Should You Hire a Technical PM?

“We need to hire a technical PM.”

I’m going to share a harsh truth here. No, you don’t.

You need an architect, a project manager, or any number of jobs that directly speak to the problem you are facing. Your issue is that you haven’t defined that problem, and are more than likely listening to outside voices that “think” they know what product management is.

In my 13 years in tech, which I’ve spent building startups, consulting, and growing product teams, I’ve never, ever seen the use of a technical PM. My hope after you read this is that you’ll understand why, and as you build your product teams, avoid the trap this represents.

So, let’s start there — what does a technical PM represent?

“You know what we need? A technical PM.”

This is a prime example of what I like to call “conference babble:” listening to talks and workshops at a conference and mixing them all together with prior experience to create the world you want. “Technical PM” as a job description is conference babble of the highest order. 

As product has taken another leap forward in consciousness as a discipline, plenty of folks have taken the stage and talked about their trials and tribulations. It’s part of the process. As product people, we are working out the nuances of what we do. 

Experienced folks understand the nuance, while non-experienced folks may end up in conference babble land. And that is where the rise of “technical PMs” comes from. Why not take advantage of this increased nuance with “technical” skills, and we’ll have some kind of super engineer. Right?

Who doesn’t need that? With that thought in tow, folks come back and start typing job descriptions. “We’ll have a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and they will be able to fill all these gaps. We’re unsure what we are asking for here, so let’s ask for everything.”

Another unfortunate second-order effect of product talking about what they have been able to accomplish is people getting the wrong idea of what product managers do.

In the eyes of some, they’ve become magic wands. If I wave a PM in that direction, then everything is fixed. They can “CEO” that function. So, why not throw “CTOing” that function in there as well? 

That reminds me of what famed business author Seth Godin often speaks about, and what I’m calling the Cheesecake Factory dilemma. 

Cheesecake Factory has a menu as thick as your doorknob. The food is mediocre because they cook everything — there is no focus or specialty.

There are no two ways about it; engineering and product are different disciplines. Both take years of experience to do well. By asking for someone to do both, it starts them down the path to mediocrity.

“Alright, we’ve found our technical PM. Now they can go solve the problem.”

Another tough truth: no, they can’t.

Let me hit the fast forward button on this since I’ve seen it a lot while consulting. Your engineering and product teams will have a cold war over this person. As a result, one of two things will probably happen.

  1. They will turn into a project manager/architect by proxy with nagging commitments 
  2. They end up doing “PM” work anyway, title be damned.

No one hires senior technical PMs. There are no directors of technical product. This battle will play itself out, and that third-order culture effect could be devastating. If you are a person with hiring authority, part of your job is to minimize any cold war that can happen in an organization. Internal stressors are a company’s silent killer. 

So let’s hit the rewind button.

“What is our problem?”

Hiring is a puzzle, no different from finding product-market fit, alpha, a bug, or whatever paradigm you subscribe to.

Eating at the Cheesecake Factory may mean you leave full, but the culinary experience won’t blow you away. Ask yourself: what are you really looking for?

If it’s someone to get projects running on time, go get a project manager. If it’s someone who understands the innards of a technical system, an architect will do well (plus, they are super technical).

Ask yourself what this person is for. Remember that being sincere about what you need can help your business grow.

“Wait, how will I know this what I need?”

Talk. Ask more questions.

Bring in outside counsel if you have to. There are plenty of product coaches that will help you settle what problem you are trying to solve and how doing so will improve your business.

The wrong hire won’t solve your problems — they will just exacerbate them. Worst-case scenario, you are starting a cold war between your product development teams that will slow down rather than speed up progress.

As product management becomes more popular as a discipline, the more trends — hiring and otherwise — will come and go. Remember that you don’t have to follow every one of them. Stay true to your organization’s needs and your product’s differentiators and you’ll avoid the “shiny new object” pitfall.