How Do You Balance Learning Between Tech Knowledge and PM Knowledge?
“How do you balance keeping up with knowledge about Product Management with deeper technical knowledge? I work as a PM in a very technical vertical. I don’t have a technical background but have been studying for several years to build that knowledge base. It always seems like I have to trade off learning between the two areas (tech knowledge and PM knowledge) and it’s hard knowing what balance to strike.”
Answer from Krassi Hristova, Product Manager at Facebook
Continued learning is top of mind for every star product manager. We know it’s essential to continue learning about new approaches in our craft as well as expand our technical knowledge. Given that time is a limited resource, it can be tough to balance the two.
To help you in your quest to expand your skills, I will share with you my approach for continued learning and offer some tips for the best ways to grow both your product management know-how and technical skills.
Start with one hour a week
One of my favorite ways to ensure that I continue to expand my skill set is to pencil one hour dedicated to learning into my weekly work schedule. Yes, I do take the time to read and learn on weekends and evenings too, but reserving that one hour each week ensures that I don’t compromise on continued learning when life gets busy.
If one hour sounds like a lot of time to take out of a single day, try spending 10 to 15 minutes each day learning something new, or take two 30-minute chunks over two different days. It’s up to you how you do it. What works for one person may not work for you, so experiment until you find the best way to fit that hour into your schedule. Don’t compromise on it. It can be tempting to push off the time to learn because of meeting conflicts or other impediments. Reschedule if you must, but make sure you are learning something new each week. I like to pick the least busy time in my week and set a recurring calendar event to block off the time.
Strike a balance
Once you have an hour scheduled each week, use the time strategically based on your priorities that week. Sometimes, that will mean learning a new technical concept. Other times, it means researching best practices for running a postmortem after an incident. On still other occasions, you may find yourself catching up on blog posts on product design, strategy, or another area of product management you find interesting. Over time, this approach allows you to achieve a useful balance between growing your technical and PM chops.
Don’t stress about achieving a perfect 50/50 split. Instead, aim to learn based on your needs. If you insist on being more structured in how you divide your time, you can consider focusing on technical know-how one week and growing your product management skills the next.
Keep track of the things you want to learn. A list of topics is especially helpful when there are no time-sensitive learning goals or when you take the time outside of work to grow your skills.
One last tip: keep track of the things you want to learn. A list of topics is especially helpful on the weeks when there are no time-sensitive learning goals or when you take the time outside of work to grow your skills. I jot down acronyms and concepts I’m fuzzy on to look up later. I save the names of books recommended by friends or listed on helpful blog posts in a master book list note. I also aggressively save interesting articles and blogs to my Pocket to read/study later.
Go beyond that one hour
Dedicating an hour a week to learning on the job is just the first step in your quest for continuous growth because one hour is often not enough. If you can, my advice is to set aside time on a recurring basis during your off-time and invest in strengthening your skills further. That extra time opens a myriad of things you can do to deepen your knowledge.
Below are some of my top suggestions for how to best grow both your product management know-how and technical skills.
Growing your product management know-how
If you are passionate about growing your product management know-how, there are a few ways to go about it. You can (1) Learn by doing, (2) Find a mentor, (3) Attend conferences, and (4) Keep up with PM news and blogs.
Here’s a little more on the pros and cons of each.
1. Learn by doing
Sometimes the best way to learn is by doing. Don’t be afraid to experiment and test the new techniques you read or hear about. I like to encourage my teams to try out new things with the understanding that if an approach doesn’t work, we can iterate and try something different. Doing does bring learning to life.
- 🙌 Lets you apply new concepts and improve how you do things.
- 🔁 You can iterate.
- ✅ Lessons learned.
- 😞 Mistakes happen. Sometimes this approach leads to failure.
- 🙋 Trying something new for the first time can be daunting. It may also require buy-in from your team.
2. Find a mentor
One way to avoid the pitfalls of the above method is to find a mentor. A mentor lets you tap into the experience and wisdom of someone who has navigated a similar situation in the past. Their perspective and thoughtful advice are invaluable and will save you many headaches. Simply put, having a mentor will accelerate your learning and growth. They will also prove to be a trusted ally in solving complex problems and building your career.
- 📈 Accelerates your learning.
