There is a lot of discussion about how technical a Product Manager should be. Heck, you can even follow courses as a Product Manager to pick up technical skills, whatever that means. In this article, I will share with you my take on a subset of this question: How technical should you be as a Technical Product Manager.
TL;DR: It depends, not that much to be honest.
First, who the heck am I to speak about this? Well, I worked in tech for the last 10 years as a Software Engineer, a Founder and I am now what I would call a ML Product Manager. My day-to-day job and background would fit with the main definition of Technical Product Manager.
What is the difference between a Product Manager and a Technical Product Manager?
I found two different but relevant definitions for a Technical Product Manager. A Technical Product Manager is
- A Product Manager with a strong technical background.
- A Product Manager focused on the more technical aspects of a product.
Basically, a Technical Product Manager role would exist in an organization when the product management team is large enough to support specialization.
Since I also found a few misleading definitions, I want to stress right here and right now that a TPM is not someone working on the « How ? » while a PM is working on the « Why ? ».
Shades of Technical Product Manager
There are 3 different shades of TPM:
- PM focused on a specific technology (being ML/AI, blockchain or even APIs, …)
- PM handling internal products for other technical teams (Data platforms, delivery pipelines, …)
- PM working on a product used or bought by technical customers (Dev productivity tools, APIs, …)
Obviously, some people would fit the bill without having « technical » on their job title, and, au contraire, I am sure there are TPMs who don’t match the description above.
Technical or Technical-Technical?
There are also different shades of Technical. We can all agree a Data Science background is not the same as having Front-end experience or being a Technical Writer. But there is still a common ground to be found. It is all about the adjacent skills you pick up with a STEM background or having a technical position like:
- Systemic thinking
- Problem solving
- First-order and second-order logic
Even if you did not learn them formally, analytical-type skills are used intensively in STEM or during technical work.
Since the work of a PM is often presented as being at the intersection of UX, Technology, and Business, we could say the superpower of a Technical PM is to have an extensive experience with the issue users are facing and have an intuition (if not a formal understanding) of the sociotechnical systems in Tech.
A fancy way to say that you don’t have to know how to code to be a good TPM. You also don’t have to be a Data Scientist to handle the day-to-day work on a data-powered product. But having a domain expertise, being familiar with the tech stack used or having experimented at first hand the day-to-day of your users is clearly nothing to sneeze at.