If you’ve been following the PM world even for a bit, you’ve probably come across the age-old question of how technical product managers should be. In many software startups and larger technology companies, technical backgrounds have become a strong requirement for PMs. However, this is not the absolute case and there are valid reasons why PMs do not have to come from engineering backgrounds in order to successfully deliver products.
This post aims to provide a quick look into ways non-technical PMs can succeed on the job and gain respect from the engineering team.
1. Communicate a strong vision for the product
As a PM, your primary responsibility is answering the what and why of the product rather than the how. One of the first things you should be absolutely comfortable with is developing a thorough understanding of your customer, the market, and the competition.
Whether it’s doing a ton of competitive research, crunching numbers to support the business case, or crafting a compelling story, you need to be able to communicate a strong vision for your product, with goals and reasoning that are so clear that your engineering team can confidently get behind the vision.
As PM, your expertise is in the customer experience, and making sure you are well-versed in that aspect will garner respect from your engineers.
2. Develop specific superpowers
Whether it’s skills in analytics, development methodologies, or growth hacking, specific superpowers are especially important for non-technical PMs. You’re filling the gaps in your team since your engineers already have the technical know-how, and your superpower will provide useful insight that the team can immediately use.
So if you haven’t already, start developing the know-how in SQL (to pull data), Scrum methodology (to efficiently run development cycles), or creative marketing techniques that show you are capable of bringing something to the table.
Remember, value creation is more important in the long run, and developing specific superpowers as a non-technical PM allows you to create value for the team and gain respect from your more technical teammates.
3. Be technically curious
Not coming from a technical background is not an excuse to ignore anything technical during the day-to-day of your project. Even if you’re not well-versed in the technology, it’s very possible to gain an understanding of it on the job. The key is being open to learning and asking questions – engineers love to share their knowledge and ideas on the technology behind products, so don’t waste that opportunity to learn.
Being technically curious in a genuine way demonstrates that you care about the team, and you’ll earn a lot of respect from the engineers as a result.
It’s a lot more effective to ask about something you don’t understand than to avoid showing any weakness in front of the team.
Better yet, you can take the steps to actively gain technical knowledge. Attend technical workshops or brown bag sessions at work. Schedule time with your engineers to walk you through the product technology or architecture. Take technical classes outside of work. Anyone has the capability to learn if they’re willing to put in the work.
4. Focus on your team
This last piece of advice rings true not just for PMs, but for leaders who hope to successfully accomplish their goals with their team. Focus on building relationships with your team, because without trust and mutual understanding, your team cannot succeed in the long run.
As a non-technical PM, you can make up a lot of the supposed shortfalls of not coming from a technical background by making the effort to reach out to your engineers, understanding where they’re coming from, and doing everything in your power to clear any blockers for your team.
A good way to see it is that as PM, you’re the buffer that removes distractions and allows your team to focus on what they do best.
So that means protecting your team from the inevitable politics, stakeholder requests, VP check-ins, and business presentations. If you take it upon yourself to keep blockers from taking your team away from their work, your team will come to respect you as their PM.
These are just a few pieces of advice for non-technical PMs to consider as they lead teams in the world of software and technology. Things get hectic as projects are in full swing, and keeping in mind what you can bring to the table will help you successfully lead your team and deliver a great product.
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