When we posed this question to our debaters, we got a resounding sigh of recognition. Many product leaders seem to be debating this question amongst themselves and within their teams. What product is, and even more so, what product management is, differs with every company, and the question of background, skills, and expertise of product managers is hotly-debated.
In our poll, 56% of you thought that it was not necessary for product managers to have a technical background – a view that is somewhat supported by our debaters, although with some caveats.
Is the company consumer or enterprise tech? For consumer, there are many examples of non-technical PMs excelling, and potentially even having an advantage. It’s a little more nuanced on the enterprise side, where I think this is largely a function of the product you’re building and the market you’re selling into. The ability for PMs and the engineering team to be able to effectively communicate is aided if they have similar technical backgrounds. Similarly, if you’re selling into a technical market, a technical PM will have an easier time communicating with customers. As the product team grows, however, it’s probably best to have a little bit of balance, but for the critical first few hires, we’ve erred on the side of requiring technical background for the reasons above.
Head of Product, ActionIQ
You don't need to have a technical background to be a great product manager. In fact, in the majority of cases - unless you have a very technical product used by a technical customer - being technical can make you a WORSE product manager. I would rank technical chops low on the list of required skills for PMs - behind customer empathy, UX/design skills and thinking, synthesis skills, and ability to get shit done.
VP Product Strategy, Zendesk
It really depends. If you already have a very strong product line manager or head of product who owns the strategy well, perhaps you can benefit from a PM with a strong technical background in order to speed up the development process. If your product is for developers, then I would definitely hire for technical expertise.
VP Products, Insightly
Tech background is not required. PMs should have enough technical knowledge to create effective communication with dev- but definitely not technical background as in coding experience. Some of my best PMs at Wix are ones with zero dev experience. If you choose only dev background you miss people with relevant experience (like marketing or UX). You miss the strength of positive conflict between product and R&D, and you limit yourself to a very specific perspective.
VP Product, Wix