What is the extent to which non-technical PMs truly are non-technical?

It has occurred to me that engineers and account executives both transition from SDE to PM positions.

Product managers at tech companies, do you ever discover that your deficiency in fundamental technical skills restricts the effectiveness of your position?

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I understand what an API is, I have attempted to accomplish nothing after logging into Postman twice and fiddling around.

My coding expertise is confined to the HTML I developed for my MySpace page more than fifteen years ago.

Although I am well-versed in SQL, I have not utilized it in over five years.

About five years ago, I constructed an ML algorithm in Excel for an MBA introductory data analytics course (following step-by-step instructions). I am familiar with how ML operates. This skill has not been utilized since.

I’ve introduced two AI products—one of which was an entirely new product that utilized NLP, and the other of which was a platform-wide function. I have a limited understanding of the operation of both of these technologies. I am able to define a knowledge graph and comprehend its advantageous nature for artificial intelligence.

To provide context, I worked for series C+ startups as an implementations consultant, MBA, and PM. Throughout my three years as a PM:

  • Two brand new products were introduced by me from zero to launch.

  • I assisted in the evaluation of three acquisitions, one of which we ultimately decided against acquiring.

  • I oversaw initiatives to radically redefine the user experience for two distinct platforms.

  • have introduced an abundance of additional features.

  • During my tenure at two B2B SaaS companies, I was responsible for developing one AI product, two platform products, and one PLG product.

  • commenced employment as an IC, was elevated to group PM with responsibility for a three-product portfolio, was laid off, and is now returning to the role of IC.

I am convinced that technical expertise is grossly undervalued for the vast majority of PMs, with the clear exception of clients who are technically savvy.

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In my opinion, it is more crucial to comprehend the architecture and systems of your organization than to engage in informal discussions with the developers. When faced with the necessity to formulate a product roadmap or arrive at a swift decision, that knowledge will prove to be considerably more advantageous. Having a deep understanding of the technical aspects of your organization allows you to make informed decisions and prioritize tasks effectively. It enables you to anticipate potential challenges and identify opportunities for innovation. Additionally, possessing technical expertise can also enhance your credibility and ability to communicate effectively with cross-functional teams, ultimately leading to successful product development and delivery.

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Completely agreed. I believe that all that is required of PMs is sufficient technical knowledge to enable them to provide high-level product explanations to stakeholders and the like. Obviously, how technical it is is dependent on the product.

I am the PM for the ML group. I am not nearly as technical as my team, but I believe I know enough to convey in layman’s terms what we’re doing if a senior individual or stakeholder inquires. While developing your product, it can be beneficial to have a thorough understanding of its technical aspects in order to foresee and overcome any obstacles that may arise. This can lead to more efficient problem-solving and decision-making, ultimately improving the overall success of the project. Additionally, being able to effectively communicate with cross-functional teams can foster collaboration and ensure that everyone is on the same page, minimizing misunderstandings and maximizing productivity.

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Although I largely agree, I believe that the term “technical knowledge” is excessively broad. Although I possess a moderate level of proficiency in both SQL and Python, I do not believe that either of these skills significantly enhances my capacity as a PM. Instead, I believe that having a strong understanding of project management methodologies and tools, as well as the ability to effectively prioritize tasks and manage resources, is more crucial for success in this role. Additionally, being able to adapt to changing circumstances and think critically can also greatly contribute to a project’s overall success.

Nevertheless, during my undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering, I diligently enrolled in numerous math and statistics courses. I firmly assert that these foundational principles have served as an inestimable asset whenever I have contemplated a data-driven problem. I am confident that my solid background in mathematics and statistics will be invaluable in analyzing and interpreting project data, allowing me to make informed decisions and recommendations. Furthermore, my attention to detail and strong analytical skills will help me identify potential risks and challenges, enabling me to proactively address them before they impact the project’s progress. Overall, my interdisciplinary expertise in both engineering and data analysis will undoubtedly contribute to the success of any project I am involved in.

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One can easily feel ignorant and non-technical when surrounded by specialists and experts throughout the day. However, the ability to collaborate with one’s team and effectively communicate requirements and roadmaps is far more satisfactory.

Then, after consulting with ordinary (non-technical) end users and business stakeholders, you realize that anything even remotely technical must be simplified further or simply glossed over.

How specialized is a PM? Without prior experience as a developer, individuals possessing only rudimentary knowledge lack genuine expertise. And that is entirely acceptable.

Simply possess the necessary technical knowledge to comprehend your product and to communicate with your team in terms of feature planning and refinement. Acquire knowledge of APIs and microservices, comprehend the advantages and disadvantages of particular technological options, identify significant events to document, and know how to access analytical data (or who to consult for assistance in obtaining it).

Be the intermediary, the translator, the master of nothing and a jack-of-all-trades. Facilitate alignment between the business and technical experts by tying everything together. Engage in communication. Help to facilitate.

