So, You Are A Non-Technical Product Manager
August 5, 2014

So, You Are A Non-Technical Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

You are a non-technical product manager. And so am I. I do not have a degree in computer science or electrical engineering or anything close, but I have always worked in technology. When I jumped into my first product management job many years ago, I was in over my head. In addition to software developers, I worked closely with operations, billing (which was an IT organization), and technical program management. After a lot of hard work and humbling debates, I learned to lead.

But the path was not easy and there was no guidebook. So, how do you gain trust with engineering without a technical background?

For me, it took a lot of trial and error. I was straddling the fence between my marketing counterparts and sales (who were telling me what they needed to win) and engineering (who I had to convince to build it). The last thing the developers wanted to hear was, “You need to do it because Marketing said so.” I tried that and failed. It was not exactly the best way to build a bridge and motivate a team.

I had many debates with the whole team about the product roadmap while I led meetings. I spent a lot of time describing the features and how I thought they should be built. And I dug in for long fights.

The engineering team would always push back: “Why would we do this?” Or, “That’s not the right approach.”

One morning while driving to the office, it became crystal clear. I was not there to tell the engineers how to do their jobs. I was there to explain why the features on the roadmap were right for the customers and business. I got it. I was not an engineering expert, but I was a business person who could paint the vision for why what I was asking for mattered. That is when it started to make sense.

Product management is still very much an apprenticeship. You learn on the job. Here are a few things that worked for me and will hopefully will come in handy if you are a non-technical product manager leading a team:

Be the customer and the market You must know the customer, market, and business better than anyone else on the team (and probably in the company). Product teams want to be inspired and know that what they are working on what matters to the customer—and, ultimately, the business. For me, this was the key to winning over my team.

I still remember the meeting when I outlined the business rationale and likely financial impact of delivering the features and requirements that I was asking for. The team was engaged, they asked questions, and they wanted to know more about whether I really thought Sales could sell it. Your first responsibility as the product manager is to be the customer and market advocate.

Be technically curious In a technology company, it can be daunting to even try understanding all of the technical details that the development team is contending with. But the more I asked questions of the developers and genuinely listened, the better I could appreciate and represent their point of view. Truly seeking to understand what they did on a daily basis and the obstacles that they faced built mutual trust and respect. When they saw that I was genuinely interested in learning about the technology, we developed a stronger relationship.

Lead with confidence Confidence is not arrogance. Confidence comes from passion and a deep understanding of the customers, product, and team. It does not come easy or free, but it can be built over time when you have command over the why and what. It can also be built from successive wins, which demonstrate that the team is headed towards long-term success.

Thinking back, I remember presenting our product plan and roadmap in the quarterly business planning meeting. My confidence was strong because the plan was grounded in a customer-centric strategy and the team was being propelled by numerous Fortune 500 customer wins.

Leading a product team as a non-technical product manager is one of the best jobs in the world, but not the easiest to master.

Every product manager finds his or her own path. For me, being the customer champion, market guru, and building trust with the the product team was well worth the effort.

Are you a non-technical product manager successfully leading your product team?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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