Breaking into a product management career when you do not have a technical background can seem intimidating if not impossible. Yet, Product management is at a crossroads between many different domains and is a career path where soft skills count as much as hard skills.
In this article, I’ll dive into what is really behind the best way to embrace a product career if you do not have a technical background.
What do we mean by “technical” anyway?
Since product managers work a lot with developers, we could easily think that to get such a position, you need to have a degree in IT, or be an engineer, or have a background as a dev/quality assurance/data analyst/IT project manager/consultant before, if not all of the above. Those examples are what we will refer to as “technical” in this article. After all, to discuss with the devs you need to be able to speak and understand their jargon right? Luckily, not really, or at least, not entirely.
Product management is at the crossroads of different jobs that are not necessarily “technical”
Thinking that you need to have a technical background to be a product manager would be narrowing down the profession to simply liaising with the technical team. It’s not. After all, Product management starts with listening to your users and making sure you are solving the right problem. It’s about coordinating with your sales team, your customer success team, and informing your stakeholders. It is also about managing your budget/P&L and your KPIs. None of the listed above requires technical skills and yet, they are a huge part of product management.
Sure, product people can be former engineers, developers, QAs, data analysts. But they could be as much coming from a business analysis, project management, customer success/support, consulting, sociology/academics background. Those are just examples but the truth is that your background can be anything… because what matters the most when embracing such a career are your soft skills.
Be clear on your soft skills
Organization, proactivity, and communication are probably a great base you want to rely on. Product management is about dealing with multiple stakeholders, all with their own expertise on different topics, at the same time. While you are presenting one feature to the devs, you are probably also working on your communication plan with the marketing team, you might be testing some design mock-ups on a different project with users, gathering feedback from client-facing teams, and answering questions on the roadmap to other internal people from your organization. Multiple things happen at the same time. You need to know where you are going and what to do next. It’s also important to follow up on who is doing what and when they will be done. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and this is where the need for organization is key.
Being strict with your organization is what allows you to also be proactive. Proactivity is about knowing when to jump in, knowing what is this extra thing you could also do to help the product and your team. It’s about tackling things before they become urgent. It’s about volunteering to perform things now that will then help in the future. Of course, sometimes, you will have to be “reactive”. An issue could occur such as an unplanned bug or a tricky unexpected client situation. We don’t have super powers after all. What matters is to have enough visibility to know—to the main extent—what’s coming, and be able to organize around this.
Finally, communication is key. What to communicate when, to who? Being organized and proactive is what will lead you to be a good communicator. Sales, success, support team needs to know what’s in the pipeline, but with your help, they need to be clear on what to communicate and what to NOT YET communicate to clients and prospects. Communication is what will allow you to build trust with your stakeholders, give the company visibility, clear information and direction.
In addition, I could have mentioned the need to be curious.Curiosity is what will make you try to understand more about your user’s experience, what is happening with the competition, and what type of innovation you need to pay attention to.
The product world comes with its own jargonbased on agile methodology, prioritization framework, a lot of structure and tools, that help you “be organized”.
To educate yourself on what a product cycle is, the type of agile methodology that exists, what prioritization frameworks are, would be the bare minimum you need to do, to at least get an idea of the world you are entering. Those names are nothing less and nothing more than processes created to help you run your product. The same that helps you be organized and proactive. And guess what? There are so many blog articles, websites, youtube videos, and free resources online that help you get acquainted with it.
Unless you haven’t noticed, since the beginning of this article, at no point were “real technical” things discussed. Because here is the thing. It’s more about knowing “technical things” related to your product than it is about knowing technical things in general. Throughout your first weeks and months, you will get to understand the technology stack your tool is using and the type of tech debt you might be facing.
If none of it rings a bell, google it! Ask questions! People like talking about their job. They love explaining what they do. Asking questions will not make you appear ignorant, it will make you appear curious and interested, and this is exactly what will make a difference in the relationship you will build with people.
Build a trustworthy relationship with Devs and QA.
Product management is about relying on the technical expertise of many departments around you—Development, Quality assurance, UX design, marketing…
You need to be able to work with people who eventually want the same thing as you: build and release qualitative features that bring value. Working towards the same goal will enable you to trust the recommendations you get from the development team as well as the effort’s estimate they will provide you. There are times when the questions you get asked will be beyond your knowledge and you will need their expertise to help you answer, or attend calls with you directly.
As a Product Manager, you want to make sure you have a good working relationship with dev and QA and you need to be able to trust their work and their choice. First of all, because you will spend a lot of time talking to them—getting on well with your colleagues always makes things nicer. Second, because as product people, we are nothing without the dev doing the actual work of building what you asked for and maintaining the entire product’s infrastructure. Keep this in mind.
Like any career path, do not forget that you will learn on the job, and build your expertise, months after month, years after years, position after position. With time, you will also develop new soft skills—leadership skills, management skills, that will help you grow in your role. Breaking into a new career is always challenging, and you will be out of your comfort zone for a while, but this is nothing curiosity and proactivity to educate yourself cannot fix. To be a good product manager, you don’t need to become technical, you need to be aware of technical things, and those can be two different things.