5 Ways to Become a More Technically Proficient Product Manager

Get Technical Skills

In a former post, I addressed 7 Skills More Important Than a Technical Degree, and promised to address the skills necessary  to gain a more technical Product Management role.

I too have applied to more Senior Product Management roles only to hear that I lacked  “technical experience.”  When I received this response, I felt frustrated; I’ve already been a successful Product Manager for multiple technical products…

“What do you mean that I don’t have enough ‘technical experience?'”

On a quest to better understand the skills and experience required to manage a more technical product, I found that the experience referred to wasn’t always years of experience, but rather knowledge around more technical subjects (e.g. how to use an API), of which I didn’t have expertise in from my former roles or educational background.

That said, there are five ways a non-technical Product Manager can become more technically proficient, of which include:

1. Ask Your Current Team Questions
If you’re already a Product Manager in a non-technical role, you are surrounded by people working in different technical capacities.  Use them as an educational resource!  Ask questions about the things you don’t quite understand — request that they draw pictures around how things work and don’t be afraid to ask why.  Most people are more than happy to teach their peers, especially if it’s around a topic they enjoy.

2. Read. Read. Read.
I realize this isn’t news to you, but social networks like Twitter, Reddit and Hacker News are great resources for learning about trends in the design and product space.  You’ll tend to see things first show up on Reddit and Twitter then later news outlets.  Get ahead of the curve by reading what (and where) your audience reads.

For learning more tangible skills, read O’Reilly books; there is a large collection of teach yourself books (e.g. learning PHP, HTML, Node, APIs).   

PS: Beyond learning only about the technical aspects of Product Management, read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and Eric Reis’s The Lean Startup — these are two well known and respected authors and books in the product development space.  Their books educate you around ways to implement innovative product management thinking.

3. Blog About Technical Products, Topics or Trends
The best way to learn is through application, so write about what you want to know!

As a blogger, you’ll naturally perform market and customer research.  Quickly, you’ll get a sense for the general public’s perspective and find other people whom you can gain other perspectives from (e.g. other writers).  The product’s marketing copy and customer perceptions will provide insights around how a product works and why people find it valuable.  

Appear knowledgeable and on-point by using statistical data and related quotes from industry leaders in your writing.  Consist blogging and sharing of relevant content around a product or topic will soon define you as an authority figure. 

4. Network with People in a Technical Role
Connect with people in a more technical Product Management role during an event or through LinkedIn.  Ask to buy them coffee and pick their brain around what they do and how they got there.  You’ll quickly find that people are more than willing to help you — expect great advice and additional introductions.  And yes, this is all accomplished through the tiny price tag of coffee!

5. Take Credible Online Courses
Enroll in free online courses with an option to gain a certificate or degree.  Some of the top-tier colleges like Stanford, MIT and Harvard even offer free courses.  For programming classes, take classes through Codeacademy or Khan Academy.

Remember that you’re aiming to move into another role, so whether it’s within or external to your current company, you want to projects or courses to your resume and portfolio showcasing that you’re working toward gaining the skills you lack.  

A. Get an Agile Certificate
Since the majority of software companies use Agile methodologies, you’ll better understand the software development and resource management process through practicing Agile and obtaining an Agile Certificate.  Additionally, you’ll better foresee and manage potential risks, interact with stakeholders, resolve problems and improve people, processes and the product.

B. Get a Google Analytics Certificate
Analytics succumb all aspects of a business –from the sales and marketing side to the product and design side (percent change in revenue YoY, customer engagement with a new feature, bounce rate,  mobile use percentages, etc.) — and with continued importance on real-time decision making based on data, Product Managers need to understand what the data means and what decisions to make based on that data.

By enrolling in a Google Analytics course(s), you’ll learn how to track data (e.g. marketing campaigns) and evaluate data through in-depth analysis.  With this knowledge, you can successfully provide advice and reasoning around product related decisions.  As we know, storytelling through data is the most persuasive narrative.

Product Management is hard work, and moving into another role — vertical or horizontal — is an exciting challenge.  If you can show progress toward learning a skill in an area you’re interested in, your passion and determination will shine through.  Stay positive if you hear you need to work on a few technical skills.  As John C. Maxwell once said, “dreams don’t work unless you do,” so stay positive, work hard and you’ll get to where you want to go! 

Related article from 
Loudprogrammer.net: Which Programming Language Should I Learn First

Dance With Confidence

An Entrepreneur’s Dilemma: Dance with Confidence or Face Reality

Many argue that entrepreneurs succeed because of their confidence. “Fake it until you make it,” will get you you there, they say.  At what point should an entrepreneur look in a mirror and face the facts—that their business is failing?

On Tuesday, June 23 in the Penthouse at One East Avenue in downtown Rochester, an audience of over 80 gathered to hear the lessons learned as told by a handful of local entrepreneurs. Failure Sessions, presented by the Entrepreneurial Special Interest Group of Digital Rochester, brought together three brave entrepreneurs, Pete, Zach and Larry, to share their stories of meteoric rise and fall. (We’ll omit their last names and businesses to maintain some anonymity.)

Interestingly, all three of the stories shared a common theme: the unfailing self-confidence of the entrepreneurs and the missteps they took when they refused to face the truth—that their businesses were fizzling.

Pete started a business young and ran into many obstacles, as any entrepreneur would.  His tech company received a sizable amount of funding, and all things were going well—his was a success story.  With a seeming surplus of funding, Pete thought it was time to expand his business by hiring additional employees and opening new offices. He, blinded by his status as a successful entrepreneur, spent money on a wide range of things without first ensuring his revenue model was well in place.  Meanwhile, he ignored signs that his business was overspending.

Lesson 1: Have a plan to grow your business at a pace that suits your burn rate.

Says Pete: “While you bring in money, make sure that you have plans to sustain the amount of money coming in.”

Zach shared his story of taking on too much too fast, resulting in hasty, poor decision making.  While consistently working 14-hour days, Zach came to a fork in the road: let down his customers or sell to a more powerful owner with the liquid cash to support their immediate needs.  Exhausted and focusing on getting out, he sold his company without taking the time to properly consider the terms.  His loyal customers went underserved by the new management, and Zach ended up with a raw deal.  He proceeded to spend several years disputing the acquisition contract signed after the deal went awry.

Lesson 2: Use caution when selling or negotiating collaborative contracts.

Says Zach: “Know who you are getting into business with and what your contract says; don’t make the easy choice unless it is also the right choice.”

Larry started an online business in the peak of the Dotcom bubble.  Highly successful with over 40 employees and a strong cash flow, his company was operating unaware that the industry was about to hit a wall.  While Larry felt this change coming, his investors told him not to worry and to maintain pace in hopes of finding an exit before the bubble burst.  When the market crashed, his revenue and profits did too.  He had to close his business.

Lesson 3: Pay attention to your instincts about what’s coming next.

Says Larry: “It’s never a good idea to risk everything when you can feel the timing isn’t right.”

Failure causes introspection; it allows people to take a step back and examine what went well and where missteps were made.  Regardless of how much confidence an entrepreneur has in their businesses success, sometimes too much confidence can get in the way of reality.

Dance deftly on the line between confidence and reality, and you will surely maintain your footing—business intact—at the end of the day.