Learning Tech Basics for Non-Technical PMs

As a product manager without a technical background, I’ve faced challenges in getting a deep enough understanding of the tech used at my company to be able to effectively understand the conversations that I’m a part of.

In my past career as a UX director, I worked a great deal with various eCommerce systems (Websphere and Hybris) as well as CMSes (mostly Adobe Experience Manager). But now that I work at a B2B SaaS company, the technologies are considerably different. And since we’re 100% remote, it’s not possible to overhear developer chatter and pick up on context.

While obviously I can (and do!) ask the developers directly to explain key concepts, I’ve found some great resources online that have helped a great deal.

Every time that I hear a new technical term that I’m not familiar with during a meeting, I write it in a doc. When I have a free moment, I look it up and add a definition to the doc, creating a great resource for myself that grows over time.

In this article, I’ve listed out a variety of free and paid resources that might be helpful for others in a similar position.

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Book Review: Continuous Discovery Habits

Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value, by Teresa Torres


My notes from the book
My messy notes

Continuous Discovery is a how-to book, with a series of clear instructions on how to do discovery, definition, ideation, and assumption / value testing. It also explains the why behind each step.

Personally, I’m used to the model that looks something like Discover > Define > Design (& iterate) > Develop > Deliver > Measure (& iterate). I was expecting 100% of this book to fall into the Discover category, and was surprised when it went beyond that.

While Teresa does emphasize at a few points that her methods are meant to help develop the right mindset, rather than a be-all end-all “right” methodology, the book still ends up being mostly an instructional book. And since it covers a lot of ground, the book covers one methodology at each step.

So if you’re looking to go from goal setting all the way through assumption testing with a step-by-step instruction book, this book is for you. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of different discovery methodologies and ways to document discovery findings, look elsewhere.

The book does have a lot of practical tips that I plan to bring back to work.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 were the most valuable chapters for me.

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How vision, strategy, objectives, epics, and principles relate to one another

Book Review: Strong Product People

Strong Product People: A Complete Guide to Developing Great Product Managers by Petra Wille

When I was offered the opportunity to become Head of Product Management at my current job, I looked for resources to help inform my approach.

I couldn’t have dreamed up a better or more practical resource than Petra Wille’s Strong Product People. The book is simply packed full of useful, tactical, real-world advice.

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Blurred out view of the top half of our blueprint

Service Blueprints: A Tool for Mapping out Complex Problems

As a product manager, I recently had a new team added to my responsibilities. One of my new priorities was to help improve a complex flow that was taking a lot of our team’s time, and was the source of some pain points for our customers.

While there was a pre-existing idea of what we needed to do, I wasn’t sure it was the right first step to take. Instead, I wanted to take a look at the process more holistically, come up with ideas, and prioritize.
This flow involves our customers, people at our company in contact with the customers, and people at our company doing more work behind the scenes. It also involves our public website, our app, and multiple back-end systems.

Given the complexity, a service blueprint seemed like an obvious choice to help me understand what the flow is today, and how we could improve it in the future.

Example blueprint from Miro, with physical evidence, customer actions, onstage contact actions, backstage contact actions, and support processes
Example from Miro
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Showing PM at the intersection of technology, data, business, and UX

From UX Director to Product Manager

I recently gave a talk for UX Akron on the similarities and differences between being a UX director at an agency vs a client-side product manager. I made that switch mid-year 2020, after more than 6 years as a UX director.

I covered:

  • A brief definition of what a digital product manager is
  • The differences in terms of where I spend my time as a UX director vs a product manager within a given project
  • The skills needed for a product manager vs a UX director
  • Resources to learn more about becoming a product manager

You can watch a video of the presentation, look at the presentation itself, or check out my summary below.

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Example graph

Intro to SQL for Product Managers, Part 3

Please check out part 1 and part 2 if you haven’t already.

In this section, I’ll talk about a few ways to look at time when it comes to SQL queries.

Time is often an important piece of the puzzle for a product manager.

How many people have done x in the last 30 days? How many people did x within 7 days of signing up? How has our cancellation rate changed over time? How many people did x before we made a change vs after? etc.

Queries to figure out any of that require a good understanding of how to make the appropriate queries in SQL.

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Example Product Manager Data Analysis Tools & Usage

Example of Google Analytics (from my blog) - shows a pageviews graph and table.
(Note: This is from my blog, not the app I work on)

Here’s a look what data tools I use as a product manager, and what I use them for. This might be useful for those who aren’t yet PMs, or those who are and are curious how others look at information. I’m sure it differs between companies.

For reference, I work at a B2B SaaS (business-to-business software-as-a-service) company.

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Product Management One-Pagers

Once I’ve determined what problems to tackle in the near term, I find it useful to create a “one-pager” to synthesize my thoughts around a problem/project. This is after the point where discovery research has been done, and I’ve talked with the team (including tech leads, designers, and another product manager) about the idea. 

I’ve listed the sections I found most useful to include, both for myself to confirm it’s a project worth tackling, as well as for the designer to read before they start designing. (Keep in mind, I’m only a few months into being a product manager! But this is what I’ve done so far)

For me, these are to help guide the team as they begin thinking through details; it’s not meant as a functional requirements document, nor should it be overly prescriptive. 

Several resources are included at the end of this article; I highly encourage you to check out John Cutler’s article and/or video for some great insights and frameworks around this idea.

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Screenshot of the landing page of People & AI Guidebook from Google

AI resources (for non-developers)

I was lucky enough to start my job as a product manager just as a machine learning project was underway! I was able to jump on board and get involved.

I’m glad I have built up a basic knowledge of machine learning over the past few years, as it was very helpful in being able to ask the right questions and have quality conversations with the lead developer.

I want to share some machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) resources for non-developers interested in learning more.

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Product Manager roles vs. UX Director roles

I’m in the process of moving from being a UX Director to being a Product Manager.

Along the way, I found it quite interesting just how similar the two roles often are, at least based on the job description. Others considering switching between the two roles might find this useful – in fact, as soon as I posted that I was making that move, someone messaged me to ask about the difference!

I may write more about the overlap once I actually start as a product manager, but for now, here’s a quick look at some of the similarities and differences in job descriptions between the two, taken from a few different job postings (listed at the end).

Note: both roles are defined fairly differently from company to company, so always read descriptions carefully. And take this with a grain of salt, as these are based on just a handful of examples.

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