The Reality of Being a Non-Technical Product Manager

IMG_0899What is the definition of a “Technical Product Manager”? In short, a Technical Product Manager understands the technologies but is not expected to perform technical tasks.  In many cases the confusion around what it means to be a Technical PM focuses on having a Computer Science or Engineering degree — someone who has spent time coding before making the transition to Product Management.

What it means to be a good Technical PM

First and foremost, Product Management is a business role, regardless of your industry. That being said, let’s delve into what it means to be a product manager for a technology product. Bruce McCarthy wrote a post for his blog Product Powers titled “Don’t Hire a Product Manager Because They’re Technical” in which he explains the value a Product Manager brings to a technical team and organization.

As a Product Manager, you should NOT be expected to code.

McCarthy articulates that there are five qualities he looks for in Product Managers: Communication Skills, Analytical Approach, Business Sense, Domain Knowledge and Technical Knowledge.

Of these skills, there is an emphasis on Communication. As a Product Manager we need to be able to clearly articulate what to build and why.  Know your market, both the domain and the users, then observe, listen, and apply that understanding into an effective statement. Communicate that to the team and then back to your market. Technical know-how only comes into play as part of the execution strategy, as priority management and proposing solutions, not as the problem definition.

The Reality

The perspective I bring is as a self-taught Technical PM in a technology field.

I first started working in technology at a financial services company. In an effort to learn as much as possible, I requested to be involved on any project that was available. One project assigned to me, was positioned as a tool for an Investor Relations department of a company. The requirements for the product included receiving documentation on the company and their market, then using that information to output a sentiment and ranking based on how the company stood against their competitors.

Additionally, this was expected to replace the conventional manual analysis of a company’s performance and cost a fraction of the price. This project ultimately required using Natural Language Processing, Sentiment Analysis and a variety of other techniques. In order to deliver on this effort, I needed to better understand NLP, how Sentiment ratings could be applied to the results as well as devise a User Experience to enable someone from an IR team to easily input the information and understand the results. The most exciting part of this project was the eventual patent!

None of this could have been achieved had I not spoken with the developer to better understand their experience with the technology, researched how we could apply this to the product and understand who the users were that would eventually benefit from this tool. My first job at the financial services company provided me with experience that has been especially critical to my becoming a Technical PM. I understand the importance of asking as many questions as possible, doing my research and being fearless.

I have been fortunate to work with a fantastic group of colleagues. They were not only patient, as I endured the learning curve, but were always available when I had questions about why we chose one programming language over another, why the system worked the way it did, or where we were constrained by the technology.

The reality is that while there is value in having a degree in CS or Engineering, it is not essential. It just means those of us who have minimal or selective coding experience must invest the time to holistically understand what is necessary as part of our role in our current situation.

The fundamental technical skill of a Product Manager is understanding how technology will affect the products you are working on and how you will deliver the product to your market. This includes staying up-to-date with current technology trends.

Conclusion

Technical Product Managers are not developers. They are Product Managers who can successfully bridge the gap between the market and the development team.

It is true that a non-technical Product Manager will face a steeper learning curve when it comes to working on technology products. However, learning the technical skills on the job may provide a different perspective and added value. You may not be as constrained by the background in engineering and have the potential to think outside of the technology box. Either way, you have to continue to educate yourself, in all aspects of your role, collaborate cross-functionally and leverage the varying perspectives within your teams.

One thought on “The Reality of Being a Non-Technical Product Manager

  1. This is the conclusion for me: “The reality is that while there is value in having a degree in CS or Engineering, it is not essential. It just means those of us who have minimal or selective coding experience must invest the time to holistically understand what is necessary as part of our role in our current situation.” Couldn’t agree more!

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