This may seem antithetical to this site’s founding purpose, but you don’t actually need a technical background to become a product manager. Let me share some ways in which my CS degree doesn’t help me at all.
Aesthetic and UX Sense
Just like how watching football doesn’t automatically make you a head coach, simply using products with good design does not make you a good designer, a common fallacy among those who live and breathe tech. Having good design sense and making smart choices about a user experience requires expertise and practice, which you only develop through actually doing.
Having a CS degree does not automatically offer practice in designing well. In fact, most of my class projects were butt-ugly and only saved by having friends who were visual arts majors.
Much of my undergrad was taken up arguing and debating increasingly pedantic points about ultimately trivial details. These endeavors, while satisfying in the moment (and a great deal of fun if you’re so inclined) are the opposite of a core skill great product managers need.
Product managers need to sell their ideas.
There’s no concept of “the correct answer”, nor can you offer mathematical proofs-of-correctness. It’s up to you to tell a story and motivate your audience to your cause.
Running productive, efficient meetings is a rather boring, mechanical skill, but one product managers use all the time. Lots of my meetings in undergrad were spent arguing and debating increasingly pedantic points about ultimately trivial details. See above.
A meeting is about more than getting an answer. It’s about promoting proper visibility for an initiative, building momentum, and managing politics and emotions.
Practice isn’t just about volume of reps. It’s also about practicing your goal correctly. Spending four years running unproductive meetings develops the wrong habits, and this actually took some time and conscious effort to undo.
Believe it or not, I still struggle to remember all the different systems that I work with day-to-day! Having been exposed to the building blocks helps, but it doesn’t mean you automatically understand everything. In many cases, I work with just an MVP understanding of a system, relying on other operational skills to ensure that engineering-leads have my back covered.
Not all numbers are the same, and it turns out the math classes in college don’t all translate to real-world statistics. While it might seem to be a CS student’s strength, metrics really are something you learn through exposure and independent study.
And anyways, a true power-user of metrics knows to use metrics as a means to an end. It’s simply another tool to help guide your overall product management, not the central focus of your job.
The statistics courses that would have been useful in college are typically open to all, not just computer science majors.
Building Good Products
Most importantly, having a CS degree doesn’t mean I build good products. It’s not a certification, and it’s not a license. It’s simply one of many tools that PMs use.
Look at the list of skills in this article. These are all skills that product managers need to have, and this isn’t even close to a complete list. No PM will have every single one of these mastered, and that’s totally fine. I may have the “understands programming” box checked thanks to my education, but I’ll be the first to admit that my design sense needs some work, and I’m still a novice at selling ideas.
Technical knowledge takes up outsized mindshare, but it actually doesn’t have any effect on the rest of the skills on this list, or even the majority of skills needed to be a good PM. Don’t let it cause undue anxiety.
And finally, the most important takeaway is that I didn’t learn any of the skills on this list in school either. I figured them out by finding opportunities to practice on my own, and through my job.
The fundamental job of a product manager is to solve problems and in that light, be the product manager of yourself, and take technical knowledge as just another problem to solve.
As always, I hope PMTL can be of some use in that endeavor.
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