Do Product Managers Need to Be Technical?

“It depends”, of course, but here’s what it depends on

Many product management job descriptions list an engineering or computer science degree as a prerequisite. While technical skills and experience can certainly be an asset for product managers, it is an interesting question how much of it is needed and to what extent a hard requirement like having a degree in the field is appropriate.

  1. To communicate with engineers and make yourself be understood: since the majority of people on product teams are engineers, a product manager naturally has lots of interactions with them, and “speaking their language” helps be effective and get things done.
  2. To evaluate technical trade-offs: while product managers should almost never make decisions in isolation, they tend to be a driver of evaluating trade-offs, particularly when they involve different disciplines. As an example, consider a decision whether to improve the user experience at high technical costs, or conversely, whether to accept a slightly worse user experience that can be implemented with much lower effort. For these kinds of trade-offs, it helps to understand what the underlying causes for the technical constraints are — particularly since that might enable finding a solution that is better than just picking either extreme.
  3. To identify emerging technology as the enabler for novel solutions: the killer feature of cross-functional product teams is that they bring together expertise in technology, the user/customer and their problems, and the business. These teams are most effective in developing great product when they combine their unique understanding, for example by understanding how new and emerging technologies might be applied to better solve the customers’ problems in ways that weren’t possible before. Product managers tend to be the facilitators of this kind of collaboration, and a technical understanding helps make that happen.

Experienced product leader, previously at 8fit, Yammer, BCG. Currently working on something new.