Top 5 Product Manager Technical Skills in 2021

Top 5 Product Manager Technical Skills in 2021

Original published at UserPilot’s Blog, April 2021

If you’re an aspiring or a junior product manager – technical skills are something that will give you a massive leg up in your career. Moshe Miklanovsky, a Software Developer-turned Product Manager and a co-host of the Product-for-Product podcast, explains which technical skills are essential for Product Managers based on his 30-year career in tech.

Product Management is a very young profession. Compared with software engineering, which started sometime in the 70s, not long ago Product Managers were a part of Marketing departments, and usually handled activities such as Go-To-Market, pricing, competitive analysis, and messaging. It is with the advancements of lean methods and agile cultures for building software products that the modern Product Manager was born.

But where have Product Managers come from?

In some surveys, it has been found that about 50% of Product professionals come from software development backgrounds, while the rest are from different disciplines such as business administration, customer support and more.

Still, many hiring managers are looking for a technical background or know-how for their Product people, and in truth, there are some benefits in having such skills.

So, which technical skills should Product Managers have in 2021?

The #1 Product Manager Technical Skill: SQL

What is it?

Pronounced “ess-que-el”, it stands for Structured Query Language. SQL is the language developers use to manage and interact with relational databases, such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Postgres, and many more. The engineers would usually define table structures, indexes for fast queries, and any number of procedures to insert, read, update and delete data from the system. This is one of the building blocks for many systems.

Why would a Product Manager need it?

A cornerstone of understanding how our product is doing with the intended user base is to understand the usage of the product. This information, in many cases, is found in the database.

For many product managers, this technical skill may be needed if there is no tool that provides this data in a structured way. In these cases, either we get the developers to get the data for us (and take away from their time to improve the product), or we find it ourselves, using SQL query statements.

Can I succeed without it?

Yes, but you will need other ways to access your data.

One option is to ask developers – which means they would need to spend valuable time fetching data for you rather than improving the product. A better way would be if there is a data mining tool that presents the database in a more user-friendly way so that you don’t need to run SQL queries. There are many tool options, though they bear their own cost and learning curve.

What do I need to know to use it?

First, of course, you will need to know the language itself. It is not difficult to learn and there are many resources online and courses as it is part of the curriculum of every software development program. You also don’t need to learn everything. The minimum knowledge is the SELECT statement – getting data from the database.

Second, you’ll need access to the database. It is a good idea for product managers to get Read-Only access. We shouldn’t mess with the data.

And lastly, and with the most complexity, we need to understand the specific data structure of the database that holds the data for our product. This can be simple in small or new products, but very complex in others.

If you spend time with the engineers, rather than getting them to run the searches for you, get them to teach you how the data is structured. It will mean the difference between just getting data and getting the right data.

The #2 Product Manager Technical Skill: HTML/CSS

What is it?

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the language that all web pages’ content is built with. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) defines how this content appears on the page.

Why would a Product Manager need it?

Many products are built with web technology, and it can be very useful to know how these pages are structured. This can be helpful in situations such as:

  • Pages are inconsistent across the product
  • Changes to page components are tested on the fly – this can be done with the development tools of the browser you are using
  • Using tools such as product analytics or A/B testing that take their cue from the page element. When setting these up, it is usually based on the HTML or CSS elements that define the page

Can I succeed without this technical skill as a product manager?

Yes. Although very useful, a developer can always come to the rescue when we stumble upon such a need.

What do I need to know to use it?

First, the structure of an HTML and CSS page. It is useful to know which tags HTML supports and what each means. For CSS it is handy to know how it is structured and used in the web application. There are many parameters that CSS can have to control all aspects of the page, so don’t worry about knowing all of them.

Within the browser you are using, it is useful to know how to inspect elements and find their definition in the HTML code, and if you want to go further with that, how to manipulate them on the fly to see changes on the screen.

Product Manager Technical Skill: #3: JSON

What is it?

JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), pronounced like the name Jason, is a way to structure data in a simple text format. It is easy for humans to read and write, and easy for machines to parse and generate.

Why would a Product Manager need this technical skill?

