The Myth of the Technical Product Manager
I started mentoring a young product manager who’s super talented: a great communicator, strategic and resourceful. She works at one of those big name tech companies whose products everyone uses — the kind of company that only hires the creme de la creme (and would never hire me because I look totally wrong on paper).
And yet, she feels like she’s not quite adequate. Why? Because she’s not a “technical” PM. She doesn’t have a computer science degree, and she’s not an engineer, so she feels like she’s not “technical.”
My response to this was: who cares? You’re a PM. Screw the technical part.
When I stumbled into the job of software PM many eons ago, the profile of a product manager was one kind of unicorn or mythical beast: a Harvard, or maybe a Stanford, MBA, with experience at a top consulting firm. God forbid you didn’t have an MBA and consulting firm experience; if you didn’t, you’d have to deliver 100x the results to be given the respect that someone just walking in the door with only that piece of paper would be given.
The problem with this version of a mythical PM is that nothing on that piece of paper or in those hours worked as a consultant was any guarantee that you could actually do the job of a PM: understanding customers, identifying pain points, identifying the right problems to solve, reconciling customer needs with business needs, leading cross-functional teams to actually deliver products people use. The best PM’s I encountered in those days ran the gamut as far as background; sure, some had MBA’s, but some had been engineers, some had been tech support folks, some were designers, and some were retired lawyers like me. What we had in common is we got the PM job done. And done right.
Nowadays, there’s a new mythical PM that’s replaced the Harvard MBA called a “technical” PM. This unicorn is someone who has a CS degree, can code, and can do all the things that the PM job actually requires.
The problem with the mythical technical PM is that the title itself prioritizes the functions of a completely different job over the actual job you’re hired to do. Companies looking for technical PM’s are starting with an assumption that what they want are engineers … who happen to be good at product management.
But the problem with this kind of thinking is that at the end of the day, even a technical PM needs to be first and foremost a PM. If you’re a PM, your job isn’t to code. Or at least it shouldn’t be your job. Hopefully your company has hired amazing engineers who are way better at doing that than you could ever hope to be. And that’s good. You want that.
Your job is to drive the product. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to talk to engineers in a common language, but guess what? You don’t have to be an engineer to do so. You need to understand structures, logic, and how to solve problems; these are skills you have in common with your engineers. But at the end of the day, they’re the ones building it, not you. Your job is to help guide them in the right direction to understand customer and business priorities and how the tradeoffs they make affect these priorities.
Stop beating yourself up if you’re not fitting the profile of the mythical beast of the day. It’s just a myth. You’re real, your talents are real, and the results you’ll deliver are real.
originally published on Tumblr 11/21/2014