Do PMs Need To Be Technical?

As product management enters the public eye, aspiring PMs collectively ask the wrong questions.

Do PMs Need To Be Technical?

Product management messaging boards are typically filled with timeless clichés, most of which are questions from aspiring product managers. Of the usual inquiries young PMs have, there is one in particular which I find to be misrepresented: "Do I need a technical background to be a good PM?"

When looking to the large tech companies in Silicon Valley, many people entering the realm of product find the requirements daunting: "BS in Computer Science or equivalent required." This is when most undoubtedly turn to the internet for answers, usually to be consoled by PMs currently in the field. The response is more or less always the same. Consensus amongst employed PMs is nearly always that a technical background is not required, and that one's own curiosity and people skills are all it takes. As I typically do, I'd like to take the path less traveled on this one.

In order to be a good product manager (emphasis on good), I believe you must have some degree of technical background. Is it possible to be a product manager without this knowledge? Of course, the overwhelming majority of PMs have little to no programming experience, and almost zero formal training in product management itself... this is to be expected considering the relative youth of the profession. It is my opinion however that in order to achieve a higher level of product management professionalism, one's "curiosity" for technology needs to have some substance... with the current influx of young talent in product management, what constitutes good should be held to a higher standard.

Technology Braindrain

In recent months there has been a massive influx of people discovering and taking on roles in product management. Most interesting has been who these people are: the business and marketing majors of over a decade ago are now flooding into technology leadership roles, shaping products and leading teams of skilled engineers. A lot of the time, these were the people skipping classes while I was learning programming languages... a fear I had previously expressed only to become actualized faster than imagined.

Personal qualms aside, the trend of anti-intellectualism is not something limited to product management or technology, but nationwide across all verticals. As talent continues to flock from previously established hubs in the US and UK, the need for intelligent T-shaped employees is becoming more important. If not for selfish personal growth, product managers entering the field should realize the importance of skills for the good of their own organizations, or such organizations may not exist tomorrow.

The floodgates are open for colorful personalities to overtake product management- a trend I don't foresee ending any time soon. Product managers should realize that being a self-proclaimed entrepreneur or 'product guy' is simply not good enough to hold a long-term position in this profession. While there may have been a time when basic knowledge of startup funding was enough to impress past the job interview, a bubbling market should have used car salesmen worried for themselves. It will quickly become obvious that PMs without technical abilities are entirely expendable in a market where young talent is endless. Before jumping into this profession without any intent of learning the nuts and bolts, one truth about employment should be considered:

You Are Worth The Cost Of Your Replacement.

Workers are not compensated by how hard they work, as should be obvious given the plummeting wages of unskilled labor over time. Your salary, worth, and job security are all dependent on what you personally offer your employer over the next person in line. If your skills are truly difficult to find, such will be reflected in your success. Otherwise, don't expect a pretty face or bubbly personality to get you very far... as younger generations only see themselves more and more as Instagram celebrities, betting on the intangibles is a horrible bet.

Leading by Example

Let's make something clear: by choosing to be a product manager, you are personally choosing to represent the vision and execution of technology products. While you may not be a leader, you are leading a company and team's strategy & efforts in a technical space. If you want to be considered the "CEO of the product," how are you expecting a complete disinterest in your own field to go over with those executing the work?

Having no hands-on technical experience sends a negative message to the teams you manage. To find out how developers feel about their PMs, simply go out of organization and ask any developers what their general thoughts on PMs are. The responses are almost overwhelming negative: PMs usually have a standing reputation for being the A-type personality with little relevant knowledge, doing who-knows-what (regardless of how accurate this is, the odds are stacked against us). While this may be a generalization, the majority of development teams do not have strong faith in their product managers, as they have not been given good enough reasonh. This is not limited to development teams, but rather all cross-functional skilled labor.

