Are Poets or Quants the Better Product Leaders?

Published Mar 20, 2018

I recently read a book called The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World. True to its boldfaced promise, it lays out the counterargument to the conventional conceit that STEM graduates are poised to reign supreme–and it does so relatively successfully.

Those who study the liberal arts are trained to understand human nature, the author suggests. And it’s this understanding that often leads to the most important digital breakthroughs.

He has a point. While I’m not about to contend that we’ve completely run out of interesting deeply technical problems to solve, you can’t deny the accelerated commoditization of each subsequent layer of the tech stack. Who needs to mess with infrastructure and operating systems when you have Amazon and Google? Who needs to create code from scratch when you have abstracted frameworks to get you more than halfway there? What’s more important is a deep understanding of the motivation behind the need, what’s at stake for the human, and elegant product experiences that anticipate and fulfill these needs while delivering delight.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but I’m a confirmed fuzzy myself. In fact, this line of thinking got me into a bit of trouble in a recent webinar discussion on the findings from the recent State of Product Leadership survey, which revealed that the majority of product managers have a nontechnical background, with 57% reporting a formal education in business versus 37% in the hard sciences. Asked which matters more to the discipline, the ProductCraft community echoed the same sentiment, with 56% saying that technical skills are nonessential to the role.

During the webinar, I suggested somewhat glibly that perhaps a technical background may invite a premature product definition, where a less technical conviction may inspire deeper inquiry that ultimately yields a better problem/solution match.

The rejoinder? “Would you want to fly on an airplane managed by a nontechnical PM?”

No, actually. In fact, I wouldn’t.

It was a record-scratch moment that left me, for a beat, a little speechless.

After this exchange, I went back and reread the commentary by my friend Sam Boonin, VP of product strategy at Zendesk, in a recent ProductCraft debate:

“You don’t need to have a technical background to be a great product manager. In fact, in the majority of cases – unless you have a very technical product used by a technical customer – being technical can make you a WORSE product manager. I would rank technical chops low on the list of required skills for PMs – behind customer empathy, UX/design skills and thinking, synthesis skills, and ability to get shit[ake] done.”

There’s a subtle, but important point in Sam’s position: He suggests that technical depth is most valuable when a product and the end user are highly technical. Like an airplane, for example.

In this circumstance, having technical expertise lends to a deeper appreciation for the customers’ need state. How could a non-technical product manager possibly problem solve for the cockpit crew of a commercial jet? In that circumstance, my money is on the techie over the fuzzy.

But the point remains. While the question is asked all the time in conversations about the product craft, it’s really a false dichotomy. Suggesting one versus the other of these orientations is somehow less important to product leadership is missing the point entirely. Both are utterly essential, if not in the same human, on the same product team. Product teams must deeply understand both the problems they’re solving and the human beings they’re solving for.