Do you have any advice for non-technical Product Managers?

Short answer: Relax. Non-technical product managers have lots of valuable product and leadership skills that enable them to become highly successful product leaders.

Gib’s note: Each week, I answer a few questions, drawing from my experience as VP of Product at Netflix and Chief Product Officer at Chegg (the textbook rental and homework help company that went public in 2013).

Newsflash! I’m an English major, so I qualify as a non-technical product leader. Some companies value a technical background (Google), and I think that enterprise software roles are more demanding technically. But many product management roles don’t require specialized knowledge.

In 2005, before I joined Netflix, I interviewed for a VP Product role at Yahoo! Their CPO, Geoff Ralston, decided he wanted a candidate with a more substantial technology background than mine. The next day, I had my final interviews with Netflix. Because of my recent Yahoo! experience, I felt compelled to tell the Netflix recruiter, “I want to make sure you understand that I will be the only English major in the building.”

Her response: “That’s ok, we’re looking for something different.” Netflix hired me.

Here are the product skills I evaluate when interviewing product management candidates:

Product skills

  • Technical. Work well with engineering partners.

  • Management. Bring teams together to deliver results.

  • Creative. Develop ideas that matter.

  • Business. Deliver shareholder value.

  • Design. Work well with designers; value simplicity.

  • Marketing. Package and position ideas in ways that resonate with customers.

  • Consumer science. Develop consumer insight through the scientific method to discover what works.

When I interview candidates, my requirement for technical skills is, “Don’t let your eyes glaze over when your tech partners talk ‘techy.’” It’s not a high bar. Mainly I want candidates to understand that the work your engineering partners do is critically important. Technology enables scalable customer experiences and builds durable, hard-to-copy advantage.

After a few years at Netflix, I asked one of my technology partners, John Ciancutti, a VP of Technology, why he enjoyed working with me. His answer, “You’re very focused on articulating the strategy and long-term vision, you get everyone moving in the same direction, you’re very data-driven, and you do a good job of getting inside customers’ heads.”

His response focused on the concept of “consumer science” from my previous list but moved beyond product skills to the leadership skills required to succeed in the long-term:

Leadership skills

  • Leadership. Communicate an inspired vision of the future.

  • Strategic thinking. Form hypotheses to delight customers in hard-to-copy margin-enhancing ways.

  • Management. Move beyond managing projects to hiring, managing, and developing teams and organizations.

  • Proactive, results-oriented. As a leader, you can’t follow. And you need to deliver results.

  • Culture. You understand the power of a company’s values to enable talented individuals to make great decisions about people, products, and the business without heavy-handed rules and processes. Plus, you exhibit the skills and behaviors described by your company’s unique values.

  • Technical skill. For product leaders, these “technical skills” are the six product skills I listed earlier. But there are different technical skills for marketing or finance leaders, for instance. Marketing leaders are experts in positioning and branding. Finance leaders are adept with balance sheets. Each function requires unique technical skills.

My first list's “technical skill” is a small component of the full roster of skills required to be a successful product leader. That’s why I wouldn’t worry too much about your lack of technical skills— it’s a relatively small part of the overall job. (By the way, many of the “Ask Gib” questions are engineers asking how they can become product managers — the grass is always greener on the other side! I’ll answer that question later.)

My best advice to non-technical PMs

If you’re early in your career and are a non-technical product manager:

  • Find the right role. Acknowledge that you are “light” technically. Stay away from technically demanding enterprise software roles or positions that focus on building APIs, for instance. Don’t bother interviewing at Google.

  • Build trust with your engineering partners. Focus on data as a source of truth and do everything you can to make your engineering partners’ lives better/faster/easier. Be clear about the strategy, your proxy metric for each strategy, how projects align against these strategies, and help the team engage in high-cadence experimentation to discover what works.

  • Spend lots of time with your product. Ask lots of questions of your engineering partners to understand its technology foundation. Demonstrate intellectual curiosity through your interest in the work that engineers do.

  • Become the voice of the customer. Spend lots of time with your customers in focus groups and usability. Use your non-technical skills to get inside customer’s heads to understand what resonates. Figure out how to move beyond satisfying customers to delighting them.

  • Be a consistent source of “ideas that matter.” Demonstrate courage by advocating your ideas and backing them up with data, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative. Your consumer insight, product sense, and “data chops” will help you form hypotheses on how to delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.

  • Be a great communicator. Help engineers, designers, marketing, data science, and customer success teams to work together.

In 2010, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix and an engineer by training, talked to my daughter’s eighth-grade class. During the Q & A at the end, an aspiring 13-year-old engineer asked Reed what she should do to prepare to be an engineer. His answer surprised me:

“Write a lot. It doesn’t matter if you write articles, stories or code — they are essentially the same thing. The creative process takes lots of time and discipline, so the more you practice, the better.

Reed’s answer resonated with me. In eighth grade, I learned remedial programming using BASIC on a DEC mainframe. I briefly studied Pascal in college. In business school, I built children’s software prototypes using HyperCard. Writing code is similar to writing essays. My writing experience helped me develop the discipline required to create products with many different engineering, design, data, and marketing partners.

So please don’t let your eyes glaze over when your engineering partners start talking “techy” and relax— you got this.

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