What Software Tools do Product Managers Need to Learn?

How technical do I have to be to become a Product Manager? This is one of the most common questions I get from young professionals interested in a career in Product. It’s also one of the biggest factors that prevents individuals (particularly women) from even trying to apply for certain roles. I understand this hesitation completely because nobody wants to be put in a position where they land the job but then have no idea how to do it.

Employers and recruiters aren’t helping the situation by writing job listings for the “unicorn” employee, even though they know this person doesn’t exist. They list “must-haves” next to “nice-to-haves” without distinguishing what is TRULY necessary to do the job and what can be learned later. It makes the whole process painful and wildly unproductive for both sides.

That being said, generally speaking, the Product Manager position isn’t a technical position. However, Product Management roles are all different depending on the size of the company, the product you’re working on, the team dynamics, and so many other factors. Usually, when a company needs a PM to be more technical than usual, they will call the role a Technical Product Manager role. Otherwise, as long as you have a basic understanding of that company’s core platforms, you should be okay.

There’s also certain programs that are a given across the board. If you’re not familiar with the digital tools that PMs use every day, that would be the best place to start. Here are some of the most popular tools along with some alternatives. That way, if you’re limited on time, you know which ones you can skip because you already know a similar program.

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Project Planning

As a PM, one of your most important jobs will be sprint planning. Since you own the product roadmap, and are in the best position to understand both the customer and business needs, it’s up to you to prioritize the work for your engineering team. That means that you’ll be writing tons of tickets, grooming the backlog, commenting on tickets in UAT, and generally making sure nothing blocks engineers.

Jira

Jira is the most commonly used software for managing sprints and software development teams. You can sign up for a free account to start familiarizing yourself with the basic features, but chances are your company will have a much more complex setup with multiple projects and different boards and workflows. The free account, along with the walkthroughs on YouTube, should get you comfortable with the basic functionality to get you through the day-to-day.

Alternatives

If you haven’t worked with Jira but have used other project management software, you’ll probably be OK. Even though each project management software has their own features and nuances, the core functionality remains the same. If you’ve used any of the following, your transition to Jira will be smooth:

1. Asana
2. Trello
3. Monday.com
4. Basecamp
5. ClickUp

Functional Specifications

As a PM, you’ll be doing tons of writing. Whether it’s training material for your users, or technical documentation of a feature, you’ll be doing a lot of technical writing.

Confluence

Confluence (made by Atlassian, Jira creators) goes hand in hand with Jira. Oftentimes, tickets are linked to longer functional specifications that are found in Confluence. The program has basic word processing functionality along with features and widgets that allow you to create an informational space.

Alternatives

If you don’t know Confluence, don’t sweat it. As long as you’ve worked in ANY word processing program and can format text, create tables, and embed images, you’ll be able to learn this quickly. Any experience in the following would be helpful:

1. Word
2. Sharepoint
3. Notion
4. Nuclino

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Mock-ups

Some PMs do more design work than others, but it’s guaranteed that you’ll need to put something visual together at some point.

Figma

Figma is popular amongst Product teams because of its ease of use and wide variety of features. As a PM, you probably won’t be expected to design a website from the ground up, but if a designer hands over designs like these you should understand how to navigate the design system. You’ll need to know basic things like how to get the specs, export information, and link to important details.

Alternatives

If you have no experience at all with creating basic designs like wireframes and mock-ups, I’d highly recommend starting a free account with any of these to start designing!

1. InVision
2. Sketch
3. Adobe XD
4. Balsamiq

Brainstorming

With distributed teams operating around the world, remote work is here to stay! Since it’s impossible nowadays to get everyone in a room to whiteboard, we’ve had to evolve.

Miro

Miro is a popular tool for all kinds of brainstorming from cost-benefit analyses to user journeys. The product also works with popular video conferencing software like Zoom to combine real-time conversation with virtual whiteboarding.

Alternatives

These types of products are relatively new and unique but very intuitive to use. I’d recommend starting up a free account and playing with the features.

1. Mural
2. Lucidchart

Product Roadmap

Keeping the product roadmap up-to-date is an important task for PMs. The roadmap is your bible and it gives you a quick and easy way to communicate your vision to anyone at anytime.

Productboard

Productboard is a relatively new company that has a specialized product to make it quick and easy for you to create and manage your product roadmap.

Alternatives

PMs have been making product roadmaps since the dark ages so you don’t need a special tool to make these. I’ve listed a couple of popular ones below, but honestly, as long as you know PowerPoint and can make tables and have some proficiency with basic design you should be fine.

1. ProductPlan
2. Teamhood
3. PowerPoint

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Data & Analytics

Good PMs will use data for their decision-making whenever possible. As such, it’s important to get comfortable with navigating analytics platforms.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is one of the most widely used analytics platforms used by businesses of all kinds. If you’ve worked with GA at some point in your career, and have a hold of basic concepts and know how to navigate the dashboard, then you’ll be fine.

Alternatives

Access to analytics platforms might be a little more challenging since these platforms are tied to a product. The best way around this is to launch your own website with a platform like WordPress. Then you can link it to Google Analytics and start to learn.

Another option might be to create a YouTube channel and start to glean analytics from that. YouTube analytics are very similar and you can also link your channel to GA.

Communications

PMs are at the center of all the crosstalk happening at an organization. As such, you have to be good at communicating with people and leveraging different tools to mesh with different communication styles.

Slack

Slack is the golden standard of chat. All the different features allow you to organize your Slack in whichever way makes sense. Whether it’s sharing a stupid meme or the day’s release schedule, you’ll need to be a Slackmaster.

Alternatives

As wonderful as Slack is, the truth is the basic chat features are universal across any other chat product. If you’ve used any of the following, you’ll be totally fine:

1. Discord
2. Microsoft Teams
3. Skype
4. WhatsApp
5. Zoom

I hope this list has been helpful. Namaste!