Before I started my MBA in the fall of 2018, I had no idea what product management was, let alone how to become a product manager. Seriously. Before entering the program, the vast majority of my working experience had been in an editorial capacity with online media outlets and Canadian television broadcasters.
Prior to spending the first few years of my career embroiled in Toronto’s media scene, I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism.
This may shock you, but the topics of product development, customer centricity, and the gears that make the wheels of most businesses turn…never came up. Basically, if you’d asked me back then, “what does a product manager do?” I would have come up blank.
My Story: From Journalist to Senior PM
So, how, you might ask—with no technical experience and no business degree—did I find myself working as a senior product manager with the world’s largest provider of media monitoring technology? Some days, it’s just as much of a mystery to me.
The Aha Moment!
The tale of my product career path actually begins while covering a Saturday-morning breaking news shift several years ago. Just like any other day, our stubbornly manual operation was often rewarded with unpredictable reader engagement and an overly exhausted news team.
While frustrating, the struggles of the media industry to monetize itself in the digital age were already well documented. It didn’t take long for me to have the very thought that many great entrepreneurs and product managers have had before….”There has to be a better way.”
That mindset shift changed everything for me. I didn’t know it yet (and wouldn’t realize it for many years), but I had just stumbled upon the secret to being a great product manager—recognizing and solving real problems for customers (whoever that customer is!).
All the better if you’re among the first to solve that particular problem.
While that might seem like the end of the story, I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple. Yes, the core skill of a great product manager is solving problems for our users, but that’s often not where "non-technical" product managers struggle the most.
The Learning Curve
For several years, I applied this new mindset to solving problems within the media sector, before expanding my product career into other industries such as marketing technology, media monitoring, fintech, and the creative economy.
After landing my first product management job, it took years of struggling to keep up with technical terminology and learning new tools only to have them become obsolete, before I came to a valuable realization:
There are many ways to become a great PM.
As product management sits at the heart of user experience, technology, and business, many people enter the product management career path by leveraging backgrounds in software engineering, computer science, design, or business development.
While I continue to work on those skill sets, my core strengths lie in the creative ways that I solve problems for customers and businesses and communicate my product vision to stakeholders.
My background as a writer and communicator means that, while I may have to lean on my development team to help make certain decisions, I excel in advocating for our joint vision, managing stakeholders, empathizing with customers, and connecting the “why.”
4 Underrated Skills of Non-Technical Product Managers
1. Presentation Skills
Many non-technical PMs have backgrounds in the creative and communications sector. This naturally gives you an advantage when it comes to visualizing and presenting ideas to audiences large and small.
Thanks to my experience in broadcast journalism, I’m well-versed in delivering prepared presentations during quarterly planning meetings as well as speaking eloquently off-the-cuff. The immense benefits of this skill surprised me the most after making the switch to product management.
Product managers with refined public speaking skills are in high demand by product leadership teams because the product team often acts as ambassadors of the company vision within their own respective departments.
How to Leverage Presentation Skills
This skill can be leveraged at almost any time but is best put to use in scenarios where key leaders are present to witness your presentation prowess. Think, quarterly planning meetings, ideation workshops, and product demos.
- To let your natural talent shine, be sure to prepare talk tracks ahead of important presentations to get comfortable with the subject matter.
- Feel free to practice your delivery as if you were really presenting to your audience (jokes and all!) to iron out any awkwardness in your phrasing or pacing ahead of time.
- Lastly, practice building professional slide decks. Don’t worry about leaning on the PowerPoint Designer to help you out there.
Empathy is probably the most important soft skill in an aspiring product manager’s toolkit. It’s also the hardest to master and deploy. Empathy not only benefits us when identifying customer needs, but also when engaging with stakeholders.
As a former journalist, my ability to empathize with my sources and readers was a necessary skill to creating honest and authentic content that accurately represented their struggles and needs.
In many non-technical professions, such as marketing, advertising, content strategy, graphic design, etc., empathy is a critical ingredient to connecting with a target audience and putting effective messaging out into the world.
How to Leverage Empathy
While imperative, empathy is the hardest skill to deploy. This is because leading with empathy is a mindset. The main ways of leveraging an empathetic mindset are when interacting with users, designing the user experience, writing user stories, and collecting market research.
When interacting with users, empathy is a critical component to understanding their deepest needs. By approaching these conversations with a sincere desire to understand, product managers can hone in on the most important problems the business should be solving.
While empathy for users is the main priority of a great product manager, don’t forget to approach stakeholder relationships with an empathetic mindset as well. Doing so can help you forge alliances within your organization that may help accelerate your product roadmap.
3. Narrative Sense
You’ve probably been in a meeting at some point (doing your best to pay attention, of course) where you couldn’t help but think, “where are they going with this?” That disconnect can often be traced back to a lack of narrative sense on the part of the speaker.
Luckily for you, your background has probably made you an excellent storyteller, which will come in handy in more ways than one.
This skill can be leveraged in both formal presentation settings as well as informal conversational settings. Great PMs never miss an opportunity to tell the story of their product to anyone who will listen.
How to Leverage Narrative Sense
Storytelling skills come in handy in a wide range of scenarios, and unlike presentation skills, it’s just as important to call upon this talent in workplace conversations.
In formal settings, be sure to craft a narrative by breaking out your presentation into a logical beginning, middle, and end. Use plenty of visuals throughout and make sure to repeat key points and objectives you’re hoping to accomplish throughout.
In workplace conversations, however, this skill set can be slightly more difficult to use. The impact of workplace chatter on the prioritization and perception of work is vastly underrated.
To keep your projects top of mind for your colleagues and management team—in a good way—be sure to use consistent, positive language every time you discuss your product. The same terminology, objectives, and value points you would use in formal presentations settings should ideally carry over into your workplace discussions.
