Are You A Product Manager? Here’s Why You Should Learn Code

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Code on the wall image

CC Image Courtesy of Nat Welch on Flickr

Is coding a job requirement for product managers? That’s a concrete question with a simple answer: No. It’s certainly possible for a product manager to capably bring a production from idea to market, guiding and managing engineers and designers along the process, and ensuring that the product is both loved and profitable, without writing a single line of code. When the question shifts to should product managers learn to code, the answer becomes a bit more subtle.

Ask several PMs if coding is necessary, and you’ll receive many different responses, depending on the background and the responsibilities of their particular positions. At some companies, coding knowledge is a prerequisite for the job, but at others, coding isn’t required for day-to-day competence. For instance, Adam Sigel, a product manager at Aereo, writes, “Aereo has lots of talented developers, and I’d only be getting in the way if I started screwing around with the code.”

However, in a survey of MBAs at Harvard Business School who had attended an introductory computer science class, 83 percent said taking the class was worth it — the remainder were uncertain if the class was beneficial. Even if a PM position doesn’t require coding, having at least a background-level knowledge can help product managers greatly with their day-to-day tasks. Here are a few advantages provided by having a basic understanding of coding:

1. Stronger Communications

Here’s where you’ll get one of the biggest advantages: As a PM with a coding knowledge, you’ll literally speak the same language as developers. While you won’t be the best coder in the room, you also won’t be the only non-coder in the room. This background knowledge will strengthen your ability to communicate with the team.

2. Getting Products Out on Time

A knowledge of coding, and direct experience with the frustrations involved with hitting a wall in terms of the next steps, will give you a more empathetic sense of the pitfalls and problems that can occur along the road to release. Prioritizing work, and in general making sure the trains run on time, is such a vital part of the PM’s job description — having a bit of hands-on knowledge of how even a simple-seeming problem can be challenging from a developer’s perspective is highly advantageous.

3. Hiring Great People

 If hiring is a part of your position as PM, then a knowledge of the coding process will be incredibly helpful during recruiting. An interview will be more meaningful if when you ask about a specific problem the developer has confronted, and how it was solved, you can follow along with the answer.

One possible pitfall of a PM’s knowledge of coding might be mistaking your basic understanding for the thorough, graduate-level knowledge that your developers possess. You should ask question, but trust your development team’s judgement as to the best solution and the accurate time estimate. But fundamentally, as Ken Norton, a former product manager at Google, writes, “Having a solid engineering background gives a PM two critical tools – the ability to relate to engineers and a grasp of the technical details driving the product.”

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