Do you have to have a tech background to be a good product manager?

I get asked this question a lot. While, I know there are some pretty strong opinions out there, I tend to not get religious about the topic. The reality is that regardless of what you think the right answer should be, there are plenty of examples of successful product people from all backgrounds.

The Case for the Technical Product Manager:

I get the argument for a technical background, I really do. I mean if you don’t have any idea how your solutions work or the effort that it takes for your engineers to solve certain problems, you’re bound to go chasing after problems you can’t solve. It makes sense that someone who has been an engineer could have a deeper understanding of what might be possible and set the engineering team up to be more successful.

With that said, there is also a risk of injecting an unintentional bias into your discovery. There is a chance you could be limiting your options for what is possible by applying a filter of what you are capable of and in turn, not giving your engineers a chance to be really creative. Most likely you have engineers on your team that are way better coders than you ever were.

Non-Technical Doesn’t Mean an Ignorant Product Manager:

So let’s go back to the idea that you can’t be ignorant of the technology your solutions leverage. Just because you didn’t grow up as an engineer doesn’t mean you don’t have to have an affinity for technology. I got into product because I was amazed at how quickly an impossible idea could become reality as new tech became available. I’m a natural “gadget guy” and love learning. I was attracted to tech because it is a place where you’ll never know everything and frankly, I love that.

So just how technical do you need to be? Well, it depends a lot on the product you are managing.

  • Analytic Tool? Well, you better understand databases, business intelligence tools and love math.
  • Data Integration Tool? Alrighty, let’s talk Kafka, APIs and enterprise architecture.
  • Supply Chain Solutions? You should probably know what EDI is an acronym for as well as understand ERP, WMS and TMS while you’re at it.

So how technical do you have to be?

Just like every Agile coach will ever tell you to every question you ever ask them – the answer is “it depends” . The key is that regardless of your background, you can be a successful product professional. You just have to recognize where your strengths are and be open to constantly improving your weaknesses. In my experience, as long as people have some key traits, it doesn’t matter what your background is.

Being a product manager is a lot like being a soccer goalie.

Product managers are responsible for the outcomes of the team, which means we get more credit for wins then we usually deserve and more blame when things go bad. Just like a soccer goalie, we are responsible for the score, even though we never take a shot.

While the goalie isn’t always able to influence the offense, she can help make sure the defense is in place. If the goalie gets peppered with 20 shots, no one is going to care about the 18 heroic saves you made, if you lose 2-0.

It can feel unfair at times and it’s natural to get frustrated, but that’s the gig we’ve chosen. Instead of staying frustrated, I try to use this as a trigger to try and figure out where does the team need help and how I can help. In the end, we are one team and our success is dependent on each other being the best we can be.