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.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that product management is, first and foremost, a soft skills job. That’s because product management is mostly about getting different people to work together effectively and in alignment. Sure, there are lots of product decisions to be taken and trade-offs to be evaluated, but fundamentally a lot of them have to do with aligning different people on the same goal. Most small startups don’t have dedicated product managers, partly because the CEO and/or founder(s) play the product role, but also because there isn’t as much need for alignment and facilitation when there are fewer people and hence fewer interfaces. Therefore, a person’s soft skills should be the much more important requirement for becoming a product manager than hard skills like having a technical background.

Having said that, there are some products where deep technical knowledge is clearly crucial. These include areas like developer-focused products or hard tech products where cutting-edge technology is at the heart of the product offering. However, most products don’t fall in those categories, and even for those who do, there will be a lot of product work around that core that are focused more on aspects of business and user experience requiring much less technical expertise from a product manager.

For anyone working outside these narrowly defined areas requiring deep technical expertise, what level of technicality should we expect? Let’s look at what speaks for and against requirements for technical expertise.

Technical expertise can be helpful for product managers in a number of ways:

  1. To understand and pre-empt drivers of complexity: technical expertise helps the product manager gauge the potential effort and impact on the product’s code base right from the idea stage. Non-technical product managers sometimes struggle with the fact that some ideas that seem like only small changes to the product can have big technical ramifications.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The main argument that speaks against over-indexing on technical expertise for product managers, is that the deeper the technical expertise of a product manager, the shallower their expertise is likely to be in other areas.

Product managers, as per the often-shown Venn diagram, work at the intersection of technology, business, and user experience. Over-indexing on the technical side means neglecting the two other aspects. Moreover, most product teams have dedicated team members for the technology and user experience circles, but none for the business circle, so the product manager by definition will have to lean a bit more heavily on that circle. Accordingly, Marty Cagan states that of the four big risks of product development (value, technical feasibility, usability, and business viability), the product manager needs to be most responsible for value and business viability (since there are experts on the team for usability and technical feasibility).

I mentioned above that most product teams are predominantly engineers, which is why “speaking their language” is of particular importance for product managers. The flip side of this, though, is that there generally is no shortage of technical expertise on the product team, so the product manager doesn’t really have to contribute much to that expertise.

Looking at this from both perspectives, it becomes clear that some technical understanding is beneficial for product managers. I believe that the “bar” should be that the product manager can communicate effectively with engineers in order to be able to understand drivers of technical complexity, and work together with engineers to evaluate tradeoffs involving technical aspects.

This technical knowledge does not have to come from a technical degree — in fact, I believe the level of technical knowledge required for most product managers will be far less than that of a university degree. (One could even argue that the kind of technical knowledge required by product managers is precisely not the kind taught in a degree program).

It should also be noted that the communication gap between non-technical product managers and engineers can and should be closed from both sides — and in general it’s more valuable to have product focused engineers than to have deeply technical product managers. Having product focused engineers helps the entire team collaborate better, and it means that the product manager can have deeper expertise in the other two circles of the Venn diagram, business and user experience. Product focused engineers can also help junior product managers without sufficient technical depth build up that technical understanding through mutual education.

In conclusion, I believe that hard requirements for technical skills for product managers are out of place outside of very narrow areas — and even listing them as an optional or desired qualification might be sending the wrong signals and hamper diversity of the team, which is required to build the best products.

I hope you found this article useful. If you did, feel free to follow me on Twitter where I share thoughts and articles on product management and leadership.

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

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