NOTE: This is a Product Management Question post, a regular series of blogs we’re writing to offer our take on major themes in product management — and to start conversations that we hope you’ll continue with your fellow product managers in the comments section below.
There seems to be a widespread concern these days in the product management community, particularly among product managers without a technical background, that the trend is moving rapidly and irreversibly toward a demand that all PMs be “technical.”
Search the web and you’ll find countless conversations in which nervous product managers with degrees in marketing or business — and who admittedly couldn’t write a line of software code or even install their home’s WiFi router — are asking if they are soon going to be obsolete, pushed aside for technical PMs.
Our answer to this question — “Will non-technical product managers become obsolete?” — is a qualified no.
We say no because the fundamentals of effective product management remain the same as they’ve always been. Research your market until you gain a deep understanding of it, identify the problems to solve for your customers, and then lead the complex effort to drive your strategic plan all the way from the day you develop your product roadmap through the product’s successful market launch.
You’ll notice that none of these aspects of your role as your product’s strategic quarterback require that you know or be able to recreate all of its technical inner-workings.
We’ve qualified our no because, even though you don’t need to be trained as an engineer or any type of scientist to be a successful product manager — and even though many businesses are still looking for plenty of other skills in a PM — more products today than ever rely on technology, and we do believe that having a working understanding of technology will increasingly be seen as a strong trait for any PM, even for companies in non-technical fields.
The Number One Reason You Can Enjoy a Long Product Management Career Even as a Non-Technical Product Manager
The main reason you can expect to find work as product manager over the long term, even if you don’t have a technical education or professional experience in a technical role, is the same reason you can enjoy a PM career even if you don’t have a sales background. As a product manager, you are part of a team of experts.
You know who will need to have technical expertise on your team? The technical folks — the design engineers, the software coders, the data scientists, or whomever else your product needs to develop its technical guts. Likewise, your sales team will manage the sales effort. The public relations department? They’ll craft the strategy and manage the execution of your product’s rollout to the media.
Your role as a product manager will be to leverage your product management expertise to drive your product to success. That’s no small task, and it will require plenty of domain knowledge that none of the other members of your team will have.
“Smart businesses understand that product management requires the right mix of hard-to-find skills.”
Smart businesses understand that product management in and of itself is a highly specialized role that requires the right mix of hard-to-find skills and abilities — from great communication skills, to the ability to think strategically, to an understanding of how to read and interpret data, to the ability to identify patterns, opportunities and threats. Here’s a long list of non-technical traits valued by the people who hire product managers.
So, yes, as businesses increasingly rely on technology to thrive, some of those businesses will place an increasing emphasis on product managers who have technical backgrounds. But smart organizations across all industries — even technology-based industries — will always understand that product management is, in a very real sense, a highly technical role in its own right, requiring a unique set of skills, and that a great PM can come from virtually any type of educational and professional background.
Advice for the Non-Technical Product Manager
If you are a product manager feeling uneasy about your degree in fine arts or business, because everywhere you look you see “technical product manager” job postings, don’t panic. We would suggest two things:
First, continue to hone your non-technical product management skills — your communication skills, your ability to craft and present a compelling product roadmap, your ability to build and lead a cross-functional team to shepherd your product through development, etc. The more you can hone these skills, the more in-demand you will be as a product manager. (Remember, the companies you’ll work for will have technical teams to hammer out the tech details.)
Second, if you’re feeling insecure about your technical knowledge, then study up. It has never been easier to learn the basics of just about any technology — and you can do so very inexpensively and even for free, for example, by watching online video courses at sites like Udemy and Lynda.com. So if you just want to have a better understanding of what your developers are saying to you, watching video courses like these will go a long way.
Bottom line: Every year you work as a product manager, you become a more experienced and knowledgeable product manager. That role, that expertise you are developing, is and always will be an invaluable part of any product team.