How technical should a product manager be in telecoms?

When you apply for a product manager role in a high-tech industry like telecommunications, you sometimes wonder how much you need to know about the technology to be successful in the role. It is a natural question for many because if you are to be the product manager and someone who will be making product decisions, you need to understand what you are dealing with, right? If you find yourself in a situation where you are questioning these things, don’t worry, you are not alone.

Are product managers technical people?

A product manager, in simple terms, is expected to understand customer needs and build the products accordingly. If your product is directly helping a customer deal with a technical challenge, then a technical background will only help you understand the issue a bit better and more importantly, it will make it easier for you to devise an accurate solution. On the other hand, if your product is helping a customer solve a challenge that isn’t technically complex (even if the solution is technical), you may still be able to devise a good solution with them as long as you have the necessary support from your technology teams. In the telecom sector, especially mobile communications, you’ll always build products that have some sort of specialised platform or network entity behind them. But the customer needs may not always be technically complex.

There is no hard definition specifying exactly what a product manager should or shouldn’t do. You will surely come across a “standard” list of responsibilities for product managers including strategy, roadmap, business case, product requirements, business analysis, stakeholder management, customer journey and so on. These responsibilities do define some of the things product managers do in their day-to-day lives, however, product management roles differ considerably in many companies depending on many factors. We are not going to cover all factors, but there are some that are more relevant for the technical vs. non-technical question. Let’s dive into them a bit deeper now.

Does your company need a product manager or a product architect?

Product strategy is essential for every product within a company, but not every product manager is required to be the one to come up with the strategy. If you work in a rather large organisation with a highly hierarchical structure, it may be that you have specific teams that focus on the business strategy. These teams may work with other senior teams and get their guidance from the overall company strategy to establish what that means for their portfolio of products. That strategy may then be taken as an input by the product managers for their respective products. To be clear, it doesn’t mean that every large organisation operates in this way but if you are part of a team with a large number of products, then you do need someone specifically focusing on the strategy to make sure that all products fit into the company and portfolio strategy. Otherwise, it may lead to an unorganised approach where there may be multiple products for some part of the strategy and not that many for the other parts. What it means for the product managers is that they may end up with a slightly heavier focus on the delivery aspects of the product so a bit more technical.

Is your product for the end customer or someone else?

Some products are not fully or at all designed for end customers and are more for other companies to either assemble, use, or bundle with other offerings. For example, if a company XYZ creates an app that allows people to make credit/debit card payments, the company XYZ may need other companies to buy and use this app to sell their own products. It means that XYZ doesn’t deal with the end customers directly but the companies that use XYZ’s credit/debit card payment solution are the ones who deal with the end customers. In that case, the other companies will be the ones focusing on the customer needs and journey, and company XYZ may primarily be getting product requirements through those companies. Depending on the product, the requirements may be at a feature level and hence a bit more inclined towards being technical in nature.

Is your customer a technical organisation?

Depending on who the end customer is, it may be that you are positioned on the market as a supplier who doesn’t directly engage with the end customers. For example, let’s assume that you work as a product manager for a telecom vendor like Ericsson or Huawei, and the product you manage is a software that takes performance management statistics from OSS (Operational Support Systems) and provides to mobile operators like Vodafone, T-Mobile, etc. In a role like that, you may need to interact with the technology teams of the mobile operators from time to time who will be your customers. You will need to be able to convince them that the product you are offering is better than those from the competitors. This would require you to go into the details of the features and the discussions may become quite technical. You may also need to produce documents involving technical content and you may also be required to provide input to technical authors. Of course, you can get support from your technology or delivery teams but you will still be required to form an understanding of the capabilities of your products and why they are needed.

Let’s now look at another example which is the opposite of the earlier one. In this example, we assume that you work as a product manager within a mobile operator and your product is an app that allows customers to be able to send and receive instant messages (IM) for FREE over the mobile network. For a product like that, the customer can be anyone and their need is also not as complex as it was in the earlier example. Understanding the customer need, in this case, may not require you to go into the technical details yourself. If you understand the need, you can speak to your technical partner within your engineering team (e.g. Solution Architect). The solution will still be a technical one as you would need a platform to do this but as long as you have understood the needs and defined the product requirements correctly, your technology partner can help you devise a solution.

At a functional level, it may be that your company employs multiple product managers for the same product, some focusing on the technical aspects while others on the commercial and marketing aspects. But these are the kind of questions you can ask when you come across product management roles. Recruiters don’t always know these details, but if you ask proactively, they may check with the employer on your behalf. Alternatively, these things can be checked directly with the hiring manager when you speak to them as part of your interview.

Does your company follow an Agile approach?

In many roles, especially those that involve complex software development, companies tend to use an Agile methodology. However in some larger organisations, due to many factors including the overall governance, it may be more practical to use a mixed approach. The mixed approach may use some elements of Agile but may also include various formal checkpoints like “Gates” in order to align with the wider organisation in terms of where they are in the process and budget etc. In Agile roles that involve software development, a certain level of technical awareness helps especially if the role is centred around building APIs to integrate what you are developing with other applications.

Conclusion

To sum up, it is safe to say that every product management role is different and it is important to clarify the “inclination” of the role before you start or soon after. If you are mindful of the points mentioned above, you may already find some of the answers in your first discussion about a role with the hiring manager. The bottom line is that it is worth knowing these aspects before taking on a new role so that you understand which parts of the role are more aligned with your strengths and which parts are not. To be clear, if something isn’t aligned with your strengths, you can still learn it, but only YOU know how willing you are to learn it. This way you can manage your own expectations and also those of the employer.

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