Photo by Sarah Pflug

What Is Technical Product Management?

Why Tech Product Manager role rapidly gains popularity: examples from the industry and skills to boost even if you don’t plan to switch jobs.

Vladimir Kalmykov
The Startup
Published in
8 min readDec 26, 2020

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Under the thin UI-surface modern online-products are complex software ecosystems and companies of various size (from a startups to IT-giants) are looking for product leaders to grow them even further. As a result, Tech PMs job offerings (even when title doesn’t explicitly state “technical”, but skillset assumes it) are popping up on the career websites of Google, Uber, Spotify, Elastic and so on. Even if you do not plan to change your current job, you might still consider to strengthen the tech product part which seems to become a new expected field of knowledge for the next generation IT leaders.

About me

I started my career as a Software Engineer at Booking.com, right after finishing PhD in Computer Science about climate modelling. During my first year I realized that my passion is at the border of tech topics and product development, so I became one of the first “unofficial” Tech PMs in the company. During the last 5 years I had a pleasure to evolve tech products in different departments (Core Infrastructure, Payments, etc.) and ended up being a Group Tech Product Manager with a main responsibility to lead a dedicated area with a team of great PMs/Tech PMs.

Why Tech Product Management?

It is always easier to explain with an example. Think about the main Google Search page: white screen, one simple search box, a logo. That’s basically the end (together with a results page of course) of a “classical” product which is customer facing, visible and open for intuitive reasoning.

But what defines the product success is the actual tech product under the surface and to be more concrete — tech insights of this product which make the difference: precise query meaning recognition (would you like to “change” (replace) the bulb or to “change” (exchange) a currency), fast crawling algorithms (5000000 new websites appears in the web every day), smart ranking (how to display all of this in a meaningful way) and so on.

Layers of Google Search product: UI, search algorithms, infrastructure.

This algorithmic layer uses a complex infrastructure for the low-level logic: ML and data-processing pipelines, map-reduce runners, API gateways, distributed databases and so on. By the way, these blocks are also reused across other Google products like Docs or Maps.

Finally, all of this sit on Google virtual machines, which are in return rows of buzzing hardware in the Google data centers.

So, since each of the mentioned layers consists of multiple technical products, there should be a person to lead and innovate them. Usually it is a sweet spot for a Technical Product Manager.

Of course, it is not only about Google: many innovative IT-companies build a large portion of their value on the non-intuitive tech insights, and need a mix of product and technical skills to drive it from a vague idea to the end customer facing solution.

Facebook messaging infrastructure, Instagram image treatment, Booking.com search functionality, Uber’s driver-rider matching, Stripe Payments APIs, Spotify’s music streaming, and mostly every piece of Amazon Web Services — are all great examples of areas where Technical PM would shine. And not surprisingly, these companies do hire Tech PMs (see career sites searches for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Uber , Booking.com, Spotify, Elastic). Don’t be surprised if title doesn’t always have a prefix “Technical”and take a look at the actual job description (e.g. for Amazon PM: “Prior experience managing technical products or online services”, or Spotify PM: “… and a technical background, either as an engineer or in a previous technical role”).

Mentioned companies do a lot of breakthrough products and shape the actual consumer reality (have you noticed that?), but it is a mistake to think that unless you work for one of IT-giants, there is no application of Tech PM skills. Let’s see why.

Everything is a service these days

Look around for a second —mostly everything you encounter is a online-service of some size: you book a flight and hotel online, buy your concert tickets online, order food, learn Python or guitar, sometimes even do guided sport and renew a passport with your government — everything is online. Even a local coffee dude offers you a QR-code to scan and gain loyalty points, and there are drones planting trees in a desert (how cool is that!).

All of these products do not hang in the air — they are powered by ecosystems of actual software (e.g. Java) services and there is a product leader with a team driving them in the right (or wrong) direction. The moment mostly everything in the product becomes a service, the leader naturally gets involved in a Tech PM area.

Build or call an API?

Another relatively new phenomena: in order to ship a product, teams rarely need to invent everything from scratch. In my experience if you spend at least 10 minutes of asking the right questions to a search engine, you can find an article about anything related to what you are about to build.

