PMs, you don’t need that technical degree

In defense of “non-technical” product managers

If you’re a current or aspiring product manager, you’ve undoubtedly come across job postings with the following requirement:

“At least a bachelor’s degree in one of computer science, engineering, or other technical field.”

If you’ve earned one, your reaction might be indifference. If you didn’t, your reaction lies somewhere between “On to the next one…” to “What is wrong with this company?! Not having a CS degree doesn’t invalidate me as a product manager.”

As you can probably infer, I’m a “non-technical” PM.

In my product role at FreshBooks, I work with engineers everyday to use technology to serve people, and I’m confident that my background has never blocked the team from delivering something great. I have a basic understanding of programming via shipping small apps/tools on my own, and through doing some front-end development at the startup I co-founded (and eventually left).

Despite my experience, to some companies I’m not even technical enough to apply. Because I didn’t choose the right degree when I was 18, my entire career is negated.

Having a technical degree does not correlate with being a good product manager.

Companies lose out on some amazing talent by imposing this constraint on their PM hiring.

I have the upmost respect for people with engineering or computer science backgrounds. So much respect, that given two otherwise equal PM candidates, I have always recommend hiring the one with the technical degree. It’s evidence of not just intelligence, but work ethic and problem solving skills.

Yes, A PM absolutely needs to understand the underlying technologies, but only to the extent that it makes their product decisions and vision better. Coupled with the fact that you really don’t know how technical someone is until you interview them or see some work, and I fear companies are (possibly algorithmically) turning away great PM incumbents.

Generally, tech companies have shown willingness to find out if a PM has the design and marketing chops they need in the interview. The curiosity then, is why are so many unwilling to see if a PM has the necessary technical chops? Why the artificial constraint on only one aspect of the skill set?

Yes, I’ve read the Quora answers. Which to paraphrase are:

“Technical PMs are the only ones who can communicate with and thus earn the respect of engineers.”
“Non-technical PMs don’t understand how hard things are, and thus can’t make good decisions.”
“Non-technical PMs can’t make good technology products because they don’t understand the foundations or what’s possible.”

Bullshit. If you don’t believe me, ask the lead engineer on my team.

Technical competency is only a component of what makes a good PM, and only to the extent that the product demands it. If you’re the PM of Android developer tools for Google, then yes, you better have a CS degree — in fact, most of your experience should probably be as a software engineer and not as a PM. But for 90%+ of the products out there, the requirement for a CS degree is simply overkill.

What is the level of technical competency you need?

These are the concepts that have been helpful to me as a PM:

  • The ability to understand and can empathize with the software development process at scale
  • The ability to understand third-party API documentation and know what the interfaces enables for your product. These docs are so user friendly these days that this is becoming as easy as reading English.
  • Understand how the web works, especially HTTP
  • Being able to broadly differentiate front-end from back-end scope when thinking about features
  • At a high level, and with help from your engineers, comprehending how the components of an application’s architecture work together, and what data and logic lives in each
  • Knowing the basics about how relational databases work (hint: you probably know more than you think already)

If any or all of the above seems foreign or daunting, not only can I promise you that it’s learnable, but also fascinating, eye opening, and empowering to you as PM.

The gist is this: A product manager exists to translate a user’s problems & desires into a product that answers them.
  • A good PM delights users with that product.
  • A good PM efficiently uses the company’s resources (people) when she develops that product.
  • A great PM drives an ambitious vision and inspires those around them to build a product that users didn’t even know they wanted, because they have deep insight into their needs

None of the above requires you to be overtly technical in order to be good, or even great. It’s all the other skills, like design, domain expertise, strategy, marketing, and most importantly, empathy, that make the real difference between a spec builder and a PM that makes waves in their space.

So, to the “CS degree required” companies out there — don’t let a technicality prevent you from meeting the PM’s you really need.

Binge reading Product Management?

Here’s a few other posts to satisfy your hunger

The Black Box of Product Management

Why Product Management Exists

Product Partnerships: The Making of a Partnership

Focusing on why and how product partnerships form, part 1 of 2

7 Heuristics for being a Product Director

Lessons learned as a Product Director at FreshBooks

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