There is a common misconception in Product Management that one needs a technical background or an MBA to be a successful Product Manager. We sat down with Nkem Nwankwo, a Senior Product Manager at BetterCloud, to discuss these misconceptions while also taking a looking at improving agility.
Product Gym: How much of an advantage do you feel you have with a Computer Engineering background?
Nkem: That’s a great question, one I get all the time. I think it’s a huge advantage honestly, from the Project Management portion of it to communicate with the engineers. When you speak with engineers, you want to be able to speak their language. Having a technical background, I know what it’s like to be on that side. To be able to speak in technical terms is invaluable, really. I also understand the development process, how long things will take to create, etc. I can also place a higher value on their work because I understand the level of effort they put in. I want them to feel like they’ve played a crucial part in the project, which they have. My technical background plays into both the technical and emotional side of things. If you don’t have a Computer Engineering background, then you can develop these things on your own. It will take a lot more work, however.
Product Gym: I see. When I talk to a lot of people who come from Software Development backgrounds, they feel that because sometimes they’re too technical, it puts a lot of distance between themselves and the business-side stakeholders. Would you say there are any disadvantages to being too technical as a Product Manager?
Nkem: Absolutely. When you’re too technical and know the Product Managment itself too well, you mentally set limitations for the development of that product. What you need to do if you’re really technical is get yourself out of the weeds, and push your team in a way that they might not normally be pushed. Something that’s really good about a Product Manager who’s new to a space is that, for lack of a better word, they’re ignorant to how things are actually developed. They can ask questions and spark innovation by introducing new ideas and perspectives.
Product Gym: You have such a diverse background, so what is your definition of Product Management?
Nkem: My definition of Product Management is doing whatever it takes to get your product through. It’s thoroughly communicating your ideas while at the same time ensuring the success of that product, and making sure that customers are happy with it.
Product Gym: I also saw that you have a lot of experience with agile. One of the questions we get the most from students seeking Product Manager jobs is, “How would you make a team more agile?” What’s your take on this question?
Nkem: The most important thing in agile is the ability to get feedback fast, sooner rather later. The number one thing I would recommend is to focus on how we get our ideas out to customers as soon as possible so we could get quick and helpful feedback. If you are not doing that, then you are not taking proper advantage of the agile. The best thing you could do to speed up the agile process is to rapid prototype from a UX standpoint. That is so critical, and a low-risk method. Another way is to really, from a Product Management standpoint, to consider the biggest value we’re going deliver to our customers. Break these things down and order them from least to most important. Start to discuss what fundamentals/foundation needs to be put out to make this product deliverable after a certain period. You want to make the “north star” clear to the team, and have a thorough understanding of the underlying effort in developing that product. Don’t dig yourself into a structure that you can’t modify or add anything to.
Product Gym: For people trying to make the transition to Product Management, do you think it’s necessary to have an M.B.A to be a good Product Manager?
Nkem: You absolutely do not need an M.B.A to be a good Product Manager. To be a good Product Manager, you need to have an understanding of the product as well as an understanding of who you’re making the product for. An M.B.A doesn’t satisfy either of those things. What will help you is talking to customers, really getting down and dirty, reading a bunch of material on the problem in the space, and doing your research technically on the logistics of developing that product. It will take extra effort on your behalf to actually do this correctly and effectively. An M.B.A program will not teach you this.
There are new programs that focus on teaching Product Management, however, I feel like the discipline isn’t mature enough to have a concrete definition for what being a Product Manager may entail. If you’re seeking an M.B.A, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. As I said before, an M.B.A doesn’t teach you how to be a good Product Manager. Try to have an idea of what type of Product Development you’re interested in, and why you’re interested.
Product Gym: What books, blogs, podcasts or other resources would you recommend to aspiring Product Managers?
Nkem: My favorite book as a Product Manager is Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. It provides a good analysis of what a Product Management position should be, and how other companies may get this wrong. Another one would be, Cracking the PM Interview by Gayle. It’s a really useful guide for aspiring and practicing product managers alike. The podcast Exponent, hosted by Ben Thompson, is also very useful and provides many resources for those interested in the tech industry.
About Nkem Nwankwo:
Nkem Nwankwo is a Software Engineer and Product Manager, with a strong background in Computer Science. He earned his B.S in Computer Engineering from Georgia Tech and his M.B.A in Entrepreneurship/Entrepreneurial Studies from University of Michigan. Nkem is currently a Senior Product Manager at BetterCloud.