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Craig Kerstiens

Top 5 Product and Management skills: SQL, Excel, Clear Communication, Story, Prioritization

A few months ago there was a tweet from @jasoncwarner about leadership skills/super powers:

  • SQL
  • Excel
  • Concise writing
  • Story telling
  • Prioritization.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in product management roles, and in recent years more in leadership. I’ve found a lot of the skills in product to translate into good leadership skills as well, but maybe I’m bluring the lines there. Regardless, with his 5 skills I found myself nodding and have written about each of these some on my blog and then at times on twitter. He long since deleted the tweet, and while I wait for him to republish I thought I’d reprise a few of these with my own view point.


Yeah, I’m a “database” person. But not really, I’m a product person. But if I want to answer a question about what our customers are doing 9 times out of 10 the answer to that question is hiding inside a SQL database. If it’s not in a SQL database they’ve made a SQL like interface to access that data. If you want to feel like you have some magical super power that probably none of your peers posses pick up SQL. How many people working in React know SQL? Know many people that write Go know SQL? Same question if you know Ruby.

The insights into how many users created their freemium account 3 months ago, but then converted to paying within 30 days, vs converted to paying after 30 days for a cohort analysis of fast converters vs. slow converters I can probably write in SQL before you’ve parsed what I’m trying to get at and started to write in any other language. That type of insight is powerful.

Now if you think of how many people on a product team, or a management team know SQL-you’re in a unique position. It really is a super power


This one is more common with MBAs and business types, but nonetheless is still valuable. While I love SQL, a pivot table in SQL isn’t quite the same. There are absolutely people that can spin circles around me in Excel (looking at you @rstephensme). But Excel is way more broad reaching a programming language than literally everything else. It’s powerful and rich, and not all data is large and needs a database.

Proficiency to quickly slice and dice things is huge. As you level up in your career you need to be able to take in a lot of information, ask questions of it, fact check it, and then make a decision on it. Excel is one big tool to help on this.


My grammar is shit. I know it. But that’s mostly okay, I’ve explicitly focused on clear communication in my career. Concise and clear communication is huge. While the above are super key, if you can simply listen and ingest information that is not clear and then regurgitate it in a clear manner you can have a career in a lot of industries.

A few disparate tips here:

  • My favorite question to ask in any situation “What problem are we trying to solve here?” It’s greatly focusing and if you internalize it’ll steer you to better communication
  • Michael Dearing has a great talk on executive communication using SCQA given @heavybit
  • I run all important emails, blogs, etc. through hemingway app, the lower the grade level the better

Story telling

I’m actually not quite sure where to start on this one. At some level we all want to be entertained. Hollywood isn’t the industry it is because they forced us into it. But story telling is a harder one, I’ve never coached/mentored anyone on it, I’m not even sure I’m expert at it. I definitely know a good story and the value of one. Watch a presentation that is monotone and reads off the slides, and it’s not that they’re just monotone it’s that the story isn’t there. I’ve found I personally love to follow some of the story board supervisors and animators for Pixar and Disney Animation that talk about story narrative. I’m not sure it’s made me better at this, but it’s entertaining.

If you can be entertaining you can layer in the valuable pieces.

But be yourself in the process.


So many startups I’ve talked to have analysis paralysis. Many management folk in their first tenure have analysis paralysis. If there is literally one thing you can start doing around this, it is to make a decision, any decision. Measure and course correct later, but way too much time is wasted in deciding and that non-decision is a worse decision in and over itself.

Now when it comes to prioritizing and making the right decision. I’ve used the same tool for over 10 years, other teams I’ve trained on it. I’ve run the exercise for teams that wanted coaching on it. Is it perfect no. The important part is find a process and stick with it and perfect it. Per friend Rimas product principles “Be consistent - if you’re going to use a trick, use it a lot.” One of my tricks is gridding, which is an effort vs impact matrix. You can check out a part 1 and part 2 write-up.

The key here is when you step back with higher level granularity and put things side by side visually a lot of things sort themselves out. We conduct the exercise over a 1-2 hr period, often over an offsite. But have done a lot on zoom over the past year. Keep in mind an important part is make a decision on what you will and won’t do. The won’t part is as important as what you will.


Could there be 10 things on the list? Sure. Is there something more important than these? I’m not really sure. If you want to round out your skill set for the next few years in product or management-hope this helps. If you think it’s crap @jasoncwarner, but if you really like it I’m happy to take credit @craigkerstiens