Top 5 Technical Skills Every Product Manager Should Know
While a technical background is a mandatory prerequisite for becoming a product manager, there are some technical skills worth having in your toolbox as a PM. The good news is you don’t need to go back to school to master these technical competencies either. The skills we’ll discuss in this article won’t put you in competition with your engineers or make you smarter than your system architects. But they WILL make you faster, more independent, and more knowledgeable about your product and your users.
Given the wide array of options for which technical skills a product manager could attempt to master, we’ve come up with a top five that would burnish any product manager’s resume and are applicable to nearly every segment and industry. So without further adieu, here are five technical skills for product management you wish you already knew (and how to learn them.)
Data collection, extraction and analysis
No product manager worth their salt would dare make an argument without having data to back it up. The problem, though, is it can be tough to get your hands on that data when you need it. That’s why the first technical skill we suggest all product managers master is data competency. Basically: you should know how to obtain, extract, and analyze the data you need to prove a hypothesis. Ideally, you’ll be able to do this without tapping a data scientist on your team on the shoulder for answers.
Learn how to wrangle a dataset confidently and you’ll be able to investigate hypothesis after hypothesis without getting on the nerves of your coworkers or requesting reports and extracts that may have dubious value.
Where to start: SQL
Regardless of how your data is stored, the best way to unlock it is by learning how to construct and run your own SQL queries. Not only will this allow you to run countless queries by yourself, but it might actually be a prerequisite for some product management jobs you’re interested in down the line.
SQL is not exactly a cutting-edge technology, so there is a vast library of independent learning opportunities out there. You can learn from the experts at W3Schools or take a course on Learning SQL or Analyzing Business Metrics from CodeAcademy.
There are also some resources specifically for product managers trying to understand what SQL is and how to get started on blogs from Product Management 101 and Department of Product. Once you know enough to get started, you’ll need to request read-only SQL access from your engineering team.
While SQL will net you lots of raw data, making sense of it and visualizing it requires a different set of skills and tools. We’re living in the golden age of analytics, so there are plenty to choose from.
You’re probably already looking at Google Analytics by now to track web traffic and campaign conversions (and if not, you need to get on that pronto). But beyond that, Mixpanel, Amplitude, Looker and Tableau are some of the popular products to turn raw data into gorgeous charts and graphs. Once you’ve selected a tool (or gotten a seat license for one your company already uses), it’s time to dive into their documentation and tutorials to figure out how it works.
From there you’ll be able to start churning out insight-laden visuals that can inform decisions related to feature prioritization, user behavior, marketing effectiveness and beyond.
It might be 35 years old, but the classic spreadsheet program is still as relevant as ever. Sure, Google Sheets has taken some of the shine off this Microsoft Office standby, but there are a few things that still warrant product managers firing up Excel.
Where to start: Pivot tables and Macros
Pivot tables are the first value-add Excel has to offer for product managers. With them you can quickly create a dynamic filterable chart or graph. Want to see how many orders this month were for Premium versus Basic? Then you want to show it in a graph? Pivot tables will do the trick in a heartbeat.
Macros are the other useful Excel feature a product manager might want to utilize. Using the VBA coding language, it can automate any task that you might perform in a spreadsheet, such as pulling data from various sources. Best of all, the “programming language” is all written in plain English, so it shouldn’t stump any neophytes.
Back in the dark ages, bringing a product to market required a series of educated guesses. There was no way to know if one option was better than another, so you’d simply bet on a horse and see if it won.
Today, we have the opportunity to continually introduce multiple options to the market in controlled experiments. We can scientifically prove whether the user prefers the blue button or the red button instead of just picking one and hoping for the best.
We run these experiments using the concept of A/B testing. Basically, some people see option A, other people see option B, we see which one got better results and then pick the winner.
A/B testing can be conducted on almost anything, from marketing campaigns, to UX elements, to pricing models. Best of all, it provides data-based evidence to justify product decisions and foster stakeholder alignment.
Where to start: lightweight A/B testing
Now, the A/B concept itself isn’t particularly technical, but executing these tests does require a little more skillfulness. To ease into it, there are some tools that facilitate experimentation without any real coding.
