Ode to a Non-Technical Product Manager

Earlier this week an aspiring product manager sought counsel, wondering whether as a “non-technical product manager” he had any hope of succeeding. Of course in this case he’s a college senior who *only* knows CSS, HTML and beginning level PHP, a set of skills which already put him in the global 1%. What he really meant was “can I be a product manager without being trained as an engineer or having otherwise acquired major hacking skills?” My answer? Yes. As a “non-technical product manager” I have my own personal bias, but let’s examine the notion that only CS majors make good product managers.

First, what is product management? Three jobs in one:

  • Project Manager: Make sure the trains run on time, team is functioning well
  • Product Manager: Help a team produce worldclass products which delight your users and support a sustainable business model
  • CEO: No matter how junior or senior a product manager you are, you must think like CEO. The buck stops with you. You tell me marketing failed to deliver? You share that responsibility. You tell me sales team had misaligned goals? Why didn’t you raise that issue earlier?

The best product managers possess a broad set of skills which allow them to somehow manage wearing these multiple hats. The distribution of your time across these roles shifts based on the organization, the team, the nature of your project and one’s seniority, but even a new grad needs to think like a CEO, and a salty veteran should roll up their sleeves to shovel shit when needed.

Within this construct, technical proficiency is certainly desirable but not required. What is required without a doubt? Technical curiousity. If you aren’t intrigued by technology and getting your hands dirty via small projects, self-teaching on Codecademy/Treehouse, or asking smart questions, I’ll wonder why. The ability to prototype your own ideas is even better, but again, I’ve seen many PM leaders succeed without this skill. Why? Because ultimately your job is happy team and happy users

But what’s your superpower?

Ultimately it’s not your boss who can make you successful, it’s your team. You serve as the behest of the engineers and designers you work with on a daily basis. What can you do to help them? That’s where your superpowers come into play. If you’re a young product manager lacking an engineering background, it’s really important you develop a few superpowers. Maybe it’s being really well-versed in development methodologies so you can lead a team through an agile sprint, a waterfall or any other ‘best fit’ technique for getting the job done. Maybe you’re a web analytics guru and can crunch logged data. Or a  growth hacker, with an eye towards the measurement and tuning of virality stats. 

Point being, you need to bring something(s) to the table and that sort of value creation is the more important question than being technical or not. 

The logic behind requiring technical PMs (as places like Google generally do), is mostly (a) to invent the future one must understand the underlying components and (b) to work closely with engineers in an engineering-driven company you need to share a common knowledge and language. These might be directionally correct but I’ll put more emphasis in being clear about your superpowers – and whether they’re a good fit for the project/team.

Furthermore, it’s foolish to assume that being technically trained equates to being able to see the future. And if your PM is the only one who can ‘see the future,’ then your team and company have larger problems.

So closing, if you’re a product manager who isn’t technically trained:
1. Be technically curious – forget writing production code but knowing how things work and even being able to prototype is great.
2. Develop specific superpowers – don’t just rely on being a smart generalist. 
3. Focus on making your team better – your success is tied to theirs, what do you need to do to help?

One thought on “Ode to a Non-Technical Product Manager

  1. Great post. It's like this post was meant for me. I have begun creating prototypes with Keynotopia. Here's an example http://bit.ly/QNZeOF. Do you think this kind of high level prototyping is useful or do I still need something more detailed?

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