7 Essential Skills for the Full Stack Product Person

We’re all creative and we want to be effective, doing work that matters. Long on a quest to be the best product person I can be, these days I learn a lot through my work as an instructor. My classes are on the interdisciplinary topics of product design and venture creation, so I get to work with business people wanting to understand the ‘technical side’ and engineers wanting to learn the ‘business’ side.

Often, students from the business side are thinking of learning to code and students from the engineering side are thinking of going to get an MBA. While both might be advisable in certain situations, I’ve found that there are a few simple foundation skills that drive the interdisciplinary cooperation at the heart of so many successful projects:
the-full-stack-product-person-v4My take is that since none of us want to look stupid, we spend too much time trying to out-expert others. Instead, we’d be better off learning how to frame and ask each other the right questions.

Here are some notes on foundation skills that I think will help you ask those questions and drive the right kind of discussions.


# Skill Answers the question… Good for…
1 DESIGN THINKING “Who are we doing this for and do we know what makes them tick?” Focusing your efforts on an actionable, testable view of the customer.Creating a robust interdisciplinary tool set you can use across product development and promotion (sales, marketing, etc.).
2 LEAN “How do we figure out if this is going to be a hit before we waste a lot of time and money?” Balancing the uncertainty of a new venture with the structure you need to stay focused on the right things. Avoiding waste. Learning quickly.
3 CUSTOMER DISCOVERY “How do we create an actionable understanding of our customer, one that we can use to build the right product and promote it efficiently?” Finding out what really makes your customer tick vs. ticking them off.
4 AGILE “Where’s everyone at and are we progressing to our objective?” Creating inputs to product development and promotion that link back to your work in design thinking and customer discovery.

In my experience, these tools will help you and your team steer away from distracting tangents and stay focused on what will really help your project succeed. Product and business education is realigning around new practices and ideas, the above being some of the most important. You can see this happening with the emergence of new terms like ‘growth hacker’ and the growth of interdisciplinary programs like a ‘design MBA’.

As far as an introduction to these topics, there are a lot of great resources online, but it’s a bit of a choose your own adventure situation at the moment. The last section here lists a few resources from this site.

If you don’t have a coding/’technical’ background, here are three foundation topics that will give you a useful starting point for engaging with ‘technical’ folks.


# Topic Answers the question… Good for…
5 Model-View-Controller “What area of the development program is this, what’s important about it, and how does it fit in with everything else?” Decomposing the complexity of software development (into three different areas, anyway) and thinking about the kind of questions that might make sense.
6 App. & Platform Integration “What exactly are we building and how does it fit in with the rest of our ecosystem/operating environment?” Understanding the different chunks of your extended product and the general implications of different approaches to building your application.
7 Roles & Systems in a Technical Team “What’s the difference between a UI designer vs. developer vs. QA vs. sysadmin vs. devops?” Understanding what everyone does and the different types of talent you need to get where you want to be.

I would never discourage anyone from learning to code. Even a few hours invested in Codeacademy will earn you perspective and some useful skills. That said, even if you master the syntax and basic practicalities of a language like Ruby, there’s a lot of intangible learning and judgement that an experienced developer brings to their work.

That’s why it’s a good idea to balance an understanding of coding with a general perspective on what your project’s looking to accomplish, framed in a way that lends itself to constructive interdisciplinary discussions.


Interested in learning more about the items above? Here are a few things available here on the site.


Topic Related Materials
DESIGN THINKING Tutorial: Personas, Problem ScenariosWorkshop: Venture Design I (Achieving Customer Relevance)Exercise: Day in the Life
LEAN Tutorial: Your Lean StartupWorkshop: Venture Design II (Iterating to Success)
CUSTOMER DISCOVERY Tutorial: Checklist- Persona HypothesisWorkshop: Venture Design III (Focusing and Validating Your Venture Progress)
AGILE Tutorial: Your Best Agile User StoryWorkshop: Venture Design V (Building the Right Product)


Topic Related Materials
Model-View-Controller Tutorial: Model-View-Controller
App. & Platform Integration Chapter 4: Starting a Tech Business
Roles & Systems in a Technical Team Chapter 5: Starting a Tech Business