I am a strong proponent of leading by example. It is hard to imagine how a general would rally their troops if it had been revealed that he himself had never seen combat. Similarly, development teams who have dates dictated to them by individuals who have no credentials or real-life experience to set such dates have no reason to be respected... and why should they?

A product manager who understands the intricacies of programming is offered many advantages over their non-technical counterparts, starting with the respect of the team they are managing. When driving a team of skilled professionals, the management strategy of ruling with an iron fist simply does not work. Perhaps in the time of the industrial revolution did the foreman have a relevant career, but times have changed since the workforce was dominated by sewing machines and assembly lines. Development is a mind intensive task which relies on problem solving skills, and simply cannot be forced by artificial deadlines or pressure.

The only thing that inspires skilled teams to work faster is their own choice to do so.

Skilled labor is a battle of the mind, and minds have a finite ability to focus over periods of time. Good PMs are people that designers, developers, and so forth respect, thus want to work for. Otherwise, the team will be as mediocre as the product manager themselves.

The Gift Of Foresight

Anybody with experience in a given field is immediately at an advantage, even if they ]are not the ones executing the work. A commonly underestimated attribute in the field of product management is the luxury of foresight.

Foresight is important in technology execution settings as it kills a number of steps that may otherwise exist, and allows PMs to immediately set ballpark expectations in the face of stakeholder requests (before they bubble up to something larger). This is a massive differentiator: almost any experienced PM knows that one of the largest hurdles in the field is the the juggling of stakeholder requests. A PM who is able to speak to some of the technical implications of asks will immediately find themselves ahead when compared to a non-technical product manager.

Having foresight is also important when collecting estimates for projects, setting timelines, and communicating dates. Estimation is perhaps one of the most notoriously elusive aspects of building technology... a PM who is able to gut check design and dev estimates and adequately pad timelines is effectively nullifying the biggest question mark faced when delivering products.

Other Advantages

Technical skills goes even further beyond the realm of leadership, expectations, and estimation. Here are some additional advantages afforded to those with technical backgrounds:

  • The benefit of the doubt. In many circles, PMs have created an image of themselves which comes off as a naive communicator between multiple parties. The ability to speak to technical implications with the credentials to back up statements makes things a lot easier for everybody.
  • Effectively building feature backlogs. Something which absolutely crushes team morale is a product manager which frequently puts forward absurd feature requests.
  • Offering perspective. Product managers should be knowledgable enough to add a worthwhile opinion to problems that teams face. In the facer of bugs or hurdles to a team, PMs are well served as being a helpful voice.
  • Unblocking teams. A technical PM has the knowledge to resolve blocking issues that non-technical PMs cannot, such as building out logic flows and answering questions which would otherwise need to occupy a resource who should be working.

In all of these advantages, there is a takeaway underlying theme:

Product managers should exist to maximize the ability of their teams, and never slow them down.

A product manager who slows a team down with absurd requests is not a good product manager. If a PM has no ability to take up a piece of the work to keep teams moving, they are not adding enough to their team.

Should I Become A PM?

Product Managers should have a love for technology and an ambition to contribute something meaningful to the field. I find it hard to believe that a person who has exerted zero effort to learn the craft they are hoping to lead has this sort of passion.

That said, I would value the willingness to learn over preexisting knowledge any day. Those looking to become PMs today without technology credentials are still positioned to do well, as long as there is legitimate love for the field and intent to improve one's self. Young PMs should not have a problem landing a product management jobs in today's market without a CS background or equivalent, but that could very well change tomorrow. Product managers looking to take the next step in their career, even with a modest raise, may be surprised to find hesitant employers who know very well that the same skills exist for cheap in the existing market.

If the prospect of learning is something scary to you, I would consider pursuing a role outside of technology. Product management will not fulfill any expectations of taking on a leadership role, and may leave ambitions to climb a corporate ladder stale after realizing just how difficult it is to be considered a good PM. Otherwise, if you consider yourself to be clever, hungry, and unafraid to fail, I'd like to personally welcome you to the profession.