Nick Ang

Technical skills are not just for software developers

December 27, 2019

technical skills are not just for developers, they are useful for a variety of roles like Customer Success Managers and Product Managers

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

When you’re not sure about what a term like “technical skills” entail, you might relegate it to being something that is reserved for the specialists. In the case of technical skills, I had also always thought that only people who studied Computer Science in university or professional software developers possessed such skills. It has to do with coding, writing scripts, and building apps, or something like that. And that’s just not my thing.

I realise now that I have gone through the phase of being a software developer that I have been wrong all along. This post is to clarify why I have been wrong to think that technical skills are just for technicians.

Technical skills are not just for software developers. Although I’m not a developer at the moment, I still rely on my technical skills to do my job as a technical account manager and customer support engineer at my current full-time job. And I can see many of my colleagues potentially benefitting from having more technical skills in their various roles. I have also seen colleagues succeeding in having much more impact on our organisation after they became technical through the in-house programming bootcamp that I created at work (more on that in a later post).

The cost of this misconception is huge. It makes people foreclose the idea that they could debug issues, write scripts to automate laborious or repetitive tasks, before they even try. The result is a massive waste of potential for you and your employer.

Even if you don’t work in the tech industry, having technical skills can be tremendously beneficial to you at your current role.

Now let’s talk about some non-developer roles where people with technical skills are needed. From these, you should be able to tell how technical skills enable or enhance a person’s ability to execute their job better than their peers who don’t possess technical skills.

Companies need technical people other than developers

I’ve broken them up into two main buckets below: roles that need technical skills directly (enabling the person to do the job), and roles that need them indirectly (enhancing the person’s ability to do the job).

Directly needed:

  • Technical customer support engineer
  • Solutions engineer / Solutions architect
  • Technical consultant
  • Data scientist / Data analyst / Data engineer
  • … more

Indirectly needed:

  • Customer success manager
  • Product manager
  • General manager
  • Technical recruiter
  • Product designer / User experience designer
  • Graphic designer / Illustrator
  • … more

In this post, I will illustrate how technical skills can be useful for two common roles. If your role is similar to some of these, you should try to imagine what your day to day work could be like if you had some technical skills, assuming you don’t already possess some.

Customer success manager with technical skills

This applies mostly to people who work in a business-to-business (B2B) company. I learned quickly the value of technical skills to someone who is in a Customer Success Manager (CSM) role when I started working at Smartly.io.

It is obvious to me now but it still may not be for you, so let’s use a scenario that often comes up in the line of work of a CSM to illustrate the power of being technical.

At the core of their work, a CSM consults their client on how to use their company’s product. Smartly.io’s product is a complicated one because it is built on top of a lot of parts that move extremely rapidly. The Facebook advertising platform updates their API every 6 months or less with new features, so when a Smartly.io CSM meets one of our clients, it is common for him to have to dive in, explaining how some parts of the tool works and how, ultimately, the client could benefit from using parts of the tool.

Let’s take a recent example from my work. My colleague Anthony had to meet one of his large e-commerce clients to discuss how they could use a spreadsheet to manage all their advertising campaigns on Facebook for the upcoming Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale.

What the client wanted to do, which they described to both of us at the meeting, was to host their image and video assets in Google Drive and make our tool download those images via URLs embedded in a particular column in their spreadsheet. They would like to be able to simplify the process so that their performance marketing team can simply upload files and have them appear as downloadable URLs on a pre-specified spreadsheet.

Now, I should quickly explain that Anthony invited me to join the meeting with his client as the “technical person”. As a secondary part of my job, I attend these meetings so that we can unblock our customers in their work of creating advertisements targeted at the millions of users that their own company serves and may soon serve.

As you can imagine, unblocking them means enabling them to advertise, which in turn means unlocking advertising budgets flowing through our platform, of which our company takes a small percentage as a fee. And so it goes, successfully unblocking a client translates into more money spent through the platform. For Anthony, that means getting rewarded at the next quarterly performance review.

Without diving into the details of what we implemented for them, you should be able to see how if Anthony had the technical skills to write a script embedded in his client’s Google Sheets document, he might have been able to unblock his clients without my help.

This is not a matter of pride, but of expediency. The quicker Anthony is able to answer technical questions and solve technical problems, the more he is likely to be valued by his employer. Not needing to work out a suitable timing for a “technical person” like me to join the meeting saves a lot of time for him.

And here’s the kicker: if you have technical skills as a CSM, you will be sought after by many large companies with similarly complicated products so that you can help retain their customers and keep them paying for those products.

Ultimately for CSMs like Anthony, this means better job security, job prospects, and remuneration. In my time working for several B2B companies, I’ve witnessed many CSMs with technical skills leave for another company because of an “offer that was too good to refuse”. Your mileage may vary, but your gains will increase.

Product manager with technical skills

Next, let’s talk about Product Managers (PMs). I have several friends who are PMs at tech companies and because I’m personally interested in doing this kind of work some time in the future, I like asking them what their day to day work is like.

Selina is one the people I met from the programming bootcamp that we both attended several years ago. She has technical skills as a result of attending and graduating from that bootcamp, but she tells me that not all of her fellow product managers do.

I remember vividly when we were at a Starbucks in Suntec City in Singapore. We met so she could interview me as user research since I used their tech news app. At some point after she finished interviewing me, I asked her about her job as a product manager at this company. This was when she told me about how thankful she is to have gone through the programming bootcamp.

She starts by telling me that there are a few moments in a PM’s day where having technical skills means the difference between getting something done in 15 minutes or 3 days. For example, when someone in the customer-facing team asks her why it is still not possible for users to do X in the app, she is able to confidently respond by stating facts. Often times with apps, the thing holding back rapid development is something technical.

In scenarios like this, she told me, she is able to explain convincingly and in detail to the person asking why a feature’s development has been slow. Sometimes it is because that feature is not a priority. Other times, when it is a priority, development can be blocked by an outdated integration with an external API or something that needs a technical explanation. Because her explanations as a PM are usually quoted verbatim to customers directly by the customer-facing team, her ability to explain technical ideas clearly is extremely important for keeping customers happy.

The message here is clear: if you have technical knowledge, you will be better at managing people’s expectations. This is arguably a large part of most of our work as members of a larger team.

For her, she has also found that being skilled at coding has been useful in ensuring things work smoothly between her and her team of software engineers.

Selina tells me that because she is able to code at least some simple scripts and web apps, the developers in her team trust her much more to make product development decisions than her predecessor, who did not possess technical skills. (Yes, it is possible to be a PM without being technical, although maybe it shouldn’t.) You can imagine how important this trust from her developers is in enabling Selina to do her job well!

3 bullet summary

  1. People, including me, have a misconception that technical skills are somehow reserved for technicians like software developers
  2. In reality, many roles, like Customer Success Manager and Product Manager, are better executed by people with technical skills, and these people are rewarded for having those skills
  3. Don’t foreclose skills like coding, technical debugging, and automation scripting as skills you won’t need or cannot attain; instead, ask how you could benefit from having technical skills and take it forward from there

Written by Nick - I don't know but I'll learn (twitter)

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