- 🙏 A source of perspective, advice, and time-tested ideas.
- 😬 Finding the right mentor can be daunting.
- 🕰 Schedules don’t always align.
3. Attend conferences
Product management conferences offer another way to deepen your skills. While these conferences used to be few and far-in-between, there are now many great PM-focused conferences all over the world. For example, the Product Management Festival is one of the biggest gatherings of PMs held annually in Zurich, Switzerland and now in Singapore. Mind the Product also hosts an excellent conference in the United States and Europe.
Dan Olsen, the author of the Lean Startup, has compiled a list of worthwhile PM conferences. Teresa Torres also published a list of 2018 conferences to attend on Product Talk. Finally, do check out the helpful tips Tanya Elkins has put together for maximizing the value you get from attending a product conference.
- 🔝 A great way to learn from superstar PMs from top companies.
- 🙌 An excellent way to network and meet PMs from a variety of industries.
- 🛫 Travel.
- 💸 Can be expensive if your company doesn’t cover costs.
- 🚫 Conference talks may not always be relevant to your current situation.
- 🕰 Several of the talks you want to attend may overlap, forcing you to choose which to attend. You may not always choose wisely. 😉
4. Keep up with PM news and blogs
The Internet is a great source of knowledge. While the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, there are many great blogs that will teach you new things or introduce you to how other PMs approach X, Y or Z. Many highly-respected folks in our field, like Ken Norton and Julie Zhuo, write on a semi-regular basis or have written a great deal in the past. Seek out the writing of fantastic PMs from different industries and glean useful bits from how they think about the PM discipline.
Here are a few great sources for expanding your PM horizons: First Round, Stratechery, Mind the Product, Hackernoon. I’m also a fan of the Atlassian blog and keep an eye out for interesting and relevant articles there. Medium is chock-full of excellent think pieces and handy resources too, like the Ask Women in Product series, Simon Cross’ Essential Reading List for PMs, and Noah Weiss’ list of articles and books for PMs. If you have not heard of these blogs, I’d encourage you to check them out.
- 💡 Exposure to different ideas and best practices.
- 💯 You learn from some of the best of the best.
- 🔀 Huge volume — there are tons of blogs and articles on the web.
- ⛔ Not every page online may be trustworthy or good advice. Use your best judgment.
Growing your technical skills
You can expand your technical skills through any combination of these approaches: (1) Learn from your development counterparts, (2) Take a course, and (3) Read engineering blogs.
Here’s a little more on the pros and cons of each.
1. Learn from your development counterparts
Your development counterpart is an excellent ally in your pursuit of technical knowledge. I love talking to my dev lead about technical trade-offs. I pick his/her brain about why a certain component is designed to work a certain way. We go over the limitation of language A or B, chat about the design document s/he is writing, or go over best practices for hardening systems. You can learn a lot by asking the right questions in meetings and informal 1:1s.
Speaking of 1:1s, use those meetings wisely. If you have a good relationship with your dev counterpart or another developer on the team, they will be happy to teach you technical concepts that are unfamiliar to you. I’ve learned so much from talking to my dev leads about the products we build together. I didn’t know the first thing about Apple’s billing APIs before working on Hulu’s first in-app billing integration with Apple. Reading the API docs was helpful, but they raised a number of questions. The developer working with me on the feature was happy to answer my questions so we could make the best possible trade-offs for our users together. Whenever we were both stumped, we covered questions in our weekly calls with Apple. Every new feature or product offers a chance to build up your technical know-how.
Ask questions sparingly. You don’t want to be going to your team with basic questions that can be answered by a quick Internet search because that’s an easy way to knock down your credibility.
One caution I’d give you with this approach is to ask questions sparingly. Jot down acronyms, concepts, or terms that are unfamiliar and do a quick Google search on them first. You don’t want to be going to your team with basic questions that can be answered by a quick Internet lookup because that’s an easy way to knock down your credibility.
Questions about design and how/why your dev and test teams are making a given decision are all fair game. As a PM, you are an advocate for the user and should strive to design the best possible user experience within the constraints you’ve been dealt. A technical decision or trade-off may derail an entire feature and cause unexpected issues down the line. By working with your team to understand technical designs and decisions, you will learn and spot issues before a single line of code has been written.