Unbounce lets you test messaging, art, and calls to action by running multiple variants of landing pages, as well as pop-ups and banners on your core web site. Tools like Optimizely enable experiments on your actual web site or apps, randomly segmenting visitors so they’ll have different experiences. Based on the results, you can see which text, images, or product features are resonating better.
More serious experimentation
Depending on your use case, the A/B test you need may be more than cosmetic. To truly test out different variants of functionality or workflows, you’ll need to engage your engineering team.
When going this route, it’s essential to have completely thought through your experiment. As you’re asking developers to essentially code something that has a high probability of ending up in the rubbish bin, your plan must be bulletproof.
Start with your hypothesis and be sure it is fully socialized. Next you’ll need to determine if two options (A & B) are sufficient, or if you need to get into a true multivariate scenario.
Then it’s time to determine what data you’ll need access to to evaluate the results. Defining this during the design phase is key to make sure what you want is being captured, tagged and categorized sufficiently.
You’ll also want to figure out how big of a sample size you’ll need to get statistically significant results. This will inform the overall size, scope and length of the experiment.
Finally you’ll want to establish what the outcomes of the test will drive. Do you simply go with the best performing option or do the results spur an additional round of testing?
Product managers don’t need to write, nor must they master UX design. However, it can be handy to have the skills to churn out a simple prototype for discussion or testing purposes.
There’s a few reasons for this. First, sometimes you need some visual aids to convey your vision to stakeholders, and a rough prototype is a great way to make things tangible. You also might want to augment your requirements with a prototype to be sure the implementation team understands what you’re shooting for (even though any “design” coming out of product management should be purely informative and not prescriptive).
But, the most valuable use case is for collecting feedback. While surveys and interviews can glean all kinds of insights, sometimes you just want people to react to something. A prototype pushes things out of conceptual and provides a frame of reference for furthering the conversation. If you’ve whipped up a couple options, you can see which one people prefer to better guide your plans.
Where to start: Web-based prototyping tools
To spare UX and engineering from being involved in these preliminary experiments, there are some very easy-to-use tools for non-coders to craft a passable prototype. For example, Invision lets you upload mockups from design to make a clickable interactive prototype, while Proto.io lets you create interactive mobile app prototypes with drag and drop components.
Learning about code
Finally, there’s code itself. Note that we’re not recommending you learn how to code—if you already know how, that’s great, but product managers shouldn’t be spending their time cranking out code.
What we’re talking about is understanding what technologies are being used, what they’re capable of and some of the fundamentals. We are NOT expecting you to be whipping up subroutines and doing code reviews.
Comprehending the world of code is key to your ability to communicate with engineering. They live and breathe this stuff all day long, so it helps if you can speak the same language.
Where to start: understand the stack
Begin by learning about your “technology stack.” This is all of the servers, apps, databases, and types of code being used to bring your product to life. You can then do some homework to get a better understanding of their pros and cons, capabilities, and limitations.
Again, this is not so you can step in and make architectural recommendations. It’s about building a common understanding with the team and empathy for any roadblocks they may face making your vision a reality.
Combining your new product management superpowers
You might have noticed that many of the technical skills we covered are complementary. For example, you could whip up a prototype, run some A/B tests with it, and then analyze the data in Excel.
As your technical toolbox fills up, you’ll find yourself able to do more things independently and become less reliant on engineering, UX, and business analysts during the earlier stages of product planning. While this doesn’t mean you should cut them out of the process altogether, it does enable you to investigate and analyze things on your own.
Technical skills augment your value to the organization and increase the trust and credibility you seek from your colleagues. But none of them can replace the fundamentals of product management that only you can bring to the table, so don’t let enhancing your technical acumen distract you from your primary expertise.
Learning technical skills for product management
Learning new things can be intimidating. As we get older, we’re more resistant to change and often find that we’ve fallen out of the routine of continually mastering new skills and those “learning muscles” we flexed so often in our school-age years may feel much weaker after they’ve been given a break for some time.
Despite this, if you can clear any mental hurdles standing in your way, your time and energy spent diving into new skills is well-invested. And, there’s no shortage of tools and resources available to shepherd us on this journey.
You can do this!