Do you need to be an engineer to be a technology PM?

Of course not!

But you do have to grok technological issues.

Many non PM hiring managers get wrapped up in this one. Particularly challenged is the engineer wo has evolved to a management role and who is tasked with hiring his/her first product manager. But it applies to many others as well.

To some extent, it is a false question. It presupposes what the PM should be doing. Good Product Management is about determining the “what” should be done:

  • Listening: To customers, the market, the business, sales, analysts, anyone relevant
  • Understanding the possible: What will your technology allow. What’s easy, hard, cheap, expensive. What will people pay for and how.
  • Synthesis: Taking uncoordinated input and bringing it together into a strategy that can be built and sold

Yes, good engineers can have these skills. But that’s not usually what they’ve been trained or hired to do. Whereas product managers do it all the time.

Product managers should not focus on the “how” it should be done. Do not try to:

  • Drive technology choice: Unless it is part of what the customer needs, which technology to use is not the PM’s job.
  • Implementation decisions like data models, tool frameworks etc., unless it directly impacts the customer-facing results

While a product manager may have training or experience in these areas, these usually belong in the engineers’ domain. They will usually be able to come up with better results if given the autonomy to use their talents best.

There ARE exceptions. Sometimes the product itself is sufficiently technical that aspects of ‘how’ it is implemented are part of the definition of ‘what’. The best example of this I’ve dealt with is when the product is an API. In such a case it may be completely relevant to the PM’s role to define specific parameters of input and expected output because these things define what will be delivered to the consumers who happen to be engineers. I coined a term for this in the What vs How world: It is a “Specific What” (See “When “what vs how” is not enough“)

Funny story: I even remember a time when ALL Intel job postings had “EE/MSCS” in the requirements. This was true for even pure, outbound (i.e. ‘Intel Inside’) marketing positions. After I snuck in for an internship, I told people that I was a ‘single E’ (Econ major). Whether they were amused or confused told me a lot about them.

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