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In the world of product management in tech companies, having a strong foundation in technical skills can indeed be beneficial, but it’s not always a strict requirement. The effectiveness of a product manager (PM) depends on various factors, and the emphasis on technical skills can vary based on the company, the nature of the product, and the team dynamics.

While some PMs come from a strong technical background (like software development or engineering), others might have a more business-oriented or design-focused background. The key for a successful PM is often the ability to bridge the gap between technical and non-technical stakeholders, translating business needs into technical requirements and vice versa.

That said, there are situations where a lack of fundamental technical understanding might pose challenges for a PM:

  1. Communication with Engineering Teams: PMs need to communicate effectively with engineering teams. If a PM lacks basic technical knowledge, there might be difficulties in understanding and discussing technical constraints, trade-offs, and implementation details.

  2. Strategic Decision Making: In certain scenarios, especially in highly technical or complex products, having a strong technical foundation can be crucial for making informed and strategic decisions that align with the product roadmap.

  3. Evaluating Technical Feasibility: Assessing the technical feasibility of proposed features or changes is an important aspect of a PM’s role. A PM with a technical background might be better equipped to evaluate these aspects accurately.

  4. Gaining Credibility: PMs working with technical teams may find that having a basic understanding of the technology lends them credibility among the engineering team, making it easier to gain trust and collaborate effectively.

However, many successful PMs without extensive technical backgrounds compensate for this by building strong relationships with their engineering teams, continuously learning, and relying on technical experts within the organization. It’s often about finding the right balance and understanding when to seek input from technical experts.

So, while technical skills can enhance a product manager’s effectiveness in certain situations, it’s not an absolute requirement. The ability to collaborate, communicate, and understand the overall business context are also critical aspects of the role.

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Completely agreed. I consider myself to be a non-technical project manager due to my lack of experience in a formal development position. Nevertheless, as a proof of concept, I implemented text extraction and ML modeling in the form of prototypes, which I subsequently converted into development requirements. I am capable of automating and configuring the configuration of moderately complex cloud architecture services on both AWS and GCP. I once possessed sufficient proficiency in both Java and Python to host websites and utilize APIs. I can also operate databases and data pipelines while standing. Every time a PM is required to deploy simple code changes to production, I make an effort to comprehend the development process. And I’m certain I’ve neglected something else as well.

As you correctly stated, I lack formal expertise in each of these positions; consequently, I do not regard myself as a technical asset. When the developers with whom you collaborate are former MSFT employees who formerly constructed databases or literal ML experts with advanced math degrees, it is difficult to feel like you have a legitimate reason to call yourself “technical.” However, I acknowledge that I am considered a “technical resource” in comparison to the 99 percent of individuals outside the development team. Nobody has ever told me I don’t understand how things function; however, who knows what developers are discussing behind your back.

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@EvaRichardson, I am aware of this feeling. I operate multiple Linux servers and experiment with Arduinos and sensors in a home lab as a hobby, but it’s all for educational purposes and not for professional use. However, it provides me and my developers with a foundation for mutual understanding, which I can see they value. Having this technical knowledge allows me to contribute more effectively to discussions and problem-solving sessions with the development team. It also helps me bridge the gap between their technical language and the language used by non-technical team members, facilitating better communication and collaboration within the team.

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Difficult to generalize; I believe it depends on your business, your product (and the user experience), and the demands of your consumers.

Developing an MLOps solution for LLM administration? Be more technical since you should have a good grasp of natural language processing (NLP) principles, DS and ML Eng procedures, and painpoints.

Workin’ on that mobile game? Customers are consumers, thus you should know everything there is to know about user experiences and problems with them.

Your unique selling point may be creating LLM-driven agents in a game, which might lead you to become more technically savvy even at that stage.

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@GaryHouston, How would an LLM influence an NPC or agent in a gaming environment? Reinforcement learning for sure but I’m not too sure about LLMs.

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Perhaps in conversations. I don’t know how realistic it is, but picture a Skyrim-style game where you can ask your own questions instead of just the pre-set ones.

Of course, there are certain issues with LLMs in general, and voice acting is one of them; nevertheless, that technology is also improving.

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LLMs, or language model models, can have a significant impact on NPCs or agents in a gaming environment. While reinforcement learning is commonly used to train these entities, LLMs can enhance their abilities by enabling more natural and dynamic interactions with players. By incorporating NLP principles and leveraging DS and ML Eng procedures, LLM-driven agents can better understand player commands, respond intelligently to inquiries, and adapt their behavior based on user experiences. This advanced level of communication and adaptability can greatly enhance the overall gaming experience for customers, making it a valuable selling point for any mobile game.

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Unfortunately, I lack the necessary technical expertise. Although my knowledge of front-end development is limited, I am able to speak generally about APIs and front-end components.

As someone who isn’t technically savvy, it is my responsibility to guarantee that the acceptance criteria is well documented and that all relevant parties have been notified about the feature and interviewed, including but not limited to: contact center managers, users, and training instructors.

To you, such things are much more essential than being technically savvy.