The Product Manager vs. the Technical Product Manager

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A lot of people ask me about how to break into product management. I think that is because product management is a hot career track today. So much so that there are many variations on the role and title.

In fact, right now there are 973 job listings on LinkedIn seeking qualified technical product managers. There are hundreds of job postings for digital product managers and principal product managers and even an upstream product manager. Oh, and another 5,555 listings for the generically-labeled product manager.

OK, so what is the difference between these different job titles? Let’s focus on the product manager and technical product manager since you would think that all product managers would have some technical chops.

You see a lot of articles that advise on whether product managers should invest in learning technical skills. In fact, that is usually one of the most popular threads on PM forums. That might lead you to think that technical product manager is a hybrid product management/engineering role. Not so fast.

Technical product managers bring a deep technical expertise to their role but still focus on the core best practices of product management. If you look closely at those 973 job descriptions, you’ll see that they are not all that different from the role and responsibilities of a regular ol’ product manager.

Both are responsible for:

  • Strategy: Setting a product vision and strategy
  • Ideation: Gather and promote the most relevant ideas into features
  • Roadmapping: Plan and prioritize what (and when) the product teams will deliver
  • Features: Define the “what” with user stories and requirements
  • Go-to-market: Work with cross-functional teams to deliver a complete customer experience

Yes, there are many similarities. And any good product manager will want to stretch and expand their breadth of knowledge into new areas. It is what separates rock-star PMs from their ho-hum counterparts — an insatiable desire to learn and grow.

However, there are often some nuanced differences between a product manager and technical product manager. 

Product manager

Technical product manager

Degree More likely to have a degree in business More likely to have a degree in computer science or engineering
Focus Often customer-facing and involved in setting the overall product strategy More focused on how the product works and tends to be more capabilities focused
Teams Collaborates with many non-technical teams, including sales, marketing, and support — and works with outside partners and other third-parties Works closely with technical internal teams, including engineering and development, to write user stories and requirements 
Research Studies the competitive landscape from a strategic business and go-to-market perspective Evaluates competitors and the market for capability-oriented and emerging development and technology trends

Technical knowledge can help product managers to communicate clearly and effectively with their engineering team. It can also give them insight into new development approaches and technical capabilities that might yield better results for customers.

Many companies will find that they excel with two product management roles — a business-minded PM and a technical PM. And others will determine that it is best to have one person leading product who can answer the “why” and the “what” and who can also engage in the “how.”

It is also worthwhile to point out that each company varies and titles do not always reflect exactly what people do. I have known technical product managers who did not have strong technical skills and product managers who transitioned into their role from software development.

However, regardless of title all product managers need to demonstrate the same “soft” skills necessary for executing on product management best practices — including clear communication, leadership, diplomacy, and compassion.

What do you think are the most important skills for succeeding in product management?

About Ron and Aha!

Ron is a product guy. He is the Director of Product Management at Aha! - the world’s #1 product roadmap software. He previously founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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Comments

  1. Rory Ford

    I think of the types of product managers similar to a Football (aka Soccer) midfield.

    There are those who sit forward and assist with goals (sales). This is typically more product marketing oriented but sometimes a technical understanding can help, for example arming pre-sales with a the right material to shine.

    There is the more general product manager, who feeds equally between the market (Attack) and development (defence). Their goal is to ensure the orderly flow of information between both sides. They also need to be able to feed out to pre-sales, customer success, consulting etc to maintain tempo.They need to act as playmaker (and in startups this is often handled by a founder).

    Then there is the defensive mid-fielder product manager who sits back from sales and defends the developers from fielding too many non-strategic matters from sales. Typically they have a technical background and can get involved in the ‘what’ and really questioning the why.

    When planning product management teams, it can be interesting to look at the make up of the “Product” midfield and what sort of team is being fielded.

    Reply
  2. Prasanna Jena

    Curiosity is Key. From what I have seen, the best PMs bridge both the worlds – business and engineering, pretty seamlessly. You cannot deliver your best while working on a technology based product and not being curious about the underlying technology. In the same manner, you cannot have a good understanding of the customer pain points without being curious about the domain, the business issues and the day to day issues faced by your customers.

    Eventually when it comes to taking a product to fruition, the more business savvy product person would come up with a business/consumer perspective of the requirements. However, the engineering team thinks in terms of the system and its components and building blocks. This is where a technical product manager comes in and can take these business facing requirements and translate those to technical requirements. Historically that is the job of a Business analyst/Systems Analyst. Based on my experience, many companies have PMs which do both and others where they are clearly split or where they have significant overlap.

    Reply
  3. T. Spetz

    So, now the next question is: What is the difference between a Technical Product Manager and a Product Owner? (Because your description of a TPM sounds very similar to a PO).

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Adams

    I have been a product manager off and on and lately in the job market I am seeing many more positions that are looking for more technical degrees such as engineering, IT, or even very specialized degrees for the industry that the product management position is in. I have seen product manager roles posted (that just advertise for Product Manager) asking for degrees in some of the sciences. This is a little discouraging to me as a major reason I earned my MBA years ago is because that is what was needed to be looked at as a viable product manager at the time. I am also Pragmatic Marketing certified, so I definitely fall more on the business side of things, but why are there so many postings with expectations that are far outside of what used to be the norm for this role? Do I really have to go back and get a more specialized degree to compete?

    Reply
    1. Jessica Groff

      Hi Kathleen,

      This is a great question for the community of product managers on Roadmap.com. The community has thousands of PMs across all industries, their insight could be helpful.

  5. Monica Watt

    Thanks for the clarification, I have been investigating what it takes to move into Product as its an area I have a keen interest in.

    Reply

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