Blog Career Guidance Do Product Managers Need to Code?

Do Product Managers Need to Code?

From consumer goods to entertainment to technology, impactful and efficient product managers (PMs) are in high demand across a wide variety of industries. And with Glassdoor recently ranking product management as the 4th best job in the United States with 12,000+ listings (up 2X over the past five years), the path seems well-positioned to sustain its growth for the foreseeable future. Here at Udacity, we’ve been at the forefront of the space since the launch of our School of Product Management in 2020 – and its Product Manager Nanodegree program regularly ranks among the top-rated courses in our catalog to this day.

And what would an in-demand career path be without a few friendly debates on industry topics? One of the age-old questions from individuals interested in pursuing product management is whether or not they need to be able to code in order to be successful. Either side of the issue can make a compelling case, so in this guide, we’ve laid out the pros, cons, and recommended next steps to allow you to decide which is best for your specific situation. Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

The Evolving Role of Product Managers

What is Coding: Definitions & Basic Concepts

The Debate: Is Coding Truly A Must-have for Product Managers?

Ideal Coding Languages for Product Managers

The Impact of Coding Knowledge on Product Manager Salaries

Coding in Product Management FAQs

The Evolving Role of Product Managers

In the ever-shifting tech landscape, the role of product managers has evolved significantly since its inception. Traditionally, the primary role of product managers was focused on defining product vision, market research, and aligning various teams to achieve product-related objectives. However, in recent years their role has expanded to encompass a deeper understanding of technical aspects and even more direct involvement in the development process.

This is due in large part to advancements in technology at large. Data analytics, for instance, has become a cornerstone in decision-making. Product managers today need to be well-versed in interpreting data trends to make informed decisions about product development, customer engagement, and market strategies. This shift has moved the role from merely overseeing product lifecycles to actively shaping them based on real-time data insights.

The Traditional vs. Modern Product Manager

Let’s dive a little deeper into what we’ll call the ‘traditional PMs’ of the past as compared to the ‘modern PMs’ we commonly see today. The traditional product manager was more of a liaison between the various arms of a company – marketing, sales, and development. Their role helped ensure the product met market needs and aligned with the company’s vision. The modern product manager, on the other hand, is much more than a bridge between departments. With technology’s integration into nearly every aspect of business, modern product managers are now expected to be involved in the technicalities of product development as well. They aren’t just the visionaries but also the strategists who understand the nuts and bolts of how a product is built and functions.

This evolution is partly due to the increasing complexity of products, especially in the tech industry. Today’s products are often made up of sophisticated software and hardware components, necessitating a deeper technical understanding from the product manager. The modern product manager needs to be up-to-speed on the latest technologies, methodologies, and tools used in product development – from Agile and Scrum frameworks to the intricacies of software engineering.

How Technology is Changing the Product Management Landscape

The integration of technology into product management goes beyond mere familiarity with digital tools. It also embraces and leverages technology to enhance product development and user experience. Take the integration of AI into products, for example. In the past, product managers would have more than likely delegated any sort of task involving this technology to external teams. Today, AI enables PMs to help deliver a more personalized experience to users, and collect data to get a better understanding of customer needs and improve products as a result. Due to this reality, PMs having a familiarity with the technologies they are deploying is an invaluable skill in making informed product decisions at every level of the customer journey. 

In essence, technology has not only changed the tools at the disposal of product managers – it has redefined the scope and depth of their role overall. As technology continues to advance, the role of product managers will likely continue to shift alongside it, blending technical expertise with traditional management skills to meet the ever-changing demands of the digital world.

What is Coding: Definitions and Basic Concepts

Whether or not you choose to pursue coding mastery as a PM, knowing the fundamentals of coding will help you better understand the problems at hand, communicate with stakeholders, and more accurately project product pipelines. A PM who understands the basics of coding can foresee the technical feasibility of proposed features and better estimate timelines and resources needed. They can also anticipate potential challenges in development, allowing for more realistic and effective planning. For instance, understanding the limitations of a particular programming language can guide the PM in shaping a product feature that is both innovative and achievable.

With that in mind, here are some foundational concepts in coding:

  • Programming Languages (e.g., Python, JavaScript): The basic tools for building software. Python is known for its simplicity and wide application in data science, while JavaScript is essential for web development.
  • Source Code: The written code that forms the basis of what a program does. It is essentially the blueprint from which software applications are built and maintained.
  • Version Control (like Git): A system for tracking changes in code, crucial for collaborative development. It allows multiple developers to work on the same project without conflicting changes and helps in maintaining a history of code modifications.
  • APIs (Application Programming Interfaces): Sets of protocols for building and integrating software applications. They allow different software systems to communicate with each other, enabling functionalities like payment processing or data retrieval from external sources.
  • Frameworks and Libraries: Collections of pre-written code used to handle common tasks. Frameworks provide a basic structure to build applications, whereas libraries offer specific functionalities that can be integrated into different programs.

Why Coding Matters in Product Management

When it comes to improving communication with technical stakeholders across an organization, coding knowledge is a valuable asset to have. When a PM has a grasp of coding concepts, it closes the gap between the non-technical and technical, fostering better collaboration and understanding. This shared language allows for more precise discussions about product capabilities and limitations, leading to more informed decision-making. For example, understanding the basics of source code management can help product managers effectively discuss version control practices with developers, leading to smoother workflow and product development processes.

The Debate: Is Coding Truly A Must-have for Product Managers?

