Urgh! Today is the much-awaited day. It took months of preparation and several Medium articles to get here. The well-dressed secretary beckoned me, it was time for my interview. During the interview, everything seemed to be going fine, then the much-dreaded question, “Do you possess any technical skill?”
This is a bugging question for product managers and those looking to transition into product management. However, there is no right or wrong answer, as to whether a Product Manager (PM) should be technical or not.
Product management sits at the center of the Product Triangle comprising Product Design, Product Development, and Product Marketing. Two of which — Design and Development — have found a foothold in the Engineering department, a technical unit. Hence, it makes sense to ask whether a PM needs to have technical background.
In answering this question, it would be important to understand what Product Management is.
Understanding Product Management
Product management is an understanding of business strategy and execution. It is a product manager’s job to understand who the customers are and what problems they have. In summary, a PM is a mini-CEO (without the authority of firing and hiring of course.) A product manager is charged with understanding the ‘what’ and ‘why’ while ensuring product success. Product management is similar to project management, but they are indeed distinct in their functions (this is a discussion for another day.)
“A product is an entity — -it can also be a service packaged as a product. Basically, a product is anything that can be packaged and sold”, Benjamin Dada explains in a tweet chat with Ingressive.
Product Management for Dummies sees Product Management as the function responsible for making sure every product offered by a company is successful.
In summary, Product Management is the cohesion of Product Development, Design, and Marketing.
So, how Technical should a PM be?
As earlier stated, there is no right or wrong answer to if a PM should be technical or not.
In most cases, what determines whether the PM should be technical or not is the structure of the company and the product being built.
According to the Product Book, “PMs need to know enough that they can work effectively with engineers, participating in things like bug prioritization and scoping meetings, but they don’t need a computer science or electrical engineering degree. Especially for software PMs, knowing how to code even a little will be beneficial, and if you want to become a PM but don’t know how to code, we’d highly recommend learning the basics.”
Technical product managers usually have a background in Computer Science or Software Engineering and work more closely with engineering and design teams on product features and capabilities. A technical product manager isn’t just a PM who carries out technical tasks — it’s a specific person in a product management role with technical knowledge, versus a cross-functional business background.
Bonus: The term “technical” here could be contextual. What do I mean? “Technical” could just be having a general understanding of technicalities and technical terms. This would facilitate better communication with the dev/engineering team. Alternatively, “technical” could mean having actual programming skills. Typically, such a one would have grown from a software development background.
For engineers transitioning to PM, there’s always that scenario of doing the devs jobs instead of effectively communicating and allowing devs to do their jobs. As an engineer switching to PM, you must bear in mind that you don’t help Software Engineers do their work; rather, you are responsible for managing the features list and product backlog.
In conclusion, rather than fuzz over becoming a back-end developer or UI designer to be able to do your product management job, learn:
1. The basic end-to-end software development process: For most projects to complete, you’ll have the Frontend, Backend, and a Mobile application, knowing all of these will help give you an eagle eye over the development process.
2. Applications of new technology to your users and product: New technologies that could be added to your product to make it more efficient and effective. Setting up listening posts can help in achieving this.
3. Rough engineering estimates: Make sure you know the time it will take to complete each feature/task. This will help with the overall timelining of the development phase, and increase the team’s productivity.
4. Terminologies: The terms used during the development phase. It will be of great advantage to know some of the terms in order to interact with the development team.
5. Know the Tools: During the development phase, so many tools are likely going to be used, know most of it. For designers, tools like Sketch, Figma, Invision, Photoshop, or After Effects, etc could be used. While for developers, the stack, APIs, etc.
6. Not to be scared of looking stupid: Okay okay, this is not a thing, but hear me out. This is what I mean, ask questions, a lot of it. It’s not a crime. Don’t feel inferior/superior to ask.
You can also get an extensive explanation of who a Technical Product Manager is from Daniel Elizalde, he explained further in one of his articles: https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2014/05/technical-product-manager-anyway/