A technical product manager (PM) is a product manager with a strong technical background that is typically focused on the more technical aspects of the product. A technical PM works more closely with the engineering team than the business, sales and marketing teams of the organization.
What is a technical product manager?
While every product manager at a technology company must have some level of technical proficiency to be effective, technical product managers come to the role with a strong technical background. Often former engineers or computer science majors, these individuals sink their teeth into the more technical parts of the product strategy and form close working relationships with development, engineering, infrastructure, and networking teams.
Technical product managers are typically only present when the product management team is large enough to support specialization. While this is sometimes achieved by simply divvying up responsibilities for different products or features among the team members, they tend to be assigned to areas demanding a more rigorous understanding of technical issues to be successful.
Technical product managers may end up owning certain aspects of the product suite, or they may be used on a more ad hoc basis as a subject matter expert able to consult on the more technical aspects of different initiatives. Thanks to their technical acumen and deeper familiarity with the nuances and inner workings of the engineering organization, they are better able to properly assess whether engineering estimates are correct, review technical specifications, architecture and networking plans, and participate in security, scalability and infrastructure activities.
This role may also be called upon when it comes to working with third parties, whether it’s evaluating APIs and capabilities, mapping out integration plans or evaluating different technology options. Technical product managers may also be better at certain types of competitive analysis, given their deeper understanding of how the products actually work.
However, technical product managers are still product managers; they’re not writing code or creating networking diagrams. And despite their technical knowledge, they should always be applying the same customer-centric, business-focused mindset to the task at hand… they can just do so with a deeper understanding of what is and isn’t possible and a potentially better working relationship with the technical teams required to get things done.
What is the job description of a technical product manager?
The job description shouldn’t vary that much from a “typical” product management role, however there are some responsibilities more commonly expected from a technical product manager. Below are some items typically found on a technical product manager job description:
- Uncover and understand customer needs and translate them into requirements.
- Ability to work well with internal teams, including developers, engineers, architects, quality assurance and operations. Ensure requirements are fully understood and that implementation plans match expectations.
- Understand, research and follow technical trends in the industry and in general. Able to assess emerging products and companies to measure their potential value or threat to the company and its products, as well as make recommendations on which new technologies to invest in or leverage.
- Follow competitors and conduct capability analysis regularly.
- Provide internal and customer training on how to use the product.
- Answer incoming questions about the product and its capabilities.
- Assess and address technical risks.
- Understand and analyze data pipelines, algorithms, and automated systems.
- Serve as a product evangelist and subject matter expert to the technical/developer community.
- Coordinate beta tests.
- Use database queries to analyze performance indicators, evaluate experiments, etc.
- Define success criteria for testing and product acceptance.
- Facilitate the creation and maintenance of proper product documentation.
How does being a technical product manager compare to being a non-technical product manager?
Whether a product manager has “technical” in their job title is largely semantic and company-dependant; there are plenty of “regular” product managers that were originally coders or possess technical degrees, while there are occasionally technical product managers lacking a particularly technical background. But there are some general demarcations between the two roles relatively common across the profession.
At a high level, product managers focus on business issues and strategy, worrying much more about what the product should do and the needs it is trying to fill. Pricing, packaging, messaging and sales enablement would also fall squarely on their shoulders.
Technical product managers spend more of their time on how things get implemented and what technology is required to meet the business requirements. They may be more involved in sales engineering and customer support issues than a regular product manager.
Where things get more complementary and begin overlapping is in areas such as prioritization, user story creation, roadmapping, and customer research. Both types of product managers bring a lot to the table and should ideally be partnering and working together on these efforts instead of simply dividing and conquering. The combination of perspectives and expertise makes for a more well-rounded product strategy and well thought out artifacts and plans.
There are some cases where a technical product manager and regular product manager’s roles are identical, but which products (or aspects of those products) they manage is the point of divergence. For example, a technical product manager might be responsible for an API, machine learning, or developer platforms, which are highly technical products with a strictly technical audience, while a regular product manager is responsible for the consumer-facing experience.
From a career trajectory perspective, both roles have a clear path to more senior positions and neither should be perceived as non-management track jobs. Technical chops are always appreciated at every level, so long as this role rounds out their skill set and attains experience on the business side of the house as well.
Technical product managers can be a tremendous asset to the product management team. They bring a different perspective than their more marketing and business-oriented peers that can be both a reality check on what’s realistic as well as unlocking new possibilities by leveraging new technological advances.
They can also be an incredibly helpful bridge to the technical teams that may not always respect the decisions coming out of product management due to their lack of deep technical understanding. Being able to engage with engineering on a level playing field can yield better, faster and more innovative outcomes to solving business problems and addressing customer needs.
Ideally, a product management team has enough resources to include technical product managers as partners for the business-facing product managers, joining forces to take a holistic view of the challenges and potential solutions to make well-informed, fully-baked recommendations. However, relying solely on these individuals may neglect some key areas of product management, ignoring key business and go-to-market issues.
Technical product management can be an excellent on-ramp into the world of product strategy for ex-developers and freshly minted computer science and engineering graduates looking to leverage their technical skills while pursuing a more business-oriented career. And for products requiring a deep technical background to properly lead their strategy, these individuals are often the only type of candidate capable of balancing the need for subject matter expertise and general product management capabilities.