Should You Learn To Code?

14th July 2021 / James Browne

In response to a question:

If you’re a “non-technical” product manager, is it worth learning to code?

A technical background can be your secret weapon as a product person if you can use it to get an advantage. Marty Cagan says: “Winning products come from the deep understanding of the user's needs combined with an equally deep understanding of what's just now possible.”

Can your technical knowledge give you the edge? Can you combine your deep technological understanding with your strategic view of the market to come up with that great “just now possible” product idea?

Tech-focused startups are the purest expression of this concept. The founder is a developer. They spotted a new technical development (the just now possible) and a business opportunity (the deep understanding of the user's needs), and they’ve taken the initiative to start a new company.

If you hit your coding bootcamp with your product manager’s commercial hat on, some hard problem may trigger a lightbulb moment for you. It could lead to a hot new product idea.

However, the reality will probably be a bit more mundane. In three months, with a lot of hard work and a bit of aptitude, you can get to the point where you could get a junior developer job somewhere. It’s unlikely that technical capability at that level will bring you your “deep understanding of the just now possible”.

What will it bring you?

You might improve your understanding of the choices and trade-offs made by the developers on your team. You might be able to follow the technical discussions in meetings without getting lost.

One of the tasks of the product manager is to build trust. Making this effort to learn how to code can build trust, respect and empathy in both directions between the product manager and engineers.

But technical knowledge is only a small piece of the pie. The responsibilities of a product manager are varied - take a look at Steven Haine’s Product Management Acumen Assessment to see how much else there is to master.

Even the most technical product manager will have blind spots where they have no experience. The blind spots will get worse with time as technology moves on and the product manager doesn’t have the time to keep up.

A skill that I’ve developed with experience is to not fear new technology, to grasp the abstractions around the new thing and fill out the technical details later. I think that this is a generalizable skill that everyone can practice. In fact, the point that everything is an abstraction is almost the first lesson in computer science before you even open your laptop.

Think about senior technical leadership - they don’t and can’t grasp the technical details of everything they do. They just don’t have the time. They rely on good mental models and good relationships with trusted colleagues who can fill them in on the essentials.

So perhaps that’s the thing to do: Look at the product you’re working on and the technical pieces you don’t understand and find - with help from your technical partners - the right language and abstraction that is just enough for you right now.

Coder’s coda:

You could treat learning to code the same as any other craft activity - find a small thing you want to make and learn how to do it. It can be enriching in and of itself. You'll get a reward out of it even if it's not financial. There's nothing quite like seeing something that you've personally built in use out there in the real world. It's like - I imagine - being a carpenter and sitting down to dinner with others at a table you made with your own hands.

James Browne

James Browne

Maker of internet things. Digital product person - into product management, building and running product teams and full stack web development.

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