Product management · Startups

Do engineers make good product managers?


June 15th, 2015

Google loves and often requires that PMs have an engineering degree. What are the advantages to this? 

Balaji Gopalan Co-Founder, MedStack - end-to-end platform for healthcare apps | Product Management Educator, Consultant, Thought Leader

June 15th, 2015

All very good points. Excellent read, thank you.

I don't believe a degree or technical skill in the Product area is an absolute requirement in every case, just as it isn't a requirement that the individual have financial planning or marketing creative experience. But it doesn't hurt and it certainly is a requirement that they understand those roles well enough to appreciate what information is required, when and expressed how.

But as said above the profile requirements can change depending on the expectation of the role (at Google, PdMs are expected to evaluate what is being built and how as well as why, since so many ccompany direction cdecisions are made at the Engineering level), and depending on the nature of Product and its customers themselves. If thr Customers are highly technical, the PdM better be too. 

In some cases,  however,  the opposite is true.   PdMs that are too technically focused can end up focusing on the wrong things, chasing product strategies purely because of the interestingness of the technology or not persisting a business opportunity because of an initial perceived technical risk.  

So it depends! C

Lorraine Wheeler President at Redstoke, LLC

June 15th, 2015

A successful product has the right design at the right time for the right market.   In many larger companies, product management owns the "what" and program management owns the "when" and engineering owns the "how". These three functions have to work together as a team which has its benefits and drawbacks.  The relationship between these three functions is critical to the success of the product.  Engineers, especially ones that have worked on products that have been released,  have a really good sense of what can be done in a given time.  If an engineer builds upon their knowledge with understanding the customer and market, then they can be a very good product manager that effectively interfaces with engineering/program management

Theodore Vaida Founder/CTO at Exact Assembly

June 15th, 2015

It really depends on the product. For any B2B that is sold to engineers, you really want to have an engineering level PM, that doesn't mean with a degree, it means the PM is able to do at least a little of the job the engineers are doing. In my experience, a really good PM is able to put themselves in their customer's shoes as much as in the R&D team's place, and balance the two sides. For non-technical buyers, an engineer is probably a drawback, again not a degree thing, an MSEE who writes prose like Faulkner is probably going to be just as good a PM for a word-processing product as is an English major, but I'm not going to go scouting in the R&D cube farm for a PM.

This is why "situational" interviewing and/or on-the-job tryouts are handy. If you have a deep enough bench to be able to hire engineers with the chance they might work out as PMs, but otherwise still have room in the back (like Google) then fire away, bring in as many folks as you can afford and let them all take a crack at running a product. On the other hand, most startups wont have the bench - and at an early stage, having a sub-optimal PM might be deadly. If you really want to run this route, or you are an engineer yourself thinking about trying PM, perhaps a consulting contract for starters would work?

David Fridley Founder at Synaccord

June 15th, 2015

It helps to be able to listen to customer needs, and translate them into concise requirements that engineers can easily understand, and implement.  There are lost of ways to satisfy a need but some ways use more existing technology than others. 

There is the issue of language and people might not interpret the same thing the same way: The closer that PM and engineering are in terms of language, the less misinterpretations there will be.

Then it helps to be able to discuss implementation trade offs, and propose alternatives that might be faster, better meet requirements, or better for future possibilities.

Also, in the longer term, it helps to be able to think in terms of the architecture of the system when you are working on product roadmaps, so that you can build a stronger foundation for the future.

I started with a BA in Computer Science and programmed for a bunch of years and then went into product management and earned an MBA.

Peter Bartnik Product and Business Development Executive for Software and Services

June 17th, 2015

Product Management is a complex and detail oriented role, requiring a significant amount of synthesis and analysis of often inadequate data upon which to base decisions. Good engineers can break down large complex problems into smaller more manageable chunks that are digestible by themselves and palatable to the rest of their stakeholders.

Engineers generally have an appreciation for a good process and a lot of Product Management is the application of a good set of well understood processes.

Lenny Rayzman Network Hardware Engineer

June 15th, 2015

Adding another EE's point of view to the discussion I agree that the answer is: it depends. Purely technical angle is not likely to lead to success . With that said, having an understanding of underlyings (i.e. how things really work) is of great benefit  in balance between what the product needs to do and what it can do given a fixed time frame. Having expensed some time in the development process, as a developer, is only way to gaining that feel.

Saurabh Saha Co Founder at Talent Pegs

June 16th, 2015

A product manager for a specific line of business should have the necessary business as well as technical acumen.So if it is a financial services company the product manager should have an earlier know how of the financial industry and should have worked on financial systems to have an idea about how the systems are designed to be at the same page with the engineering and design team.From a customer centric point of view the pm should have the necessary business skills to be able to be in the shoes of the customer and understand their requirements and still be able to cut it down to features that are really important.For the technology industry I don't think you need to be a pro at coding but you definitely should have written code and been part of a development lifecycle to understand the intricacies of product engineering.If I recall an interview in Business Insider even a person as successful as Marissa Mayer wasn't a good coder so she moved towards product management and was hugely successful there.If you read Gayle Laakman MCDowell's book "How to crack the PM Interview" you'd find she stresses a lot on many other things other than mere coding skills.A PM needs to be visionary and should be able to understand the business of technology really well enough to steer a product through thick and thin.PM don't command an engineering team but instead use their persuasive skills to get a job done.
Product manager is a general portfolio so it should not be confused with something that exists only in the technology sector.Yes! there have been numerous cases where engineers who have turned product managers have been successful but it does not put dictate the product managers have to be expert coders.If that was the case then Mike Moritz should have never been given the job of evaluating technology companies in the Valley as he doesn't know shit about technology.If you read the book 'The inmates are running the asylum' the author stresses on the fact that engineers who design UIs lack the aesthetic sense that only a creative designer has but despite of that some of the most beautiful UIs have been created by engineers be it Pinterest or Dropbox so there is no hard and fast rule on whether an engineering degree or a previous coding experience is a must or not but surely the candidate needs to have technology skills to be able to have a basic idea about the underlying technology that lies at the heart of the system.

Jason McClellan Sr. Systems Engineer at Discovery Communications

June 15th, 2015

My general thoughts:

Not all engineers make good product managers. 

Not all the best product managers are engineers. 

Product managers who happen to also be engineers have a higher chance of being great product managers vs those that don't. 

Tom Maiaroto Full Stack Consultant

June 15th, 2015

It's interesting, I don't see an engineering degree or computer science degree as a "requirement" for building a "web application" let alone a "web product." I'd actually argue that's the wrong degree to have in many cases.

That said, I would certainly want my product manager to know how how to write code. You absolutely must understand how things are built in order to "manage" them. In my book at least. That's just how I grew up.

I know this isn't the popular belief, but building internet products ("web applications") is in fact a trade skill. As much as many people would like to think otherwise, proof of skill can be carried around with you. It is learned through experience. There are those who can do and those who can't and you'll very surprisingly find that college degree has very little to do with the matter (the problem is in identifying talent - as you might often see me note).

So, quite simply put; the better understanding you have of how it works, the better manager you can be.

I definitely agree with Art here, having problem solving skills and logic is quite important in many technical roles.

Axel Schultze Founder Society3 Accelerator & Fundraising market place

June 15th, 2015

In my mind a product manager was always the "translator" between engineering and market  - or - between what should be and what can be. As a translator you need to speak both side's languages.

And so the best PMs have an engineering and a business degree - if a degree is important to the hiring organization for whatever reason.