Do product managers need to be technical?
by Steve Johnson
I’ve been hearing about job postings for product managers that require computer science degrees. Is that really necessary?
What I’ve learned is many product managers don’t have adequate technical background to understand the questions or to give practical answers. For example, a product manager demanded a specific capability from the team. After the meeting, the dev lead fully explained the implementation that had just been mandated and the product manager said, “Oh, is that what I asked for?”
Yes, product managers need to know how to communicate with developers and customers. They need to have enough technical ability to understand what’s being asked and roughly what’s possible. Sure, I want a hover-board but they’re just not possible yet.
Another product manager was working on a multi-site monitoring system and tossed around some ways to muscle the capability. One of the developers had just read a paper about a new API that was being developed and realized it would solve the problem with a much lighter, more scalable solution. When presented with the idea, the technically-savvy product manager instantly understood the merits of the API solution and agreed to hold the functionality request until after the API was available.
Does that require a computer science degree? No, but it does require an interest in the ever-changing world of technology.
Honestly, I don’t see how you can be a technology product manager unless you have a passion for technology.
What's your expertise?
But that’s not enough. You also need to be passionate about your market personas. The people who buy and use your products. And truly, knowledge on buyers and users is what developers really want from product managers. Product teams want a product manager who can explain how a feature would solve a customer problem and be able to detail two or three specific usage scenarios.
Some bright folks—product managers and designers—walked through the various scenarios for wireless car keys—the key fob used to start today’s cars. It should open only the driver’s door when used on that side but open all doors when used on the passenger side. It cannot be locked inside the car or in the luggage compartment. If the battery dies and the doors are locked, the key fob needs a manual key to open the door so you can pop the hood and jump-start the battery. There are probably more. The product manager needs to understand the product’s personas to explain each of these.
Making sure the team has considered the personas and their use scenarios is a key role of product management.
Do you need to be technical? Yes, technical enough. Not as technical as your developers but maybe more technical than your marketers. Yes, technical enough to have a conversation about usage and understand the ramifications of design decisions.
But wait, there’s more. A good product manager must also be expert in the business of the product as well as expert on the market and the domain they support. There are four types of expertise necessary for successful product management.
In my first product management job, I was partnered with a technical product manager. I handled the market and business; he did the technical and domain. Between the two of us, we covered all aspects necessary for successful product management.
The good news is each can be learned. You may be able to find all four in one person, or more likely, you can build a team with experts in all four areas. Take a look at your team. Do you have expertise in business, market, product, and domain?
Product managers don’t need to be technical; they need to be experts. There’s a difference.