- 🎯 A targeted approach to learning a technical concept in practice instead of just theory.
- ⛑ Every feature/product is an opportunity to build your technical know-how.
- 😧 May harm your credibility if your questions make your team feel you are slowing them down or do not know basic concepts.
- 📅 1:1s are short, limited in time, and sometimes focused on more urgent issues.
2. Take a course
Many PMs take advantage of courses to expand their technical knowledge. Popular sites like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and others offer online courses. You can also consider enrolling in an in-person class through a university or a boot camp-like program.
- 🙇 Provides a deep dive on a topic and can be invaluable in supplementing your knowledge.
- 🏫 Access to a professor/teacher/TA to answer questions or clarify concepts.
- ⏰ Very time-consuming.
- 💸 May be associated with a fee.
3. Read engineering blogs
Another great way to learn technical concepts is to read technology and engineering blogs. I love following the engineering blogs of companies that are known for good engineering practices. Facebook Engineering and the Netflix Tech Blog are two good examples. I used to read Twitter Engineering’s blog, too, and learned a great deal about visualizing company goals and measuring product development progress towards them from one of their blog posts.
While reading blogs may not be a particularly targeted way to learn, you will gain familiarity with how other companies do their work and become aware of the implementation approaches that other teams have tried. And though some of this knowledge may not be immediately useful, it may come in handy in the future. Just be aware that some of these blogs contain a level of technical detail that can be confusing. Do your best to skim to the parts of the content that are useful to you and try not to get overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar terms. After all, you are not a developer; getting the gist of the blog post is often enough.
- 🙌 Exposes you to engineering thinking and best practices.
- 🎉 Comes in handy while building products; pointing your team to a great, relevant blog post that helps them solve a tough problem builds your credibility! 👏
- 💬 Not a targeted learning approach.
- 😕 May contain a lot of unfamiliar concepts or too fine-grained technical detail.
I hope the tips I’ve shared will help you. Start with an hour a week, use your weekly priorities to find a balance between PM and technical know-how, then go beyond that first hour using the techniques I’ve described above.
I wish you the best of luck on your journey of continued learning! You’ve got this! ✊
Answer from Yana Welinder, Senior Product Manager at IFTTT
Always be learning
As product leaders, we have to always be learning. During the interview for my current role at IFTTT, one of the engineers highlighted the company values printed on the office wall and told me that I epitomized one of those values: “Always Learning.” He didn’t know it at the time, but he pretty much sold me on the job. Curiosity is vital for product thinking. And being at a place where that’s not only encouraged, but actively sought after, is incredibly exciting.
This week’s question asks how to balance staying current with both technical and product management best practices. While deciding what to learn can be tricky, I believe you can find that balance by dividing your learning effort between three things:
- Understand the tech behind your product
- Develop product management skills and thinking
- Become an expert in the industry served by your product
The best way to balance these learning areas is to think about what you need to learn and how it pertains to your daily work, so you can invest your time wisely.
Understand the tech behind your product
Most product managers worry about not having enough or the right type of technical knowledge for their product role. Some female PMs struggle with imposter syndrome when starting a new product role even if they ultimately end up being great at it. But it’s usually not very productive to try to gain a lot of technical skills just for the sake of having them, even for a particularly technical vertical.
In general, it’s a good idea to teach yourself to code (in any language!). Take the time to build something to get a sense of what engineers do. Pick an interesting side project that solves a need you have, rather than writing code for the purpose of developing a technical background.
Beyond that, the best way to gain relevant technical understanding is to talk with your engineers about the technology stack and identify gaps in your knowledge to read up on. You want to identify engineers who are good at explaining both specific concepts and the general architecture. They may start by describing the stack at a pretty high level. Over time, you want to ask questions to get a full understanding of what languages and frameworks the company uses and why. You want to understand where there’s technical debt and how it relates to future product initiatives — particularly in terms of performance, security, and implementation complexity — so you can make room for solutions that will be more robust over time. For me, this is an ongoing process as part of my role and not something that I set aside time for specifically.
You should feel confident in your technical grasp when you can think through new product initiatives, anticipate implementation issues, and comfortably brainstorm technical solutions with the engineers.
