You don’t need a technical background to be a PM. I’m proof.

Published Apr 20, 2021

When people see my background as a teacher, they often ask how I ended up becoming a product manager at a technology company. Usually, they’re looking for advice on how they can break into a career in product management themselves. 

I don’t blame them for wondering! After all, we’ve been told for years that in order to become a product manager at a tech company, you should have a computer science degree or have experience working as a software engineer. I have neither—but here I am. Don’t get me wrong, having a CS degree or experience as an engineer can still be valuable; though, my story shows that the skills necessary to be a PM can be developed in other ways.

I owe it to some of the useful skills I acquired early in my career that were transferable to product management and set me up nicely for pivoting when the time was right. My path proves that people without a technical background can still become effective PMs. Here, I want to share those skills with you and tell you why they were so helpful.

Clear, persuasive communication

I had no plans to become a PM during college or at the outset of my career. I earned degrees in philosophy and religious studies because I enjoyed learning about why people believe and act the way they do, and I was excited to become a teacher so I could spark that joy of learning in other people, too. 

While my friends taking technical courses typically had exams or problem sets to complete, most of my courses were humanities-focused and involved writing essays—lots and lots of essays. It was during that time that I learned how important it is to be able to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing. For example, in a philosophy course I needed to break down a logical argument, persuade others that I was correct, and understand all sides of an issue well enough to make counter-arguments.

Persuasive writing skills are useful as a PM, since I’m responsible for crafting product strategies and convincing my teammates and company leadership that they’re the right paths to pursue. As PMs, we identify tough problems, and then break them down into pieces that we can solve, ideally coming up with a phased approach that will deliver value along the way. PMs usually work in teams, which means communication is important to keep everyone on track. Increasingly, I find myself working with people who are distributed in different locations that span multiple time zones. In these situations, strong written communication skills are critical to getting work done asynchronously.

Project management skills

Like many millennials, while I was growing up I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities like team sports, student council, clubs, and youth groups. Through those experiences, I developed teamwork, leadership, and project management skills. I’ve found those useful for planning and executing on all kinds of projects, whether it’s running a summer camp session, putting on an event for a group, planning an international trip, or planning a feature launch. These skills are important for planning ahead to mitigate risk, keeping tabs on all the project’s moving parts, leading meetings, and proactively communicating with the relevant people who are involved with or impacted by the project. 

I see project management as an essential part of product management. Even if your company has enough resources to have dedicated project managers, it’s still something that you’ll need to know as a PM. For each product you own or plan to build, you’ll need to think about what the goals are, whose involvement will be needed in order to succeed, and what role they should each play. You probably won’t be managing just one project at a time, so complementary skills around multi-tasking, context-switching, and time management are crucial for staying organized and making sure you don’t drop any balls while juggling a lot of different tasks. 

Build deep relationships from the outset

When I first started working at Coursera, I was a partnership manager who served as the main point of contact between the company and a set of universities. In account management roles like this, it’s important to develop stakeholder mapping skills, where you identify who are the different stakeholders that you’ll need to work with, what motivates them, and what mutual value you can bring to the partnership to make it successful. When you aren’t in a position of direct authority, developing strong relationships with the people on your team is essential for getting things done. 

Many PMs don’t have people reporting to them, but must work every day with engineers, designers, user researchers, marketing managers, and other people from different functions. Every PM should spend time identifying key stakeholders as early as possible and develop strong relationships with them right away, because you’ll probably work with them on more than one project. Like any partnership, PMs first need to earn the trust of their teammates and identify ways to work together before you can start achieving shared goals.

Become familiar with your product and learn from other PMs

While I worked in partnerships and product marketing at Coursera, I built relationships with PMs at my company and saw up close what their jobs were like. I only started to think that I might want to become a PM after I spent a lot of time with them, watching and learning about what they did every day. Roles like these are an opportunity to gain product familiarity and cross-functional collaboration skills with people on other teams, including engineering, design, research, services, and marketing.

Here are a few product-adjacent roles where you can pick up key skills and information: 

  • Services or support roles are a great way to get to know a product because you’re the one that people will go to when they need help, so you need to know what is expected behavior versus what is a bug. Working directly with users also helps build empathy for the people that use your product. 
  • Product Operations roles let you develop skills like handling feature requests, running a process for prioritizing which features to put on a roadmap, and managing cross-functional projects. 
  • Product Marketing can also be a good stepping stone because you get to work closely with PMs and a lot of the same stakeholders as PMs would, while practicing skills related to internal and external communication and go-to-market launch cycles.
  • Quality Assurance roles help build your familiarity with the product because you need to be able to write test cases and determine whether something is working as expected. Those skills are useful as a PM because you need to be the expert on your product in order to give demos and make product decisions about how to handle every edge case.

Learn the technical lingo

If you’re going to work with engineers every day, as most PMs do, it’s important to understand the way they communicate as you work on technical projects together. You may not need to know how to write code yourself, but you should learn the lingo so you can become an effective translator between technical and non-technical teammates. 

This came naturally for me as I took on product-adjacent roles where I spent more time with engineers, and most of them were friendly and supportive when I asked for help understanding something that was new to me. I also took some online courses (of course!) to learn agile product management methodologies and build some SQL skills so I could do my own data analyses. Most importantly, over time I learned more about Coursera’s platform in particular and developed a basic understanding of the technical side of our product. By leveraging these skills, I’ve found that I can earn respect from the engineers I work with, even though I wasn’t trained as an engineer myself.

Gain expertise in your industry and get to know your users

Every PM needs industry-specific knowledge. It helps if you’ve worked in that industry before, so when you become a PM you already have a leg up, but it’s something that you can learn even if you switch industries. 

Once you know how to empathize with one type of user, you can probably do the same thing with other users. Regardless of the industry, you’ll need to get to know your users and do competitive research to become familiar with the rest of the market and how your product fits into it. Whoever your users are, you should spend a lot of time with them so that you get to understand them and their needs well enough to be able to identify problems and build solutions for them. 

Here are a few ways I did it:

  • Working as a teacher helped prepare me to become a PM at an EdTech company like Coursera because I worked closely with a lot of educators—one of the primary user personas on our platform. I used similar EdTech tools in my classroom, so I also had some personal experience to draw upon. 
  • My curiosity about educational methods and tools also led me to sign up for some EdTech newsletters and attend industry events with other educators. That helped me develop expertise in the industry, which I’m sure was a big reason why I was able to get my first job in EdTech. 
  • When I became a partnership manager at Coursera, I talked to educators every day about how to teach on Coursera, and I heard them compare Coursera to other teaching platforms or methodologies. This helped develop my understanding of the EdTech industry more broadly. 

Embrace the unknown

I’m so glad that I was able to stay in the education industry when I transitioned into product management. Even though I went in a direction I didn’t anticipate, it led me to a PM position with a team and company that has turned out to be a great fit. In hindsight a lot of my story makes sense and seems like it fits together well, but that’s not always how it felt along the way. Sometimes your career feels like a winding path as you’re walking it, but it can lead to somewhere great.

Though I wasn’t ready to be a PM right away, these transferable skills helped me get my foot in the door at a tech company in the education industry. An internal transfer worked well for me to become a PM, but it still took a few years of building important skills and finding the right role on the right team that was the best fit for me. 

But I’m living proof: You don’t necessarily need to have a computer science degree or technical background to become a successful PM in an industry you love. I hope the examples from my career journey will help you reflect on what skills you’ve picked up in your career so far, and inspire you to pursue a role as a PM if you want to be, even if you come from a non-technical background.