Technology: Crucial Product Management Skill 6/20

Don’t attempt to be an engineer, but work with them effectively

This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.

What it means

Technology domain skills include understanding and making correct trade-off decisions about the tech stack, key dependencies, and drivers of feasibility and complexity. Technology skills are helpful to communicate with the engineering team members, helping identify technical issues, as well as foreseeing technical challenges.

Why it is an important skill

As a product manager in a technology company or working on technology-enabled products, technology is at the heart of what you do. In product teams, most of the people you work with are engineers. Being able to “speak their language”, empathize with them, earn their trust, and make or facilitate decisions that make sense to them is crucial. While most product management roles do not require an engineering degree, some level of technical understanding is required for these reasons.

What great looks like

Product managers with great technology skills have a feeling for technical complexity and foresee challenges with technical feasibility. They know how to kick the tires on technical specs and plans, but without ever telling their engineering counterparts that they “know better”. They see and acknowledge the technical feasibility and complexity perspective and take it into account in trade-off decisions, which makes it easy for them to get buy-in from their engineers to the chosen solution. They are able to facilitate discussions within their engineering team or with other technical stakeholders. They proactively work with their engineering team to explore how technological trends and developments can unlock new sources of customer value.

Product managers with great technology skills know how to manage technical debt: when to take it out and when to pay it back. They give their teams the ability to make improvements in order to speed up future work.

Product managers with great technology skills do not attempt to solve all the technical problems themselves. To the contrary: their technical understanding gives them greater leverage because they can ensure that the team’s engineering capacity is deployed most effectively towards creating customer and business value.

How to improve your Technology Skills

There are many ways to improve technology skills as a product manager, and which ones are right depend a lot on how technical the product manager is to begin with. Here are a few ideas to build up technology skills.

It’s always a good idea to get to know the architecture of the product’s system and what drives complexity. The best way to do that is generally to ask questions. To bootstrap that knowledge, it can be a good idea to sit down with a senior engineer and get them to talk through the architecture of the entire system. While working on features, ask engineers for drivers of effort and complexity — not to try and negotiate estimates, but from a position of curiosity to build up an understanding of the system.

A great way to continuously build up technology skills is to partner with an engineer — ideally one who’s interested in product related skills so there can be mutual learning. Mutually explaining thought processes and problem solving techniques that work in the respective domain build up empathy for the respective other discipline.

Another way to build up technology skills is learning to code. It’s definitely not required for product managers, but it is quite hard to understand what it is that engineers do all day if you have never touched a line of code. There are plenty of books, online courses, bootcamps, etc. The best way to put these skills to use is of course building something — for example, as a side project. Even better would be partnering with some engineers in a company hackathon — and actually trying to write some code in the product’s codebase.

Lastly, it is a good idea to try to keep up with technology trends. Following technology news and Twitter can help with that. Another way could be to organize show and tell sessions where engineers can talk about some interesting new technology trends — and product managers and other interested parties can listen in to keep up to date.

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.

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