You should feel confident in your technical grasp when you can think through new product initiatives, anticipate implementation issues, and comfortably brainstorm technical solutions with the engineers. Engineers want you to provide product direction, ask good questions, and be a thought partner in how to design solutions and prioritize work for maximum product impact. In other words, they want you to help them figure out the right thing to build, but not tell them how to build it or review their code.
There are also related technical skills that PMs need to develop to understand what users need. For example, you want to understand and influence what data you collect about how users interact with the product. Depending on the data framework that your company uses, this may mean learning SQL (or a proprietary language like SPL for Splunk).
You also want to learn to use tools that effectively communicate product initiatives through flowcharts, wireframes, and mockups. To avoid disrupting how the team operates, learn the tools that they already use rather than bringing in new tools. Remember that there’s just one of you and many of them, so any time they spend trying to figure out how to leave a comment on your wireframe is a waste of time for the team.
Develop product management skills and thinking
While you can gain technical understanding organically in a product role, the same can’t be said of PM skills. You definitely want to set aside time to develop product skills and analyze related products to advance your product thinking. These skills are what you uniquely bring to the team. If you work at a company with many PMs, you may occasionally share product practices across the PM org, but PM techniques are generally not something that you will pick up from the team members you work with most closely every day. For me, this type of learning usually happens on weekends or other time off.
I usually tackle topics from my to-learn list that are most applicable to what I’m working on right now, then immediately apply what I’ve learned.
I find it helpful to keep a to-learn list. I usually tackle topics from that list that are most applicable to what I’m working on right now, then immediately apply what I’ve learned. This approach helps me to think critically about what I read and adapt it to my work in a way that makes sense for my particular product and team.
My list contains blog posts, talks, and books. Sometimes, it’s good to sit down with a book and a notebook, far from internet distractions and wikiholes. Some of my favorite PM books that I keep returning to during these sessions are Product Leadership and Product Management in Practice for product skills and Hooked for product thinking.
A huge bonus point of keeping a to-learn list is the satisfaction of ticking off items when you finish reading about them. Though in reality, you’re never done learning. 🤓
Become an expert in the industry served by your product
The third type of learning that you need to invest time in as a PM is building up domain expertise. In fact, this is the most important learning area. If you’re a PM for a self-driving car, you should spend most of your time learning about the auto industry and not C++ or how to use Aha!
If you’re a PM for a self-driving car, you should spend most of your time learning about the auto industry and not C++ or how to use Aha!
With the exception of the banking sector, hiring managers tend to deprioritize domain expertise when hiring PMs. This means most PMs have to develop their knowledge of the industry on the job. Personally, I’ve always been excited to get the opportunity to learn a completely new domain, so I’ve worked on very diverse products almost by design.
I’ve usually gained an understanding of the specific industry through three different activities:
- Market research. While reading about relevant market trends is super interesting, it’s the task that’s least connected to a PM’s regular work. Market research is something you need to consciously make time for as it’s imperative for developing the right product.
- Customer or user interviews. Interviews with customers or users provide a much deeper understanding of the problems you’re solving. Keep in mind, though, that there may be parts of the problem that users don’t have good insight into or aren’t able to articulate. To paraphrase the often misattributed Ford adage, users may ask for a faster horse when what they really need is a self-driving car.
- User data analysis. An analysis of user interviews and user interaction data helps build up domain expertise that can’t be learned elsewhere. In fact, you’re most likely to uncover critical insights about user needs from analyzing how users interact with your product. So although these tasks should really be part of a PM’s day-to-day work, it’s important to make room for this type of learning as it’s easy to get sucked into doing other work, particularly at a smaller company.
Finally, learn and unlearn
Reid Hoffman did an excellent interview of Barry Diller for his Masters of Scale podcast where he said:
“To move from one success to another, you have to learn to unlearn. Take everything that helped you win the first time, then discard it and learn a new way.”
That episode really struck a chord with me. As a PM, you constantly have to learn new things and sometimes that means having to set aside techniques that helped you achieve success in the past so you can use a better approach. You need to be comfortable leading under a lot of ambiguity and learning as you go.
It also means that the learning never ends. There’s no such thing as a perfected Product Manager. While that notion may be daunting for some, I love that aspect of our profession because it means there’s always something new waiting on the horizon.
I hope the tactics above help you find a balance in your learning and would love to hear any thoughts you have on my learning approach.