Do I need to be technical to be a Product Manager? Should I know how to code?

  • by Sanjeev Kulkarni
  • Product Knowledge

The term ‘Product Manager’ is widely abused today. If you are busy writing code and working with software engineers and testers, helping them write code and defining the architecture and developing the product; rather than defining the vision, the strategic goals, the roadmap, the backlog and prioritizing work for your team - then retrospect if you are a Product Manager or a Product Development Manager.  

Product Managers come in different flavors. They may be technical and they may be non-technical. They may be functional and they may be non-functional. But they all must be ‘Knowledgeable’ !

They must have a deep understanding of the ‘Domain’, The ‘Product’ and the ‘Users’. Knowledge of Coding is futile, if a Product Manager does not know these things.

A technical Product Manager is expected to know technology, but that does not translate to knowing how to code.

Products are of different types. There are consumer products, there are enterprise products and there are products that are developed for specific cohorts of users.

Let’s look at some examples. A consumer product could be like an Uber or Ola App, or a Trivago or Make My trip App, or a Swiggy or a Zomato App. To build such products or to enhance such products you may need a deep understanding of the market and the needs of the users. You will need to have a vision of what will and what may not work. You will work with live customers and user experience designers to design the best customer journey. Do you need to code or understand coding? Maybe not !

But should you understand technology? Off course you should ! Now what does that mean - When teams are talking about REST APIs, Webservices and Micro Services v/s legacy Database calls you may want to understand what they mean. If such an architecture will scale? How many customers do you envisage to be on board in a month, in a year? What will be the number of calls your web page is expected to handle every minute. So yes - when you are working on a tech product, you will be required to know technology (And may be not coding).

There may be certain products that may be for a certain cohort of users - for e.g the ‘Jira’ software. It is for teams that want to manage their Agile Projects in an easy way.

Similarly there may be products such as ‘AWS’ or ‘Azure’ or ‘Dockers’ or ‘Kubernetes’ or for that matter ‘McAfee Antivirus’. Such Products may demand a very high technical knowledge, as compared to web based consumer products. Some of such products may even demand that the Product Manager knows the code.

I have worked with Product Managers who have been artists and medical doctors. They fit the role absolutely perfectly because of the Products they managed. A friend of mine was an MBBS doctor who managed the Walmart Pharmacy Systems as a Product Manager. He knew the domain in and out and could wade the team easily through HIPPA compliance laws etc. which might have been difficult for a purely Digital Product Manager who had zero domain knowledge.       

My recommendation to young techies who turn into product managers is to never wear your “Coder” hat when defining the product’s vision and goals. You may never want to be constrained by what you think may not be possible !

Instead think about the “User” first and how they would want to use your product.