, most observation happens on Google analytics in conjunction with EdLab’s own tracking tool. For quantitative user data, she checks things like the bounce rate, numbers of sign-ups and comments. For qualitative data, she looks for unexpected and creative use cases. “I want to know: are users surprising me and are there features that are commonly being misused,” explains Agnitti. These are observations that she notes in her research to map out strategies that can lead to new product features and designs. “Right now there is no way to reference or tag people in conversations on Vialogues, but we notice people try to do that on the platform, so it might be something we add,” she explains.

Though Nichols believes both numerical and case study data is relevant, he sees more value in studying users face-to-face. “Quantitative data can often be misleading. What I think is even more important is to embrace every single opportunity you can get to sit with a customer while they use your product,” explains Nichols.

Skill #6: Know the Field You Work In

You don’t need an education degree to be an edtech PM, but according to Agnitti, you should verse yourself on the complexities of the education field. Being familiar with the education field helps product managers avoid making mistakes other companies have made or duplicating a product that already exists. Nichols agrees, noting the importance for edtech companies to be aware of scalability, profit margins and the limited capabilities of K-12 classrooms. In his experience, many of the edtech products that are developed are too advanced for the skills many teachers have and don’t consider the limited budget that administrators use. “You are not going to make a billion dollars in a year, our adoption is through large institutions, and that moves very slowly,” explains Nichols.

According to Agnitti, education subject knowledge also reflects your passion and interest. “You should have a strong interest in making learning better,” says Agnitti, noting how the lack of enthusiasm can adversely affect the quality of a PM’s work.

Skill #7: Know When to Reach Out For Help

Serving as the captain of a product ship can be a lot of responsibility—many people are looking to you for answers and direction. However, according to Agnitti, it is crucial for PMs to take the time and reach out to others for help when in need.

“At the heart of every good product is a good team that is building it,” explains Agnitti, “I totally believe in surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. If you are struggling, you should reach out.” In her opinion, this is one of the bigger obstacles that PMs face, their lack of ability or willingness to reach out to others for help.

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