Exploring IT Roles: What is a product manager?

IT product managers have the unenviable job of keeping all stakeholders happy while also delivering their product on time. Understanding coding can be essential for their skill set. Jaimie Stevens explains why.

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A product manager is responsible for the life cycle of a product's development. Understanding the technical side of the product development process is essential.
Illustration – Shutterstock
WorkingNation’s Jaimie Stevens.

I started researching what product managers do because I have, coincidentally, gone out with three product managers who had extensive coding experience. I wondered what part of their job required this skill.

As it turns out, having coding experience isn’t necessarily a requirement of being a product manager, it just complements it. I realized that knowing more about the position and sharing what I learned could contribute to this series.

So, without further ado, I am introducing you to a new segment of my “Starting Out in Tech” series—one where I explore IT roles so you can better understand where your background in coding can take you.

What is a product manager?

The role of a product manager can be hard to define because it can vary from company to company. The simplest explanation is that product managers are responsible for guiding the success of a product and leading the team that is responsible for improving it.

The product manager defines the why, when and what of a product that the engineering team builds. They take a product from conception to launch and are responsible for strategy, release, ideation, and features.

According to Glassdoor, product managers make an average of $108,978 a year, with the low being $74,000 and the high $150,000.

What does the job entail?

Being a product manager involves a lot of research about the market, the customer and the problem that they’re having that the product is trying to solve. This includes collecting feedback from clients, web analytics, quantitative data, market trends, and statistics. Product managers are the go-to people for understanding their product’s market, competition, customer base, and prospects.

The product manager puts together the primary tool to accomplish these goals—the product roadmap. Roadmaps demonstrate prioritization while balancing the needs of customers and stakeholders. Product managers use the roadmap to explain to stakeholders if something they want undermines the overall objective through evidence-based explanations in the product manager’s style of communication.

The job also involves working with the engineers behind the product to keep them on schedule and understanding the roadblocks preventing them from accomplishing what is needed.

The secret to being a good product manager is the ability to pick things up quickly. The skills required for a great product manager are design, marketing, engineering, communication, and general business.

Where does coding come into play?

It is harder to promote a product if you don’t understand how it is made.

Part of a product manager’s responsibility is to spend time with the development team to understand what the developers are talking about, synthesize their concepts and come up with a plan on how to bring a product to launch.

Part of a product manager’s job is collecting research, and they need to know where it originates. The best way to obtain reliable data is through having an understanding of how to use what tools are available to help facilitate that.

If a product manager knows how to collect and present data, experiment and demonstrate ideas through a prototype while speaking the language of the developers, they will be more valuable to their team and the development process.

What kind of background does becoming a product manager require?

Companies hire project managers from different backgrounds—some come from engineering and MBA paths while others have engineering backgrounds and no business degree. Some employers hire designers who are creative thinkers, while others look for people who have an understanding of the overall customer experience.

Typically, the minimum education level to be a project manager is a bachelor’s degree. This can be in business or a related field. College majors such as communications, marketing, economics, public relations, statistics, advertising, and management are common.

Sometimes, companies require a degree that’s affiliated with their industry, for example, education, agriculture or technology.

How can I get a product manager role if I have no technical skills right now?

One place to start when working towards a product manager position is in a job where you can get some customer interaction, like an entry-level job in sales or tech support.

This entails learning soft skills like communication and problem-solving while on the job. This pathway allows you to earn money and gain new skills while still developing your tech abilities on the side.

You can work your way toward a developer role first before moving on to a project manager position. Another plus to becoming a developer, you can work your way up without a degree in computer science or MBA. Obtaining certifications can be a more affordable and speedier path to this job.

RELATED STORY: Cracking the Code: IT-Ready opens the tech industry door

There are a number of ways to develop your coding skills on the side while working as a developer. Check out my previous articles on finding the right bootcamp for you, taking on side projects alongside your day job, and strengthening your skills on your own time.

Schools such as Product School, General Assembly, and UpGrad have recommended product management programs, but I encourage you to do further research before making a decision.

It’s a good idea to pursue programs focused on product management, which emphasize the importance of understanding the challenges of coding as opposed to the nitty-gritty of it.  Initially, you shouldn’t be overwhelmed with the intricate details of coding as a product manager, but you should understand the important concepts.

Learning Javascript is highly recommended for product managers, and it can come as a package deal with learning HTML. These will give you a better understanding of how client to server code works.

Learning SQL helps as well because it gives you a better understanding of the integrity of the data that you are collecting.

Based on what I’ve read, Python, Ruby and PHP could help too, but a lot of the time, the code language depends on the company and the product.

RELATED STORY: Why you should learn Python first

Understanding API’s is becoming increasingly more important for product managers. And no, an API is not a kind of beer. You can find out what out what an API is here and why it’s essential for product managers here.

What is important to keep in mind when starting out in product management?

As a beginner in coding, it can be exciting to want to share what skills you are learning. Eager product managers might want to try and advise the engineers on their coding. Don’t do that.

Project managers see the deadlines and business pressure up ahead and it’s part of their job to challenge the engineers in that regard. But it’s very important for the product manager to keep the challenges of the engineer in mind as well. That is where a project manager’s communication skills and tech understanding can have the most impact.

If project managers want the respect of the engineers, they have to understand the limitations of software development. It’s a team sport, and project managers are counted upon as leaders to know and explain problems and solutions clearly to all stakeholders.

If a project manager doesn’t have the solution for a development issue a good answer they can respond with is: “We don’t have the answer for this yet, but we do know that X happened and logically it happened because of X, Y and Z. These are our next steps to solving it.”

This is where a project manager’s data collection and communication skills come in handy. Understanding coding can be a part of getting to an honest, acceptable answer.

Man, if I had understood how much these product managers I went out with were dealing with, I would have bought their drinks!

This article is part of WorkingNation Associate Producer Jaimie Stevens’ “Starting Out in Tech” series where she shares her insight into becoming a computer programmer. Catch up on her previous articles here.

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