Product Q&A: PM paths for non-technical folks

Giff Constable product management

First Round Capital has a wonderful online network, basically a white-labelled quora, for people at their portfolio companies. While I was with their portfolio company Axial, I answered a number of questions. I’m sharing some of the Q’s I have answered over the last year or two:

What career paths are there in the product world for non-technical product managers?

There are few limits these days to a non-technical product manager. As the PM role continues to shift to an “outcome manager” role rather than a “make sure engineering is productive” role, a comp-sci background is no longer as relevant.

There are exceptions. It’s very difficult to be a non-technical PM if your end customer is highly technical (an engineering product, for example). In addition, some companies still have (arguably outdated) biases here, but I suspect that is shifting to the minority.

It’s also worth investing in becoming more technical, because it will help you communicate with and earn the respect of your technical teammates more effectively. It will help you ask good questions. But ultimately, they’ll respect you because you’re a good PM. No amount of CS knowledge will salvage respect for a bad PM.

The first place to work on technical fluency is understanding the production process — all the details in how the team gets something from an idea to something live. Do you do automated testing? pairing? code reviews? a certain approach to version control? There is context and why/why nots behind every one of those decisions.

Then it’s worth hacking up your own mini application as a side project where you wear all hats – PM, designer, and coder.

The goal in investing in your own education here is not to become a full-fledged software developer (or designer), both of which take a huge amount of investment to gain true proficiency, but rather to build your own awareness. As a PM, your goal should not be making technical decisions, but becoming informed enough that you can ask the right questions.