Writing by Peter Hilton

Being a product manager with a technical background

Unexpected benefits of a previous life as a developer 2024-04-16 #product

Dan Loran

As a product manager who worked as a developer for over twenty years before making a career switch, people sometimes ask how my technical background helps. You can always ask product managers this question, because we come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and often wonder whether what we get out of the previous job.

Technology and architecture

Most obviously, my technical background demystifies developers’ technical discussions: their technology and architecture decision-making. However, it turns out that I don’t want to join those discussions.

As a product manager, I want to spend more time talking to customers and on product discovery, and leave technical discussions to the experts. People have asked me about this because they don’t understand developers’ decisions. These people would do better to trust the developers, or urgently work on fixing that if they don’t, instead of making things worse by second-guessing them.

Software development process

Less obviously, I spent most of my previous career as a developer interested in software development process - questions about how we did the work. On a daily basis, developers get process questions.

These questions don’t have straightforward answers, and seeking better answers may lead to project management or (historically) Scrum master responsibilities. But fundamentally, they lead to understanding how software development actually works, the context for these questions, and why bad managers ask them for the wrong reasons.

Low-touch delivery management

I have discovered two ways to leverage my developer background, by focusing on better process instead of technology. First, I have learned to stop asking developers stupid questions like how long will it take? Developers can certainly make estimates, and even get better at it. But estimates don’t come cheap, and developers can have more impact by building software than by compensating for management trust issues. And for my part, I have learned how to not need estimates.

Second, because I understand how developers work and what that looks like, I don’t need to interrupt them to ask about their progress. Surprisingly but significantly, understanding their work allows me to spend less time with developers, not more. And for a product manager, I highly value learning how to do less.

Product managers don’t need technical backgrounds

Product managers work with colleagues in many disciplines, and understanding their work helps those collaborations. You don’t have to do their jobs, though. In general, every specialist suffers people who only see the role’s surface layer, just like every product manager who ever terrified a designer with the phrase ‘you know, I’m something of a designer myself’.

Norman Osborne meme - ‘you know, I’m something of a graphics designer myself’

Product managers don’t need technical backgrounds, in the sense that they don’t need to have previously written code (or do it now) to be a good product manager. Every job that a product manager might have previously had - sales, marketing, customer support/success, design, etc. - has its techniques, and every product manager who has previously done a different job has a technical background. And these backgrounds probably bring less obvious benefits, like the ones I’ve discovered in mine.

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