Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

We’re well overdue a conversation about Product Managers and technical skills. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the industry tries to reassure newcomers that you don’t need to be a full stack software engineer to be a good Product Manager.

Successful Product Managers come from a huge variety of backgrounds, and bring all kinds of skills to the table. And yet…we all seem to stay hung up on technical skills. So, once and for all, we’re doing a deep dive!

Here we’re going into asking the age-old question: do Product Managers need technical skills? Why does learning new tech skills feel like such an insurmountable challenge? And what can the tech industry do to help more people feel more welcome?

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What Do We Mean By ‘Technical Skills’?

Technical skills, across all the various industries that claim the term, means different things. Even in the software development world, the technical skills needed by each team is quite different. There are a few core skills that are fairly universal:

  • Coding/Programming languages: Where all of tech begins! HTML, CSS, Javascript, C+, and Python are the most common for beginners.
  • SQL: Used for data management and manipulation.
  • Data structures and algorithms.

Technology is hugely varied, and ever changing. That makes it incredibly exciting for those who have technical knowledge and are entrenched in the industry. But to those looking in from the outside, with dreams of joining a product team, the expanse of the tech landscape can make it look inaccessible. Especially to those who didn’t discover that tech was their passion while they were teenagers choosing a college degree.

For people who come to the tech world later in their careers, perhaps after having worked in marketing or sales, facing the ‘tech wall’ that feels designed to keep them out can be disheartening. Certainly not conducive to a job search.

But the beauty of Product Management is that it sits at the centre of design, business, and technology. If you’re skilled at any one of those three, and have a willingness to learn the other two, there’s a Product Manager role for you.

That being said, Product Managers are still part of the tech industry. Product development is the process of building tech. So how much should Product Managers expect to understand? How essential is a technical background/deep technical knowledge to landing a job in Product Management?

It turns out that technical skills are not as out-of-reach as they first seem.

The Truth about Product Managers and Technical Skills

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This question is multi-layered, so to get to the truth let’s keep things simple by running a quick FAQ session:

Q: Do Product Managers need to come from a technical background?

A: No. All roads lead to product, and the strongest development teams have professionals from all backgrounds.

Q: Do some Product Manager roles have technical requirements.

A: Yes. Some roles will require a CS degree, or demonstrable knowledge of the tech skills needed for the job.

Q: Do Product Managers need to code?

A: Having an understanding is helpful, but your job isn’t Software Developer. Technical Product Managers will be expected to know code of course.

Q: What is a Technical Product Manager?

A: A Product Manager who specifically focuses on the technical side of a product, and will work more closely with an engineering team.

Q: What is a Full Stack Product Manager?

A: A Product Manager who has a little of everything needed to bring a product idea to life. (Marketing, Sales, Tech, Design, Business, Data, and Leadership.) Not to be confused with full stack developers, who have all of the technical skills to bring a product to life.

Q: So I don’t need to go back to college and get a CS degree to be a Product Manager?

A: No. Most of the jobs that ask for CS degrees will have similar counterparts that don’t. For example certain teams at Google will ask for a technical background from their Product Managers, but others won’t.

A Product Manager’s relationship with their technical skillset is really no different to their relationship with their other skills. Take design for example.

A Product Manager will be managing a product that will need design. While the Product Manager won’t be doing the designing themselves, they’ll work with the designers to bring the product to life. The better they understand design, the higher the quality of their contributions will be.

That might be a very ham-fisted way to get the point across, but we can then apply this logic to all aspects of a Product Manager’s job.

A Product Manager will be managing a product that will need data. While the Product Manager won’t be alone in managing and manipulating the product data, they’ll work with the data scientists to come to the right conclusions. The better they understand data, the higher the more accurate their insights will be.

The same logic applies to tech skills. It’s just another aspect of the job that will need to be stronger for some jobs more so than for others. It’s something that one company will require a strong grasp of, and other companies just want you to be willing to learn.

The Difference Between Knowledge and Curiosity

Crop African American student studying craters of moon on tablet at observatory

One of the main things cited when we ask product leaders how important a technical background is when they’re looking for new hires, is curiosity.

Product Managers are naturally curious people. You have to be if you’ve sought out a problem and are working on a way to solve it, that’s just part of the territory. And naturally, if you’re working in the tech industry, the likelihood is that you’re also curious about technology.

It’s that curiosity that will take you far within the tech world, not a prerequisite amount of technical training. In most cases, hiring managers are looking for candidates with the right core skills, the right attitude, and an open willingness to learn.

For many Product Managers, understanding the tech they’re building is a surprisingly small part of the job. Of course, you can’t have no idea how any of it works, and the more you know the better.

Why Does Tech Feel So Inaccessible?

If technical skills have a similar level of importance to a Product Manager as data and design, why do we all seem to get so hung up about tech, and nothing else?

The tech world is just one of those things that looks a whole lot more complicated than it is. When you’re faced with your first ever wall of code, it may as well be ancient hieroglyphics. But anyone with an aptitude for languages, logic, or puzzles will be able to gain a basic grasp of HTML after only a couple of hours.

People’s apparent fear or apprehension of entering the tech industry is often not down to the work itself. Especially since it’s so easy to pick up new skills online thanks to the rising e-Learning industry.

The problem sits rather in the perception of the tech industry itself, which has bled across to the perception of the work. Many people look at technical work and think ‘I can’t do that’ because the barriers to the companies that offer the work feel insurmountable.

Diversity, though something being actively worked on by pretty much all of the world’s major players in tech, remains an issue. The usual biases exist within hiring, but geographic bias is another impactful factor.

Time Lapse Photography of City during Night Time

While of course it is possible to get your start in product outside of Silicon Valley, each country has its own ‘tech hubs’ and it can be tricky to find work outside of these places. Meaning if you live in one city and not the other, you’re going to struggle.

However, thanks to the shift to remote working in 2020, the geographical bias is starting to break down. According to Harvard Business Review, recruiters will be looking for talent outside of the usual clusters. This will help to close the diversity gaps by allowing companies to hire from under-represented communities.

You might also be interested in: The European Product Scene + 7 Cities Product Managers Love

Products are built for everyone, and so they should be built by everyone. Little by little, the tech industry is striving to become more inclusive. Each year the barriers get a little lower, and easier to climb.

How To Learn Technical Skills As a Product Manager

So now we’ve settled that the skills themselves are not really that difficult or expensive to pick up. If you have the time, the motivation, and the self-discipline, you’ve got everything you need right at your fingertips.

Many tech experts who didn’t earn a CS degree in college cite The University of Google as their main teacher…meaning that anything you want to learn can be found online!

For getting a great foundational understanding of Computer Science, we always recommend CS50, which has helped literally millions of online learners to break into tech by giving them a Harvard quality education…for free! (You will have the option to pay for a certification.)

To learn the basics of code, there are hundreds of great options online, ranging from free or affordable, to full bootcamps. To get started, we recommend Codecademy, which offers a variety of learning paths and projects, also completely for free. (Premium subscriptions are available.)

We also have some great talks by Product Managers with technical know-how over on our YouTube channel. Try this one out for size!

How to Learn Product Management Skills

If you’re looking to boost your skillset and take your career to the next level, really nailing those key Product Management skills will be essential no matter which type of product you’re dreaming of building.

From the fundamentals of creating the perfect user experience, managing a product roadmap, the soft skills needed for leadership, and how to be more data driven, we’ve designed our certifications for you.

Not quite ready to take that leap? Try out some of our free Product Management learning resources. We have podcasts, eBooks, masterclasses, and more!

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