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Should Product Managers Develop Technical or Soft Skills?

Should Product Managers Develop Technical of Soft Skills?

What makes a product manager successful? Emotional intelligence? Technical skills? The ability to successfully manage a cross-functional team? Organize a messy product backlog?  We’ve set out to answer those questions.  We invited two product development experts to offer their opinion on the highly debated topic: Is coding (and other technical skills) a vital part of a product manager’s skill set?

Meet The Debaters

Richie Harris, Cartoon - Chief Technical Officer, Singlemind UX Design and Software Development

Richie Harris, Chief Technical Officer

Experience: 15+ years
Skills: Coding ninja, engineering team leader, systems analyst, software designer, technical magician.
Personality: Data driven, meticulous, logical, excellent at devising solutions from complex challenges.
Opinion: Knowledge is power. The more technical the PM, the better.

Scott Murff, Cartoon, Senior Product Manager

Scott Murff, Senior Product Manager

Experience: 15+ years
Skills: Product strategist, expert startup and business developer, marketing ninja, entrepreneur.
Personality: No nonsense, laid back, kind, intelligent, direct, transformative.
Opinion: For a PM, general business skills can be more valuable than coding/technical skills.

As it turns out, there are two methods of thought. We’ll present the facts and opinions, and let you decide.

3 Benefits of Being a Technical Product Manager

  1. Knowledge is Power As a PM, the more experiences you are capable of drawing from to evaluate criteria as it relates to your product line, the better. The truth is, the product manager job can be done more successfully with a deep understanding of the engineering process.

    A good PM grasps basic logic: “if this, then that”. He should be able to confidently answer questions like:

Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more angles you have perspective from and are capable of drawing on from an experience perspective to evaluate criteria as it relates to the product you’re trying to manage the development and/or release of, the better.

Richie Harris
  1. Understanding Technology A PM should be able to understand the challenges and risks around the development of a given product (i.e. what will it take to make this product successful?) He should understand the technologies involved and the maturity and/or vendors within them.

    For example, let’s say we’re trying to build a cloud based service. A product manager that knows what service offerings AWS, Microsoft and Google have, and what firebase is and how it plays into the Google ecosystem on a fundamental level (i.e. what they are + what services they provide) is invaluable.  

Understanding the technology ecosystem is going to pay dividends for a product manager in being able to actually launch a product. Whether it’s a digital product through a mobile app store, a cloud based service, or even a website, knowing what the technologies are, having some experience with their strengths, weaknesses and limitations, is valuable.

Richie Harris

A knowledgeable PM is able to do research around how service providers can meet the needs of his product. A PM that has the ability to view the product with a wide angle lens, can more easily provide vision for his team. A technically inclined PM can leverage their knowledge to provide business conscious solutions as well. (i.e. what is the best solution for a project’s budget?)

  1. Asking The Right Questions An engineer answers the question that was asked of him, regardless of whether or not it provides the PM with the information he was truly interested in. This isn’t the engineer’s fault, he isn’t trying to evade the PM he’s simply answering the question as it was formulated. A technically knowledgeable PM will have the frame of reference and context necessary to ask explicit, intelligent questions and formulate meaningful responses.

If a product manager doesn’t know what questions to ask, it makes the development staff’s job harder. If he/she has some experience or background in the process of developing products through the development lifecycle, communication becomes easier.

Richie Harris

3 Benefits of Being a Non-Technical Product Manager

  1. Competency is Key Should a PM have technical skills? Should he know how to code? Or are emotional skills for a product manager more valuable? Would you be satisfied with an answer like; “it depends on the product”? In reality, it’s situational.  There are different types of products in the world. If you put a low-tech PM on a highly technical product, it could be completely debilitating. However, a PM that’s worth his salt in every other way will self select off of a technical product – he’d be miserable doing it.

    A product’s client base is what matters. If a PM loves his product he will master the foundational competency required to run his product line and pursue product market fit. He’ll dig into his user’s pain points through customer interviews and user testing, and he’ll be energized and enthused to create a product roadmap and strategy that produces results. There are many consumer and business products created for an increasingly unsophisticated software person. These product lines are where the less technical, intelligent PM, with excellent general management and soft skills will thrive.

When you’re dealing with consumer products or even a lot business products, it isn’t about the software. The person that’s the end customer can often be a very unsophisticated software person. So in that sense, [as a PM] do you really need to have an extensive software background? You really don’t.

Scott Murff
  1. The Bottom Line Did you know that 80% of new products fail?  A successful PM will focus his attention on the most important question: Are we making money?  

If you don’t have someone who has a market focus, the last thing you want is to have yet another technical product manager, because essentially you have a bigger hole. One where nobody has the sensibility of how to commercialize the product. There is a lot of emphasis on the nerdier questions, what are the features? Does it have the right tools? And at the same time, you’re forgetting, how are we going to sell this thing? We’re paying salaries on borrowed money. You want to make sure you have someone that is complimenting the team in a way that makes sense.

Scott Murff

A product line should be making money now or losing money intentionally due to the expectation of growth down the road. A PM’s role as the general manager is to evaluate a customer’s expectations and build an actionable strategy to deliver a product that satisfies the customer’s requirements, within the technology, timeframe and, above all, budget constraints.

Sometimes really good product managers have fantastic marketing, sales, bizdev or finance backgrounds. If you have a really really awesome engineering director who has everything you need on the technical side, do you really need to double down on more software experience?

Scott Murff
  1. A PM is not the “CEO of the Product” Can a PM fire anyone on the team? If you answered yes, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. You’ve been told that a PM is the CEO or VP of the product by countless individuals perpetuating the mischaracterization of expectations.  A PM has no power to fire the team, the CEO or any stakeholders. 

As a product manager, you may have infinitely better ideas and ability to execute than the rest of the organization around you, yet you’re hamstrung by authority. Putting this label of “you do have authority to execute actions” when you really don’t, is truly mislabeling the function. You are a product line manager. You’re a manager. You don’t have the authority to make the kinds of decisions that a true CEO would if you could run that product the way you wanted to run it.

Scott Murff

In all honesty, product managers often utilize a very political and machiavellian way of influencing a decision maker.  According to a study from 280 Group, 30% of product managers cite internal politics as their biggest challenge.  Building a great product requires advanced relationship management skills. It doesn’t matter if the PM is the most technical member of the team. If he cannot communicate and get buy-in from decision makers, his product line won’t succeed. 

A huge differentiator between a really good product manager and a bad one; somehow the really good one keeps getting different people in the organization to make the decisions that keep the product going. The PM is doing it on behalf of their team, and the product.

Scott Murff

 The product manager handles a continuously moving body, a broad vision, stakeholders with different priorities and every element in between.  He is successful when he ensures that each and every aspect of his product and team is firing perfectly.

Join the Conversation

Should product managers develop technical or soft skills? It’s your turn to share. Send us your opinion by connecting with our team on your preferred social media platform: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn

Rikki Kazmierowicz