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Does a Product Manager at a High Growth Technology Startup Need To Be Technical?

Do product managers at high-growth early stage technology companies need to have a technical background — or does it just not matter?

Those in product management are probably already tired of the seemingly age-old debate.  But that question keeps getting asked, and there’s no sign of it ever really stopping. After all, there are newly promoted Product VP’s that need to build product teams, VC Talent Partners that need to support those VP’s, and up-and-coming product people that are trying to position themselves well to excel in their own careers.

Many people have different viewpoints on the topic…

Case-in-point: Ken Norton, Partner at GV, is up front about favoring hiring those who have had technical experience (not necessarily Computer Science degrees) in his classic How to Hire a Product Manager essay. Yet, Ellen Chisa, VP of Product at Lola, views it a bit differently. She doesn’t believe you actually have to be technicalbut you should wish you were.

Alas, I don’t seek to add more fuel to either side of the debate. But it has gotten me curious about whether high-growth technology startups value technical backgrounds when hiring Product Managers. Sure, it’s a plus if a Product Manager has technical chops. But does that mean that most Product Managers hired are actually technical? If not, are there other factors about a non-technical Product Manager’s background that becomes more important? What does a Product Manager at a high-growth technology company actually look like?

I did similar research in the past on Product VP’s, which resulted in some interesting findings. This time, I decided to focus on the very people that those Product VP’s recruit, hire, and lead: The Product Manager. But before we get into the findings, here’s a bit more about the process I used:

  1. I started with a list provided to me by Mattermark of the hottest technology startup companies (ranked by Mattermark Growth Score). The criteria I had used was that the companies should have at least 50 employees and/or have raised between $10M – $100M in funding (but were no later than the Series C stage). Also, I was looking for independent companies (i.e. no exit quite yet) focused, specifically, on B2B software, E-Commerce, or Consumer Internet.
  2. I used primarily LinkedIn to find profiles of Product Managers at companies that were on my list — and researched until I could find profiles for 50 Product Managers (at what amounted to 15 of the top companies on the list). I did accept other titles as “Product Manager”, including “Senior Product Manager”, “Product Lead”, and other similar roles. I specifically did not include those who were a Director or VP level, as I’m focusing this research on those who are managing product… not teams of product managers. (Plus, remember — I already did that research).

LinkedIn is not a perfect platform for this type of research, so it’s absolutely possible (and probably even likely) that I found profiles for some, but not all, Product Managers at a specific company. Even still, I thought that 50 profiles would be sufficient to begin to glean interesting insights.

With all of that, here’s what I learned about the makeup of a Product Manager at high-growth technology startup companies:

Most Product Managers aren’t that technical (but some do wish they were).

Of the 50 Product Managers I researched, 35 of them didn’t have technical backgrounds (either in experience or education). Most of these 35 non-technical Product Managers didn’t necessarily start their careers in product management. One popular way of getting into product management seems to be through management consulting, with several non-technical Product Managers having served as consultants in the past. The next most popular backgrounds included working within digital marketing, analytics, and serving as a startup founder.

Ellen Chisa would be proud of a couple of these folks, though, as while they didn’t have a full degree or real-world software development experience, a handful did take it upon themselves to take technical classes through platforms like Udacity or General Assembly.

Product Managers with non-technical backgrounds seem to make up for it in the form of advanced degrees — but not necessarily more experience.

30% of the non-technical Product Managers researched had advanced degrees — many from top-tier universities like Harvard, MIT, Pennsylvania, Oxford, Chicago and elsewhere. This figure is more than double than the percentage of technical Product Managers with advanced degrees — just 13%.

However, if you assume that a non-technical Product Managers might have to have more total work experience compared to their technical counterparts in order to differentiate themselves— you’d be mistaken. Of the 50 Product Managers I researched, there was no major difference in total work experience or product management experience that the group of technical Product Managers had vs. the non-technical Product Managers. In fact, the non-technical Product Managers actually tended to have a little bit less experience in both categories (7.5 years of total experience and 3 years of product management experience compared to 8.5 years of total experience and 3.5 years of product management experience) compared to their more technical counterparts.

Even though the above two observations I made through my research answered the question of whether or not high growth startup companies tend to favor technical Product Managers, I was still curious about what the makeup of these Product Managers actually was beyond technical experience. I remembered from the last research study I did on Product VP’s that the overwhelming majority were men. I was curious if we’d see the same results with Product Managers as well, so I dug a bit further:

There certainly are women in product management (although there’s a caveat).

Overall, women represented 44% of the 50 Product Managers at these high-growth technology startups — with women having just as much total work experience and product management experience as their male counterparts. I was encouraged by this, but not surprised — as some of the best product people I personally know are women. But when I took a deeper look, there was one caveat to this. 2 companies among the 15 that I researched — Stella and Dot and Uptake — represented the bulk of these women Product Managers. All 6 of the Stella and Dot Product Managers on my list were women — as were 8 of Uptake’s 14 Product Managers.  These two firms alone represented 2/3 of the female Product Managers on my list. Without those two companies, the percentage of women Product Managers would have dropped down to 26%

So, what does this mean?

Admittedly, it might not mean much. It’s true that my list of 50 Product Managers is a short list and might not encompass every Product Manager that each company I researched actually employs. But it could also mean that there are some companies out there — perhaps like Stella and Dot and Uptake — that realize women should not be overlooked when hiring Product Managers. On the flip side, if the figures in this short research study reflect the industry as a whole, it would mean that most companies hire three male Product Managers for every female Product Manager. That ratio may be more balanced than, say, software development — but it doesn’t seem as balanced as it should be.

In Summary:  You don’t have to be technical to be a Product Manager. But you better bring something else to the table if you’re not.

I wouldn’t want to be a judge in a debate between Ken Norton and Ellen Chisa. Because really, they’re both right. A Product Manager with a technical background is going to bring perspective that would be difficult for somebody who didn’t have a technical background to bring. But is it absolutely necessary? Probably not — so long as the non-technical Product Manager is motivated to learn and at least speak the language of the development team he or she is working with.

No matter what side of the debate you land on, the data shows that most Product Managers aren’t technical. Even still, aspiring Product Managers without technical backgrounds better be ready to differentiate themselves somehow… especially if they don’t happen to have a Master’s from a top-tier university. 

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For more research, thoughts, and commentary on all things related to product management, visit productcollective.com or join Mike in person this Fall at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference. Save $50 on a pass to INDUSTRY by using the code: Mattermark50

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, a conference for people that build, launch, and scale world class products. Mike also wrote the book Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of Us, which debuted on the top of Product Hunt.

Image Credit: Mind The Product

Also published on Medium.

© Mattermark 2024. Sources: Mattermark Research, Crunchbase, AngelList.