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technical background product manager

Do You Need a Technical Background to be a Great Product Manager?

If you’re tempted by a product management career but worried about a lack of technical skills, don’t despair, as it’s possible to become a truly great product manager without a technical background. True, you may need to work harder to prove your worth and gain respect from tech teams in particular, so start with these basics as you work to build credibility as a PM.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

It’s important to be shameless about asking questions when you don’t understand something—and not to let doing so make you feel stupid. This can be difficult when you’re the only product manager in a room full of engineers, but remember that the alternative is pretending to understand something you don’t—and risking making a mistake based on a lack of knowledge.

While it can be daunting to ask questions when you think you’re the only one who doesn’t know the answer, remember the importance of building credibility with your team, which can prove more challenging if they can’t trust that you know what you’re talking about.

2. Understand technical processes at a high level

While you certainly don’t need to code in order to be successful as a product manager, it can be helpful to have a grasp on how these processes work to more effectively interface between the technical and business sides of the company.

First, you should be able to give general engineering time estimates. The rest of the business won’t likely have an understanding of these timeframes, so being able to quickly deliver a response (to a bug query, for example) without needing to bother an engineer can help to make both business and engineering colleagues happier.

In addition, try to gain an understanding of the company’s system architecture soon after you come on board, as being familiar with the different apps and services can help you more quickly speak the team’s language. Knowing how the various pieces fit together can also make you better-equipped to find the root cause of a bug, which can save precious engineering resources.

Lastly, familiarize yourself with the company’s basic software development process and the time required for each step of the process. After all, your team will be looking to you to manage this process from a timing and personnel perspective, so it’s important to know the various phases and resources required for each.

3. Take advantage of people skills

Being a non-technical product manager is a chance to demonstrate the value of soft skills, such as the ability to facilitate processes, build strong teams, and mediate conflict. While engineers can easily get lost in the complexity of their day-to-day work, it’s your job to keep them on track and to remember the big picture—but also to do so with emotional intelligence.

While technical team members may not always understand the importance of your role in the moment, don’t let this affect your confidence; When projects are delivered on time and the team is happy with the results, the importance of having a taskmaster won’t be undervalued.

According to McKinsey, the role of the product manager continues to expand, based on the increasing importance of data when it comes to decisions. A greater focus on customers and design, as well as evolving software development methodologies also play a part. It’s a multifaced role, so lean into all your strengths.

4. Always be learning and developing a technical background as a product manager

Whether it’s acquiring new technical skills or staying informed, it’s important to continually improve your technical understanding. This helps you to stay relevant in the product management world.

Many non-technical product managers find it useful to learn basic skills such as SQL and HTML, which can help decrease your reliance on engineers for minor technical asks, and improve your understanding of data architecture and the various elements of web development.

In addition to hard skills in a technical background, a key piece to be a top product manager is staying on top of what’s happening in the industry, from conversations and trends to technical advancements that impact you and your team’s work. Read tech news and blogs, find some podcasts you enjoy, and attend events or meetups relevant to your industry and/or specialty.

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Revised 1/1/23