There are several places where JSON knowledge can be useful:

  • If your product is not built with a relational database, where you can use SQL to query data (see above), but rather with NoSQL databases such as MongoDB or Couchbase, you will not be able to use SQL. In these cases, you will usually have to format your query using a JSON structure. In addition, the data stored in the database is usually returned as a set of documents, each structure in a JSON format as well.
  • Many products have a layer of APIs (Application Programming Interface) used to encapsulate functionality that is then called from other layers of the product. In some products, the APIs are also exposed to the world, being another product of its own, which is consumed by developers of other products. As product managers, it is very useful to know how the encapsulation of functionality happens in product architecture, as we can think of different ways to use it, as well as testing on their own.

Can I succeed without it?

Yes, especially if your product does not include NoSQL database, nor has external facing APIs. But even then, it can be good to know of its existence, as knowing the possibilities can always open up the door to new options.

What do I need to know to use it?

The JSON format is quite easy to learn. What might make it more complex is the information it could contain, as it is limitless, but that really depends on its application in your product.

For APIs, as well as NoSQL databases, check with your developers what structure to use. They can give you examples, or even templates, as well as documentation.

Product Manager Technical Skill #4: Technical Stack and Product Architecture

What is it?

The Technical Stack is the technology of all layers that comprises your product. These are usually 3rd party products that your engineers decided to use in order to build the product. It also includes the technical environment that the product is hosted on, which affects how it’s deployed and promoted to the users.

The Product Architecture is the breakdown of components that comprise the product, usually developed by the engineers.

Why would a Product Manager need it?

There are many reasons to know the technical architecture of your product.

As a product manager, you are not responsible for defining or building it, but you will find that having that knowledge will make you a better team member.

For example:

  • Understanding what the engineers have to deal with to build the product will give you empathy towards their challenges and complexities, and will help your communication.
  • Every architecture decision will have pros and cons and will impact your product, and therefore your customers and the company. You must consider how the technology handles performance, security, scalability, and supportability. Cost is another aspect of the technology used and the product’s architecture.
  • The technical stack, and more specifically, the environment it is deployed to, impacts the ability to provide constant product updates to users. This can make the difference between releasing a new update every day (or several times a day) to once every six months.

Can I succeed without it?

Yes, but you will greatly rely on your team’s engineers and DevOps to provide you with the issues and challenges of the selected stack. The good thing is that you don’t need to know the technology in-depth, only at a very high level.

What do I need to know to use it?

Not much! Talk with your engineering team to learn what comprises the technical stack and product architecture. Ask why each component is needed, and how they are all related to each other. Be curious about it, and ask them to explain it in a non-technical way. This will be a great exercise for them as well. I find diagrams that show the entire architecture very useful, as they put everything together and usually give a good understanding to non-technical people.

Product Manager Technical Skill #5: Specialty Technologies

What is it?

Many products rely on special technology for the entire solution to work. These are always part of the Product Architecture mentioned above, but it is worth mentioning them on their own as they are used in very specific types of products. These could be things such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning), AR (Artificial Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality), IoT (Internet of Things), and many other technologies.

Why would a Product Manager need it?

On top of the reasons mentioned above, specific technologies like these can impact your product discovery and delivery. As there are many unknowns (such as in AI/ML case) or interactions between software and hardware (such as in IoT), developing a product with these technologies can be very different from developing more traditional products.

It is important to know how these technologies work, what their limitations are, and what is required to put them together so that we can better understand how they all impact the product throughout its lifecycle.

Can I succeed without it?

Yes, although here too, you will greatly rely on your team’s engineers to provide with the issues and challenges of the specific technology. This might hinder your ability to make proper decisions about your product. It might also frustrate you if you are only familiar with traditional software technology, and expect things to work the same.

What do I need to know to use it?

Learn about the technology as far as you feel comfortable. You don’t need to have a deep understanding, but it is a good idea to have an overview of what it is, how it actually works, what it takes to put it together, what type of problems it is good for, and what its limitations are.

Determining The Product Management Technical Skills You Need

So, do you need every technical skill outlined above?

It depends. If you have the technical help from your team, or tools that can help you achieve the same results without a deep dive into the back end, you could have a sufficient understanding of your product without the need to hone additional technical skills. If on the other hand, you are short on both resources, some of these skills might be very useful in your toolbox.

Remember, at the end of the day, your job as a Product Manager is to build a product that provides value to your users and works for your company. And sometimes the road to get there is paved with technical needs. In any case – getting some technical skills in product management won’t harm you!