For example, let’s imagine you are considering to process images for your local-marketplace startup: sellers should be able to upload images, apply some basic editing and you would store them, do some simple object recognition and later display it to buyers with size/quality optimizations and a stamp-watermark of your marketplace on top of each picture. Before you jump into building the thing, with a quick research you could find: an API for basic image operations, almost scientific paper by Facebook about image storage techniques, and even a book about image processing— you choose.

Of course there are exceptions - e.g. TikTok or Instagram would probably be on the frontline of image compression as image speed is one of the important proxy metrics of their product, so they hardly find solutions to their specific problems in the web. But in general for most of the canonical products out there one can often heavily benefit from existing building blocks.

In this case a job of a (Tech) Product Manager is to research, pilot and connect external (and internal) APIs, and drive creation of actual product logic to end up with an ecosystem which serves business goals and at the same time tested, monitored, reliable and flexible to yet unknown product ideas.

How to product manage a new reality?

Ok, landscape is changing, but does the required PM skill set changes together with it? I think, that partially — yes. To illustrate it, we might roughly estimate, that for any successful Product Manager (or an entrepreneur) in any modern IT-project (including startups) there are critical, important and nice-to-have set of skills:

  • Product Management base (critical, ~50% of success): to deal with customer requirements, transform them to bite-size stories, prioritize, have a short/mid/long-term vision, deliver on it, etc. — the irreplaceable foundation of the product leadership. Random example could be prioritizing particular messaging channel (e.g. SMS) in certain countries because customers prefer exactly it.
  • Technical Product addition (important, ~30% of success): to easily combine external and internal systems together, keep in mind non-functional requirements (architecture, security, infrastructure, reliability, etc) and at the end turn a product idea into a real practical IT service. And, the part which excites me personally the most — to be able to reveal tech insights which clients haven’t even thought about, because for them it is just a system, and for Tech PM — the product they are deeply focused on. Continuing the messaging channel example, Tech Product contribution might be influencing a product architecture which in turn would enable the company to launch other instant messengers (e.g. Viber, WhatsApp or Telegram) seamlessly, or even lead such expansion. Notice the difference: not only the PM prioritizes the customer need, but now in addition has a sense of how this change was done, and this knowledge (combined with a high-level product vision) could sparkle new business ideas (more practical examples and actual practice in a game like PM job simulator I created).
  • Domain knowledge (nice to have, ~20% of success) a specific domain knowledge-sauce on top: e.g. about payments, machine learning, or content processing, etc. It allows PM to ask the right questions and go deeper if product requires it. It is not a critical part, because one can always learn the details if their base is strong enough. Wrapping up the messaging example, let’s imagine that specific area (e.g. online payments) imposes additional requirements on the reliability and actionability of messages (e.g. in case they are sent to verify a purchase), and this knowledge would make PM a better specialist in the particular fintech domain.

In my experience, product managers who cultivated all the three skill areas (PM base, Tech PM addition and a domain-specific knowledge) were the most successful individuals i had a pleasure to work with.

Tech Product Manager: move from a PM or an Engineer

Interestingly, the TPM role is equally distanced from a PM and a developer. In order to get there, PMs have to boost a technicality: level depends on the environment, because sometimes it is already good enough to write a Python-script to impress a half of the company, but if one works in a more techy area (e.g. data processing pipelines), it is probably a good idea to have some understanding of algorithms, databases and reliability questions.

Most popular pathways to Tech PMing: from a classical PM, an engineer, or (rarely) from other roles.

Software engineers, in contrast, have a solid technical basis and they would work on the mindset shift: breadth instead of depth, a lot of client communication, focus on the business, big picture, dealing with uncertainty most of the time and so on.

At the end it is not only about switching the jobs. You can still be a rockstar classical PM, but boost a Tech part to “feel” your product better. Or to be a Software Engineer with a sense of how systems connect in the big business picture. Awareness about different angles of the same problem would only make your product better, not worse.

What’s next

I hope that now it is a bit more clear why Technical Product Manager role exists and what are the areas where Tech Product skills might be utilised to its full potential. If you are interested to know more, in next articles i’ll go deeper into the main differences between Engineer vs PM vs TPM (and a Technical Program Manager, which is a completely different role) and guide you through the real tech product case.

I also summarised all my knowledge on the topic in a story about building a Taxi startup — great way to learn top skills in a fun and practical way, check out the PM job simulator here.

Hope it was useful. Thank you for reading and see you soon.

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