How to Succeed as a Non-Technical Product Manager

Product Management
Anthony PellegrinoAnthony PellegrinoLast updated

Product managers often build and manage technical products. To do so, they must interact with software engineers and data scientists daily.

But how technical do product managers need to be? Do product managers need to know how to code?

You might be a candidate with fewer technical skills. Does this mean you can’t become a product manager?

Of course not!

Watch Kevin Wei, a Big Tech product manager, talk about working with non-technical PMs.

Learn more: This article is an excerpt from our product manager interview course. It was written and produced with the help of 20+ Google, Meta, and startup product managers. Review your resume, practice mock interviews, and get one-on-one interview coaching with Exponent.

Do product managers need to know how to code?

You do not need to code to be a product manager.

But, a basic understanding of programming and system design can benefit you.

Technical knowledge helps ease communication with technical teams. It also allows PMs to better understand the feasibility of certain features.

Knowing the basics can help PMs identify potential bugs or future issues during development.

Most companies do not expect PMs to be at the same technical level as software engineers. Technical knowledge is dependent on the team you're working with.

Many PMs work closely with engineers and developers—the ones expected to build the product. The technical skills and knowledge you need are centered on these engineering partnerships.

Non-technical product management skills

While lacking coding skills or technical background is not a deal breaker, some technical-adjacent skills are crucial.

These include:

  • Problem-Solving: PMs need to identify and troubleshoot issues that may arise during development. Being able to think critically and find creative solutions to problems is essential.
  • Understanding of Technical Lingo: PMs should have a working knowledge of technical terms and concepts. This helps to communicate effectively with technical teams.
  • Business Acumen: PMs must understand the business requirements, the market, and the industry in which they work. They must be able to make data-driven decisions and align their product with the company’s goals and objectives.

These skills can help PMs bridge the gap between product development's technical and non-technical aspects.

This can lead to better communication, collaboration, and, ultimately, a better product.

Technical concepts PMs should understand

As a non-technical product manager, it’s necessary to have a basic knowledge of specific technical concepts. This allows you to act as an excellent partner for your engineering teams.

Here are a few examples of technical concepts that non-technical PMs should understand:

  • Software Development Lifecycle: Understanding the different software development stages, such as planning, design, development, testing, and deployment, can help PMs better understand the development process and foresee potential roadblocks.
  • Agile Development: Agile development is a popular methodology for software development that emphasizes flexibility and collaboration. 70% of US companies are using Agile. So, understanding its principles and how it is implemented can help PMs work better with engineering teams.
  • Cloud Computing: Cloud computing is becoming increasingly popular in the tech industry. At this point, few companies are not using or producing cloud services. Understanding the basics of cloud computing and the different platforms can help PMs understand the implications of this technology concerning their own products.
  • UX/UI Design: Understanding the principles of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design can help PMs make informed decisions about the design, usability, and accessibility of their products.
  • Web/Mobile Development: Knowing the basics of web and mobile development can help PMs understand the technical constraints and possibilities of different platforms and make better decisions about the direction of their products.
  • APIs: Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are a set of protocols, routines, and tools for building software and applications. PMs should understand the basic concepts of APIs and how they can connect different systems.
  • Data Management and Architecture: Data management and architecture concepts are fundamental for most software development projects. Understanding the basics of data storage, modeling, and dataflow can help PMs understand the implications of different features and identify potential issues.

You don't need to be an expert in these technical subjects. But, a functional knowledge of them will do wonders for your engineering and technical partnerships.

Making data-driven decisions

Product managers make many decisions every day.

While many decisions are intuitive, can you articulate why a menu is placed where it is? Or why is a form hidden until after a user action?

What will you say if stakeholders push back on your decisions because they think your intuition is flawed?

Good product managers can:

  • discover,
  • analyze,
  • and present data to support their opinions and decisions.

Product managers are not required to know Python or R to the level data scientists and engineers must. After all, they will not build ETL pipelines or develop new ML algorithms, for example.

However, product managers must make decisions based on the collected data.

Roles and responsibilities vary from company to company. This is especially true for more nascent teams where responsibilities overlap, and folks wear more hats.

Data scientists handle the analysis of data. Then, product managers figure out how to put that data into action.

A big part of the job requires working with data teams to extract insights necessary for data-driven decisions.

Other essential PM skills

You'll also need some of these soft skills to succeed as a product manager, even if you're not coming from a technical background:

  • Product Vision: Understanding customer needs, identifying pain points, and creating product roadmaps.
  • User Empathy: Conducting user research, user testing, and gathering feedback.
  • Strategic Thinking: Analyzing market trends, identifying opportunities, A/B testing, and creating a long-term product plan.
  • Communication and Leadership: Communicate effectively with technical and non-technical teams. Lead cross-functional teams and manage stakeholders.
  • Product Marketing: Create a story that will resonate with the target audience.
Highlight these skills in your resume and during interviews to show you have what it takes to be a successful PM.

Companies hiring non-technical PMs

Google, for example, demands much more technical acumen from their PM candidates than Meta or Amazon.

Still, many companies are open to hiring PMs without technical expertise.

TechGuap explains how to break into product management with your first PM job.

Here are a few examples of teams and companies that have successfully hired non-technical PMs:

  • Start-Ups: Start-ups often have limited resources and may not have the luxury of hiring PMs with specific technical backgrounds. Instead, they focus on hiring PMs with diverse skill sets, strong product vision, customer empathy, strategic thinking skills, and the ability to wear many hats.
  • Consumer-Facing companies: Many consumer-facing companies focus on user empathy and strategic thinking over technical skills for product management candidates. They hire PMs with backgrounds in marketing, business, or design.
  • Product-Driven companies: Meta, Amazon, and Netflix strongly focus on product development and innovation. Such companies are open to hiring PMs without technical backgrounds. PMs still need the right product vision and strategic thinking skills.

Regardless of the company, non-technical PMs must communicate effectively with their technical teams. They'll need a solid understanding of the technical aspects of product development to do so.

While some companies may prefer to hire PMs with stronger technical backgrounds, many are open to hiring PMs without technical expertise.

Before you apply, it’s helpful to research the specific needs and preferences of the teams and companies you hope to join to increase your chances of landing a PM role. Consider joining Merit to connect with hiring managers at more tech companies.

What programming languages should product managers learn?

Product managers use Javascript, Python, and SQL the most. These skills will help you figure out how the product works and how to make it work best for users.

SQL: SQL is a language every product manager should know because it lets you quickly and easily query databases and glean insights from your company's data. If you want to brush up on your SQL skills, check out our popular SQL course.

JavaScript: Javascript is an excellent language for people just starting to learn how to code because it's used everywhere. It's a flexible language because it can be used for both front-end and back-end development.

Python: Python is an easy-to-learn scripting language that is used widely for data analysis, machine learning, and web development.

Product managers don't have to be experts in coding, but familiarity with these programming languages can help them make better decisions about how to run their businesses.

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