Question: Do product managers of technical products really need to be technical?
I am a Project Manager by trade, but have recently got a new job as a Product Manager, working on an existing product in a new company. I enjoyed working as a Project Manager, but one of the issues I had was it was quite a technical role, and I don’t really enjoy that, even though I am working on online products.
My new role had zero technical questions in the interview, but my question is this: How technical do you think a Product Manager should be?
Answer from Derek Morrison of All About Product Management: How technical do I think a product manager should be?
The day-to-day work of an online Product Manager can be quite varied depending on the company you work for — it can even vary considerably in different teams within the same company. The department (e.g. sales, engineering, marketing or product management/marketing) or to whom the Product Manager reports to will also have an influence on their day-to-day activities. So let’s start by looking at what Product Management is — then what Product Managers do — in order to help us answer the question “how technical do I think a product manager should be?”
What is Product Management?
In his book The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, Steven Haines states that “Product Management is the holistic business management of the product from the time it is conceived as an idea to the time it is discontinued and withdrawn from the market.”
Wikipedia gives a little more color to the definition by stating that “Product Management is an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning or forecasting or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.”
What does a Product Manager do?
Again Steven Haines writes that “the Product Manager is a person appointed to be a proactive product or product line ‘mini CEO’ or general manager.”
Marty Cagan of the SVPG gives a bit more detail when he says that “discovering a product that is valuable, usable and feasible … is the primary responsibility of the product manager, and that product discovery requires collaboration between product management, user experience design, and engineering/architects.”
We can deduce then that Product Management is a function that exists with in an organisation and caters to ALL aspects of the product from the cradle to the grave. The Product Manager is responsible for ensuring that all these aspects get done, that all departments and functions are kept in the loop and are updated. This is done best when the Product Manager effectively collaborates with stakeholders and successfully leads a cross functional team to envisage, develop, launch and maintain the product.
Taking this into account we could restate the question by asking “how technical do you have to be to effectively collaborate and successfully lead a cross functional team?”
The answer depends on two scenarios:
- What type of products are you developing and managing, and who are your users?
- What is the structure of your team: who defines the ‘WHAT’ and who defines the ‘HOW’?
1) What type of products are you developing & managing and who are your users?
If you are managing a technical product (e.g. developer tools, debugging tools) for a technical user base (e.g. software engineers, system analysts) then I would say that the Product Manager need to be technical enough to use every aspect of the product in the same way as the end user will in their daily jobs.
What is the structure of your team: who defines the ‘WHAT’ and who defines the ‘HOW’?
The Product Manager should be the voice of the customer in the Product Management process. S/he needs to be able to effectively connect the wants and needs of the customer (and user) and the business directly to the development team(s) without having the customer (and user) dictating what the product should be. Henry Ford said “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” For Product Managers working with online products it’s important that they define products that will give the user a good user experience. This skill warrants a bias towards design and usability as opposed writing code or being deeply technical. Reading “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug would be a good starting point for anyone wanting to acquire design and usability skills.
That said you need to have a good appreciation and knowledge (not necessarily the ability to write code) of online technologies and how they can be used to provide a great user experience. For examples you should know what web technologies — such as Ajax, HTML5, RSS, Java script, CSS, SOA, APIs — are used for, and you should appreciate some of the benefits and trade offs. You should keep abreast of the latest technologies that are coming onto the market. (See my blog post “How do Product Managers Keep up with Technology.”) That said, there’s a fine balance between using new technologies just for the sake of it and using new technologies in order to solve problems and build competitive products and features that the end user will appreciate.
The Product Manager needs to lead the product discovery process: WHO the product is for (communicating this using personas and segmentation) and WHAT the product will do (using artifacts like use cases, user stories wire-frames). The developers and engineers, in conjunction with architects, are responsible for HOW the product will do it.
I started off by stating that the job of the Product Manager can be quite varied depending on what company, team and/or department you are in. However, one thing is pretty much consistent irrespective of your situation — you’ll need to work very closely with the development team(s). Therefore, the more you appreciate their world the easier you’ll find your job. Working as an online Product Manager necessitates that you understand web technologies and keep abreast of new technologies as they arises. The online Product Manager should know what the different technologies do, what are some of the benefits and trade offs and how they can be used to discover and create products and features that customers & users love and enjoy.
Having a strong technical background does not automatically mean you’ll be a successful Product Manager whilst not having a technical background does not automatically mean your be a failure (two extremes, I know). The key prerequisites for Product Managers are (a) having the ability to communicate with technical and non-technical people in order to drive the product through each stage of its life and (b) being willing to learn the appropriate technical and non-technical competencies in order to communicate with all types of stakeholders.
Finally, there could be many reasons why you where not asked technical questions at the job interview; please do not take this as a sign to ignore technology.
Suggested further reading: Pragmatic Marketing framework