Many a time when talking to aspiring product managers, I get asked the question “How technical does a product manager need to be in order to succeed?” Many companies have strict criteria for technical skills during hiring while others don’t. Some would explicitly mention the requirement of a CS degree as a pre-requisite while others would be okay with relevant experience only.
The reason for these diverse requirements is due to the fact that product management has evolved over a period of time along with the software industry (variations of product management roles can be traced back to a time much before that). Universities still don’t offer product management courses as part of the formal curriculum. Since there are no common shared resources for product managers, in many companies this position has evolved depending on what the role fulfilled for them at that point of time. So if you search for people with product manager as a title on LinkedIn and look at their educational background you’ll realize they come from diverse backgrounds such as liberal arts, pure sciences and non-CS engineering degrees as well.
After talking to few of these product managers, one of the themes that comes across is this: to succeed as a product manager you do not need an engineering degree, but you do need to have a strong technical background, either through learning on the job or building your technical skills through side projects. The primary reason for this is because the technical background gives you the ability to relate and communicate to engineers and enable decisions regarding technical trade-offs which affect either the user experience or the features of the product. Without the required technical background it’s easy to take the engineering team down a wild goose chase and lose credibility with the engineering leadership. So if you are entering the business of technology, it’s ok to start off as a non-technical PM but it’s not ok to stay that way if you intend to succeed.
How to develop the necessary technical background and gain respect?
Make sure you are strong in other areas
If you ever google “product management” you would have come across this picture
I really love the simplicity of this little picture as it clearly explains that technology is one of the essential skill sets you need to have. Engineering teams need someone with deep market insight and user knowledge in order to prioritize their efforts. Product managers are the voice of the users and represent users in every discussion when making decisions about the product. Doing this requires a deep understanding of the users, their challenges and issues, and how the product will deliver convenience, value and of course the delight they are looking for. Good product managers always have their ear to the ground – constantly involved in usability testing, interviewing the users, working with the support team to listen to the customer issues or even better, directly working on the customer support team once a week. The best product managers synthesize this treasure trove of information into a clear and compelling direction for the product. Make sure that as a non-technical PM you bring this skill most to the table.
Be curious and learn
If you are already functioning as a product manager, talk to your engineering team and ask them about your product stack and architecture. Don’t worry if you don’t understand them but note them down carefully and later google them. You’ll learn a ton of technical stuff about the product by just figuring out how each component is related to the other and which components are harder to change and how one single change in requirement will affect multiple other components.
Even if you don’t understand anything that is described for the first time, always be logical. Using logic see if everything fits to deliver one use flow. If it is not logical don’t be afraid to dig deeper and probe.
Another way to learn about the data architecture is to do your own analytics. Make your own hypotheses and test them against the data. Fetch your data using SQL queries and you’ll realize it’s a very easy thing to do. By doing this, you will learn a lot about data architecture. For example if you want analyse data on how many users used a credit card to buy a product versus those who used a debit card, you will understand the special nature of that data and learn about security as well.
Build something as a side project
If you are newbie and / or have lot of time on your hands take up an online course and build something. Utilizing your product skills, identify a user problem and build an app to solve it. It need not be fancy or highly technical; and it might barely even work. Try a simple app and see what are all the decisions that you need to make technically to make an app go live. There are multiple courses and resources online to learn any technical capability you want to learn to accomplish this. By taking the time and the effort to build an app you have moved yourself from a non-technical tag to a different class of product manager, which will only earn you more respect in your interaction with engineers.