The question of whether coding is essential for PMs sparks a nuanced debate in the tech industry. Here’s a structured look at the arguments for and against coding skills for product managers:

Advantages of Knowing How to Code

Coding knowledge can be a significant asset for PMs, offering a range of benefits, particularly in team communication and decision-making:

  • Improved Communication with Developers: Understanding coding languages and concepts allows PMs to have more meaningful and precise conversations with developers. This leads to clearer communication of product visions and technical requirements.
  • Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills: Coding knowledge helps in identifying and addressing technical challenges early in the development process. It allows product managers to propose feasible solutions and alternatives, improving the problem-solving efficiency of the team.
  • Informed Decision-Making: Product managers with coding skills can make more informed decisions about product features and prioritization, understanding the technical feasibility and resource implications.
  • Increased Credibility: Coding skills can enhance a PM’s credibility within a technical team, facilitating smoother collaboration and respect.
  • Agile Response to Change: Coding knowledge enables PMs to adapt quickly to technological changes and innovations, ensuring that their products stay relevant and competitive.

The Flip Side: Potential Drawbacks of Coding Skills

While coding skills can be beneficial for product managers, there are potential drawbacks when these skills are overemphasized:

  • Role Confusion: When Product Managers delve too deeply into coding, it can blur the lines between their strategic role and the technical roles of the development team. This can lead to role confusion and dilute the effectiveness of both the manager and the team.
  • Neglect of Core Responsibilities: Focusing excessively on coding might cause PMs to lose sight of their primary responsibilities such as market analysis, customer engagement, and overall product strategy.
  • Overstepping Boundaries: An overemphasis on coding can lead to micromanaging the development team, undermining their expertise and autonomy. This can cause resentment to build within the team.
  • Reduced Perspective Diversity: A PM too involved in coding might become overly focused on technical solutions, potentially overlooking user experience and market trends that are critical for product success.
  • Inefficient Use of Time: Product managers with advanced coding skills might be tempted to take on coding tasks themselves, which can be an inefficient use of their time and detract from their broader strategic functions.

Ideal Coding Languages for Product Managers

Okay, with the pros and cons now covered, let’s move on to which languages PMs should prioritize if they decide to learn coding. 

  • Python: Python is ideal for AI, machine learning, data analysis, automation, and backend development. Its ease of learning makes it a great starting point for PMs.
  • JavaScript: As the backbone of web development, JavaScript is crucial for understanding client-side functionality, enhancing user interfaces, and working on web-based products.
  • SQL: Essential for managing databases, SQL helps PMs to query and analyze data, an invaluable skill for making data-driven decisions.
  • HTML/CSS: While not programming languages per se, HTML and CSS are fundamental for web development, helping PMs understand web page structure and design.

Choosing the right language will depend on your industry, product type, and team structure – so treat these merely as recommendations. For instance, Python is beneficial in data-heavy fields, while JavaScript is key for web-based product development. Understanding the technical stack of their team and the nature of their products can guide PMs in selecting the most relevant language to learn. The key here is to choose a language that enhances your ability to communicate effectively with your team and contribute to product strategy and development.

The Impact of Coding Knowledge on Product Manager Salaries

Coding knowledge can positively impact the salary potential of PMs. Studies and industry data suggest that product managers with technical skills, including coding, often command higher salaries compared to their non-technical counterparts. This is due to the added value they bring in understanding and contributing to the technical aspects of product development.

Coding skills can also open up other career opportunities. PMs with a strong technical background are often preferred for leading roles in tech-heavy projects or companies, leading to positions with greater responsibility and higher compensation. In rapidly changing tech sectors, this technical expertise can be a crucial factor in career progression, setting the stage for roles such as Chief Technical Officer (CTO) or Head of Product – which have an average annual salary of $194,000 and $187,000, respectively, according to Indeed.

FAQs: Common Questions About Product Managers and Coding

What coding languages should product managers learn?
Python and JavaScript are ideal for product managers, given their relevance in data analysis and web development, respectively. SQL and HTML/CSS are also beneficial for database management and understanding web interfaces.

Do product managers need to be technical?
Not necessarily, but in most cases, it’s recommended. While technical skills are advantageous, especially in tech-centric industries, many PMs excel with strong business sense, market insight, and leadership skills.

Who should not be a product manager?
Individuals who prefer working in highly specialized or isolated roles, and those who struggle with multifaceted decision-making or cross-functional collaboration, may find the product manager role challenging.

Is it hard to get a job as a product manager?
Securing a job as a product manager can be competitive, requiring a blend of strategic thinking, industry knowledge, and often some technical understanding, depending on the sector.

Preparing for a PM Role: Coding or Not

No matter if you decide to learn how to code or not, there are several other essential skills to acquire in order to have a successful career as a product manager: 

  • Strategic Thinking: Ability to envision and plan product roadmaps aligning with business goals.
  • Market Insight: Understanding customer needs, market trends, and competition.
  • Communication Skills: Effectively conveying ideas and collaborating with diverse teams.
  • Problem-solving: Tackling challenges creatively and efficiently.
  • Leadership Abilities: Leading teams and driving product vision to fruition.

Developing a career path in product management involves honing these core skills. Aspiring PMs should engage in continuous learning, seek mentorship, and gain experience through internships or project management roles. Networking and staying updated on industry trends are also crucial. For those inclined towards technical PM roles, regularly taking coding courses and attending workshops will set you up for success as well.

Your Path to Product Management Starts With Udacity…

Here at Udacity, we have a robust backlog of highly-reviewed courses and Nanodegree programs to help you become a successful, in-demand product manager. No matter if you’re still weighing the pros and cons of the career, or are a seasoned veteran PM looking to sharpen your skills, we have the content to keep you well ahead of the curve. 

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