Q&A: Can non-technical product managers be successful?

Main illustration: Victoria Rushton

People come into product management from a variety of paths, including design, engineering, customer support and customer success. But are all paths equally successful in transitioning into product?

This week we were asked:

“Can non-technical product managers be successful?”

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “non-technical product manager”.

No good product manager is hiding in the corner and hoping all the technology works without ever bothering to learn it. There isn’t a good designer that doesn’t know anything about engineering, there isn’t a good engineer that doesn’t know anything about design, and there isn’t a product manager who isn’t curious and doesn’t want to learn new things.

As a product manager, 90% of your time is spent asking questions. You’re trying to learn the perspective of your customers and then actually deliver a solution they’re interested in. Whether or not you come from a technical role, it’s important that you don’t bring in your own perspective and force that on another person. Projects that focus on a single perspective – business-driven, technology-driven and design-driven – have major weaknesses.

  • Design-driven: It’s going to work beautifully, but it may have no revenue stream, and it might be technically tough to support.
  • Technology-driven: You’re going to come up with something really cool, but people might not be interested in or excited to use it, and again, it may not have a revenue stream.
  • Business-driven: It may build your numbers, but it’s never going to do something like build your brand, and it’s never going to be exciting. You’re not going to be innovative in this environment.

The role of product managers is to blend these three approaches together. Regardless of your background when you transition into a product role you have to give up some of the perspectives you previously championed. You can’t have a horse in the game of which is more important, engineering or design. The ultimate focus is the user. Having a perspective driven by curiosity rather than any particular discipline can make parts of the job easier. Focusing on the user will guide you to the right tools for getting their job done; if you focus too much on any one discipline, you will lose sight of more obvious or innovative opportunities that exist in other domains.

There are levels of expertise that aren’t worth getting. The 10,000 hour rule gets thrown around a lot as an estimate of the time it takes to achieve mastery of a discipline. How should product managers spend 10,000 hours? Spending 10,000 hours learning to code doesn’t add to the skill set of my team. I want to spend my 10,000 hours being better at the product discipline, which is about strategy and business. Effective product managers (from all backgrounds) focus on understanding customer problems, how teams work and how to help people communicate better. As a product manager, I focus on the three skills that product managers are uniquely positioned to support – research, collaboration and communication – which ensure that my team is set up for success.

  • Research: To solve your customers’ problems, you need to ask the right questions at the right time to help your team identify meaningful opportunities and iterate towards the best solution.
  • Collaboration: Innovative teams continuously share feedback and ideas, integrating divergent perspectives throughout strategy, design, and implementation. You need to help your team learn the most effective ways to get involved at all phases of the project.
  • Communication: Authentic, clear communication is the secret sauce of an effective team, paying dividends both within the team and with external stakeholders. Within the team, strong communication creates a safe space for ideation and learning; with stakeholders, it fosters trust and autonomy.

Improvements in these areas are a better investment for my team than more specifically technical skills.

The most successful product teams I’ve been on included people with very complimentary but not shared skill sets. Those teams are great because everyone adds a different perspective. It’s one of the reasons product management is of interest to such a wide swath of people, from so many different perspectives and divergent backgrounds – and a hugely positive part of product culture.