May 8, 2021

Do I Have to Be Technical to Be a Product Manager?

Not necessarily. That’s the wrong question. The right question is: What do I need to be a good product manager? The answer to this question is much more helpful, more widely agreed upon, and actually…

Not necessarily. That’s the wrong question. The right question is: What do I need to be a good product manager? The answer to this question is much more helpful, more widely agreed upon, and actually actionable.

Q: What do I need to be a good product manager?

A: Learn the story of the product.

You need to understand the product you are managing to enough of a degree to tell its story from ideation to a hypothetical future. I call this level of understanding the story of the product. And if you are a good product manager, you are the writer. Congratulations, writing is hard. Don’t get me wrong; not all PMs who learn their product’s story are good, but all good PMs learn their product’s story.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

So I don’t need to be technical?

Gosh, aren’t you reading? That’s the wrong question. The right question is, does your product’s story require you to be technical? If so, the answer to your question is, yes, you do need to be technical. But then because you asked a bad question you have to ask; How technical? What technicalness? Where do I start? The answer to all of those questions can be found in your product's story. If you want to be a good product manager, learn it.

How is it a story?

I don’t mean a ‘tale’ or a fiction or a narrative necessarily. Although if you can tell the story that way I’m sure it helps. You have to aim for the same understanding, of your product, that an author has of their book, while they’re writing it. You have to know the product the way Niel Gaimen knew ‘Good Omens’, how Patrick Rothfuss knows ‘The King Killer Chronicle’, or how J.K Rowling knew the ‘Harry Potter’ series.

Patrick Rothfuss is an especially good example here because he hasn’t finished his books. And until your product achieves its goal, you quit your job, or the product dies, the story isn’t finished. In the same way as an author, a product manager has to know where the story begins, why it begins there, and what happens next. The story has a middle, whether that’s ahead of you or not, where the meat happens. And an end, where you reach your goal, or you quit, or it dies.

In the same way an author can write a series of books, this process can repeat. Maybe with a different setting or different characters. Or can be extended because you achieved your goal, you reached the end of that story, but there’s more to write. You’re the PM; you decide when the story ends after all.

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Of course, this analogy falls down when you consider that an author goes at it alone. Well, no, they have editors and publishers and beta readers and friends and families. But then so do PMs. What I mean is authors write the story, more or less, alone. But PMs have engineers/developers, designers, stakeholders and salespeople helping to write their story too. This is why you can be a good PM without being highly technical, or an award-winning designer, or a car salesman.

But equally, you are alone in another sense. If the product succeeds, your team did a great job. If the product fails, it’s usually on you. If we take a typical product structure we have a VP who writes the vision and plots out the arc of the story, but then it’s your job to execute. You have to write that sucker. Just like an author writing a book, there’s an art to getting it done, to getting chapters written, to making a dream a reality. So again the analogy falls down because while writers have to write the story, PMs have to write, talk about, dive in, fight for, defend, dream about, sell, market, roll sleeves for, get into the trenches with, believe in, and dance with, their story. Okay well, maybe not the last one.

You need to know the product story. If you don’t understand why a decision was made or how things got to where they are, then you need to learn. If that gap is technical, then boy howdy, get technical. But that gap could equally be with sales skills, communication skills, marketing skills … whatever. And then other people would have to skill up and they might start wondering ‘Do I have to be a salesperson to be a good PM?’.

You should not be expected to be an expert in all of these things or even an expert in your product's story right away. You do not need to know the story to be a good PM, but you need to learn it to be a good PM. Notice the difference? You can be a good PM without knowing the story if you are learning the story.

Example?

The best example I have come across so far in my limited career sits with my friend and colleague Sohini Roy. She is the product manager for Ubuntu on WSL at Canonical. I would say she is an excellent PM, some would say she is great, but everyone would say she is good. And I think it is in part because she cares about the story. Does that mean she knows all the technical details? Does that mean if she needs to, she can jump into the code base and help out? Not necessarily. It means she knows the story. She knows where Ubuntu on WSL has been, where it is now, where it's going and what the story needs to get there. Or at the very least she seems to know these things and is still writing.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash