4 Tips for Non-Technical Product Managers

The debate about how technical a product manager needs to be is not a new one and isn’t going away anytime soon. Some companies require a Computer Science degree, while others put more weight on business acumen or even an MBA. There are good arguments for both sides, but I strongly believe that as long as you are willing to learn, your chances of success are just as high without a CS degree in your pocket.

I studied English and History in college and started my career in marketing. Before transitioning over to Product, my knowledge of engineering didn’t go much past a basic understanding of HTML. Nowadays, my technical skills are certainly not one of my strengths, but I’ve worked hard to make sure they are not a weakness.

For new or aspiring product managers out without any background in engineering, here are 4 pieces of advice that have served me well:

1. Become tech-literate

I’m never going to be a developer. But that doesn’t mean I should live in ignorance of what’s going on behind the scenes. When I first became the Product Manager for our Android app, I sat down with one of our engineers and asked him to walk me through the codebase. I wanted to see what it looked like, to understand how different parts of the app were grouped together, how to navigate between chunks of code. I grabbed a ticket from the backlog (extending the click size of a button), got set up in Android Studio, and asked one of our engineers to walk me through finding the relevant code, fixing it, sending it off to code review and merging it into our release branch. It took about 10x longer than it would have for anyone else to fix the bug, but it gave me insight into the process. For those first couple of months, I dedicated a huge amount of my time to figuring out how the Android engineering team worked so that I understood how our product was made and would be able to talk intelligently with my engineering team.

2. There are no stupid questions

If something comes up that you don’t understand, ask your developers to explain it. If it’s a small clarification that you can ask in a meeting without derailing the momentum then go ahead and ask it! If it’s something big, take the time to follow up and get an in-depth explanation later. You’ll save yourself pain in the future, if you ask questions now. That first month, I set myself the task of cleaning up the 500-ish tickets in our backlog. As we went through each ticket, I asked questions about what the ticket meant, what any terms meant that I didn’t understand, and how this fit into our app as a whole. Backlog grooming is a prime opportunity to ask questions, since it’s generally with a smaller group of people and you’re all trying to figure out what a ticket entails. Asking questions like “Why would we need to update the minimum API target for this change?” or “What is Leak Canary?” are more likely to help the entire group figure out the priority and scope of a ticket than they are to derail the conversation.

3. Trust your devs

A close relationship with your engineering team is one of the most important things for any product manager, but it’s even more vital for us who aren’t former-engineers ourselves. I have to trust my developers to be accurately representing the difficulty of a project and be building it the best way possible. Without a technical background, I need to have full faith that my team is doing what’s best for the product. This trust goes both ways, since your engineering team needs to trust you to have the best interests for the user, the company and the product in mind when you’re asking them to build something. This process runs most smoothly, when engineering and product (and design) work together from the inception of a new feature. For example, at TuneIn we use the Mission Team process, bringing the engineers, designers and other stakeholders who will be working on a feature in at kickoff. That way from the very beginning, we’re all on the same page about why a feature is being built and can work as a team to come up with the best way to build it.

4. Develop your superpowers

There are lots of elements that make up a good product manager, from marketing to analytics to leadership to management skills. No one is a superstar across the board. Gib Biddle has a great talk called Hacking Your PM Career where he encourages product managers to spend time developing their strengths instead of focusing on fixing their weaknesses. Instead of spending all your time trying to compensate for not being technical, lean in to the strengths you do have. As a former marketer, the reason I came into Product was to better serve our listeners. Customer insight is a strength that I spend time cultivating — setting aside time to run user tests, customer surveys & read our reviews. Maybe for you it’s business acumen or UX design or project management. Don’t let these skills lie undeveloped as you try to fill out your skill set. Those are what make you great.

The Takeaway

Understanding the technical side of things can be a valuable tool in your toolkit, but it is just one of many. Spend enough time brushing up on your technical skills not to need a translator in meetings with your engineering team. From there turn your focus back to your strengths; hone the skills that make you valuable in the conversation.