ProductFTW #18: Should Product Managers be Technical?

Here’s a $200,000 question for you: should a Product Manager be technical?

Short answer: Yes. 

Long Answer: Absolutely, yes.*

As a former engineer with a Computer Science degree, I’m biased. But I can confidently say that my technical expertise has been a game-changer in my product management career. It's provided a solid foundation for growth and has allowed me to bridge the gap between business and technical aspects more effectively than many of my less technical peers. However, I also acknowledge that technical skills, while incredibly valuable, are not the only factor that determines success.

In this post, I'll dive deeper into why technical skills matter, explore the exceptions to the rule, and share insights on how you can thrive as a PM, regardless of your background.

Why Technical Expertise Matters for PMs

Now, when I say “technical,” I’m not necessarily suggesting that you need to sub in when one of your engineers takes a vacation. 

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In the world of SaaS product management, being technical means understanding how web applications work, knowing the key components that power your product, and effectively communicating with your development team.

Your goal as a PM isn’t to write code or be a solutions architect. It’s about having a solid grasp of how your applications work under the hood and the fundamental concepts that underlie them. This understanding helps you guide your team to the best solutions for your users' needs.

Knowing your application’s stack—including the frontend (HTML, JavaScript, and CSS) and backend (APIs, databases, etc.)—allows you to communicate effectively with your development team. You can discuss technical trade-offs, understand constraints, and make informed decisions that align with your product vision. Without this knowledge, you risk misunderstandings, delays, and a product that falls short of its potential.

Being well-versed in the technical aspects of your product also means you can better advocate for your team and users. You can push back on unrealistic timelines, fight for necessary resources, and ensure that technical debt doesn't hinder future development.

But what if you're not naturally technical? Does this mean you're doomed to fail as a PM? Not necessarily.

*The Caveat: Domain Expertise Can Compensate

Now, before you start panicking about your lack of technical expertise, let me introduce a glimmer of hope: domain expertise. While technical skills are undeniably important for PMs, having deep knowledge and experience in your product's specific domain can be a powerful asset that helps balance the scales.

One of my best buds, Miles, was a pharmacist with over a decade behind the counter and zero technical background. When he transitioned into a product manager role at a company that builds software for the pharmaceutical industry, his domain expertise became his secret weapon.

Sure, he had to learn the basics of tech on the job, but his in-depth understanding of pharmacy law, the business of running a pharmacy, and the complexity of the medical field allowed him to make informed decisions, anticipate user needs, and communicate effectively with his engineering team. He knew the pain points, the regulations, and the nuances of his industry inside and out, giving him a unique perspective that his more technical colleagues lacked. Even without years of technical familiarity, Miles flourished as a PM and is now seen as one of the best PMs at his company, only a couple of years in.

However, this isn't to say that domain expertise is a perfect substitute for technical knowledge. Ideally, you want to have a balance of both. But if you're coming from a non-technical background, your domain expertise can be the bridge that helps you succeed while you work on building up your technical chops.

The key here is to lean into your strengths while acknowledging and addressing your weaknesses. Leverage your domain knowledge to make valuable contributions to your product, but also be proactive about learning the technical side of things. Collaborate with your dev team, ask questions, and seek out resources to help you grow your technical skills over time.

Bridging the Gap: Learning Technical Skills

There’s no silver bullet to becoming a more technical PM. To be blunt, it requires a lot of time and effort, so embrace a growth mindset.

Start by diving into educational resources. There are countless online courses, tutorials, and blogs to help you learn the basics of programming, web development, and other technical topics. You’ll find plenty of beginner-friendly content on YouTube, Udemy, and similar sites. Some of my favorites include:

  • ByteByteGo - technical newsletter with great diagrams and easy-to-understand explanations of the tech that powers the biggest and best companies.
  • Web Dev Bootcamp - A zero-to-hero style Udemy web development course that I have recommended to several friends and colleagues and that I’ve gone through much of myself.
  • Academind - A plethora of detailed courses on just about anything under the web dev umbrella by Maximilian Schwarzmüller.

If you’re anything like me, you learn best by doing. Once you’ve taken a programming course or two (you followed along and built all the tutorial apps, right?), build a simple web page or start tinkering with a basic app. As you gain confidence, take on more complex projects that stretch your abilities, like building a basic API. Hands-on experience is invaluable for cementing your understanding and helping you apply your knowledge in real-world situations.

Could AI build a lot of this? Yes of course, but that won’t teach you anything. Learn the basics so you can use AI to its full potential.

Another powerful strategy is to learn from the experts around you. Collaborate closely with your development team; don't be afraid to ask questions. Most developers are happy to share their knowledge and insights with curious PMs genuinely interested in learning.

The best advice I could give here is to focus on understanding your app's architecture. Knowing how data flows through the application and what happens at each step is often more insightful than diving into the code. It helps you grasp the big picture—how different components interact, where potential bottlenecks might occur, and how various features are integrated. This architectural perspective lets you make more informed decisions and communicate effectively with your technical team.

Remember, becoming technically proficient is a process, not an overnight transformation. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. But with each new skill you acquire, you'll become a more effective PM, better equipped to lead your team and create products that truly resonate with your users.

About ProductFTW

ProductFTW is a weekly newsletter about product management, with a focus on real-life experiences in startups. We want to help product leaders be successful by giving realistic approaches that aren’t for giant tech companies. We know you don’t have a full-time product designer on each team. We know your software probably hasn’t been used by millions of people worldwide–yet. We’re here to bridge the content gap from building your product and team to scaling it.

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