Here is an opinion I have held for a while: technical product managers in technology companies with scientific and engineering backgrounds are genuinely more superior against product managers who have come up from the business track. The only drawback is that the technical product managers lack three essential skills: business knowledge in sales and marketing, flexibility to deal with business constraints and management experience. Yet, those skills can be learned far more easily against a business product manager who simply do not have the technical know-hows. Even if this is so, it is not the end of the world for the business product managers. A few MBAs or startup founders with no technology backgrounds have posed this question to me, “If I want to be a good product manager in a technology, how can I become one given that I have no technology background?”
To answer that question, the best way to think about this is the weaknesses of a business product manager. Like their technical counterparts, they also lacked three essential skills: technical knowledge in how a product is built, demonstrate too much flexibility that they under-estimated the timelines towards their ambitious milestones and giving too much leeway to the customers who demand from the smallest bugs to the high blue sky. Here are some advice that I offer to business people who want to become better product managers or startup CEOs (who have to be a product manager).
- Learn how a product is made without being an expert: I have encountered very few business product managers who are exceptionally technically savvy. They do exist and they often exhibited one thing which I find them exceptional. They have learned how a product is built and attempted to build it themselves. For example, if you are going to be a product manager in software company, I recommend that you learn some basic programming or skills relating to the company for example, web or mobile development. If the technology company is focused on mobile, the business product manager should just register for an iOS or Android course, and learn how to build something in a few days. In doing so, I am not asking the business product manager to be a developer but rather have a sense on how much time the entire process requires. That helps the business product manager to be able to match the timelines and milestones for a product without being too over the top.
- Do experiments on sales and marketing without the product: If you are trained in the business side, you should be definitely good in figuring out how to build & manage the sales and marketing channels, and do experiments to test the market without the product. That’s the real thing which I often find in weak and incompetent business product managers. They are simply just sitting in their cubicle, waiting for the product to be ready. The real value that a business product manager can deliver is to ensure that the sales and marketing content ready for prime time and at the same time, working with the customers to find out their needs and how to streamline the product for them.
- Figure out how to achieve your business objectives with the least amount of technology: One litmus test I can place on a good business product manager: they are excellent in minimising scope creep, i.e. they do not burden engineering with building up more features. They tend to utilise flexibility in trying to achieve the most by utilising the less. For example, a business product manager may opt to do a mailing list with existing web service than asking his or her team to build one. In fact, some founders with no technology backgrounds built their companies by utilising basic content management systems and subsequently develop customers till they figure out exactly what they need to build.
Ultimately, a product manager should not tilt towards technology or business but have the right balance to achieve product-market fit with the customer.