By being consistent in your communication across the board, you can ensure that whenever someone else mentions your product, the first words that come to their mind are yours.
- People are naturally inclined to support people over numbers and spreadsheets. Regardless of the setting you’re in, when telling the story of your product, play up the users whose problems you are solving by delivering on the roadmap.
- This is also a great skill to pull out when interviewing for entry-level or associate product management positions. You are uniquely equipped to use your advanced storytelling capabilities to connect your previous experience to future success and land that product management job.
Generating creative and exciting product ideas is my favourite part of the product management role. If you’re entering product management with a non-technical background, there’s a good chance that your previous role involved a great degree of brainstorming and idea generation.
This is the time to put those skills to use! The research and brainstorming frameworks you used in previous roles are still useful in your future as a product manager. Since you’re already well-versed in following creative hunches, you’re already one step ahead.
How to Leverage Brainstorming Skills
One of the primary struggles of organizations today is inspiring creativity and innovation among their employees. In the product world, my favorite place to leverage this skill set is during product ideation workshops.
- Learn a handful of design thinking frameworks that you are comfortable with that can help inspire strategic thinking when new product ideas are needed.
- While team activities can be very effective, don’t be afraid to dedicate a portion of your time every week to independently brainstorming new ideas for your product.
Technical Skills That Product Managers Should Learn
While leveraging your natural talents will undoubtedly help you thrive as a PM, learning other fundamental product management skills will further accelerate your success.
These are the “hard skills” that often appear in the job descriptions for product management roles—which often hold potentially great candidates back from applying. Becoming familiar with these concepts can boost your chances of impressing an interviewer.
Agile Development Frameworks
One of the most effective ways to enhance your confidence as a product manager is to brush up on your understanding of agile development methodologies—in particular, Scrum.
If you’re unfamiliar with Scrum, Atlassian defines it as “an agile project management framework that helps teams structure and manage their work through a set of values, principles, and practices.”
While not every company follows agile methodologies, many modern companies have incorporated agile development processes into their product lifecycle in some capacity. This definitely qualifies both agile and scrum as core product management competencies.
Developing a strong understanding of these rituals and practices can increase your credibility with potential employers and lessen the learning curve of working with development teams when you do land that job.
Luckily, most product management courses will cover these practices.
Where to Learn About Agile Development:
- Agile Project Management Tutorial | What Is Agile Project Management? via YouTube (Free)
- Institute of Product Leadership Advanced Product Management - Agile Methodologies, via Udemy ($)
- Scrum Alliance CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner) Certification ($$)
- Scrum.org PSPO (Professional Scrum Product Owner) Certification ($$)
Design thinking frameworks are an underrated set of tools that actually leverage a number of your core skillsets as a non-technical product manager.
These frameworks refer to problem-solving exercises that can be run in groups or independently to solve real-world problems of either the customers or the business, develop an idea, create a prototype, etc.
Despite my natural brainstorming and creative capability as a former writer and journalist, it was difficult for me to apply those skills to product ideation.
Learning a handful of product design frameworks, such as Jobs-to-be-Done, Brain-writing and Impact vs. Effort, helped me apply my creativity to developing better product ideas. Additionally, it gave me a boost to begin putting together my own frameworks for problem-solving that I continue to use to this day.
Beginners Corporate Finance
In order to be successful in the product management profession, building products that generate revenue and hit other objectives for your organization is key.
Fully understanding the impact of your product ideas can be tricky without a basic understanding of corporate finance concepts, especially when it comes to pricing and packaging strategy.
In most cases, there will be a finance team to support you with complicated analyses. However, having a solid understanding of the potential Return on Investment (ROI) of your product ideas will be key to whether leaders buy into your vision.
Where to Learn About Corporate Finance:
There can be no sound product strategy in the absence of data. In fact, a primary role of product managers is to measure the success of the experiences they design. The good news is, it only takes a high-level understanding of a handful of key metrics to discern trends and make meaningful product decisions.
In addition to some choice data analytics software, some metrics to get familiar with include Downloads, Retention Rate, Bounce Rate, Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), Daily Active Users (DAU), Monthly Active Users (MAU) and Cost Per Acquisition (CPA).
Technical Terminology and Concepts
Depending on the type of product, I don’t believe a product manager needs to know how to code to be successful. However, it is beneficial to meet your development team halfway, where possible.
You can do this by brushing up on software development terminology, getting familiar with the development tools they use (at least at a high level), and understanding the key use cases of the different coding languages.
Many online courses provide low-cost and efficient ways of brushing up on these skills on a part-time, flexible basis.
Where to Learn Technical Terminology:
- Learn Basic SQL in 15 Minutes | Business Intelligence For Beginners | SQL Tutorial For Beginners 1/3, via YouTube (Free)
- LinkedIn: Technology for Product Managers ($)
- University of Alberta: Software Development and Agile Practices, via Coursera ($)
- General Assembly: Programming for Non-Programmers ($)
Other Product Management Certifications to Consider
The best way to become a great product manager is to learn on the go. However, if you’re aiming to accelerate your career transition and have the budget for a broader course, these are some of the product management certifications that are well-recognized in the industry today.
The Bottom Line
If you’re currently going back and forth about pursuing a career in product management, don’t let your previous work experience hold you back.
Successful product managers come from all a variety of professions, backgrounds and experiences. Regardless of your background, the most important role of the product manager is to build product features that solve problems for users.
There are many transitionary roles to consider, which can offer direct product management experience.
As long as you can apply your problem-solving skills and previous work experience to identifying and resolving the most pressing challenges for customers, you’re on your way to a long and successful career.
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