Digital Product Managers should be able to code

Aspiring Digital Product Managers often ask me if they need to know programming to do their job. I always used to say ‘no’, but now I’ve changed my mind.

As a Digital Product Manager, you own the value and purpose of your team’s work. You are responsible for the vision and the ‘why’. Understanding ‘how’ is the job of your colleagues who are all focused on delivering the vision.

You are never going to be an expert in all the domains of practice in your multi-disciplinary team. You shouldn’t be. You’ve hired designers, user researchers, performance analysts, developers and data scientists to be experts in their craft, so give them space to own their specialism.

So a Digital Product Manager should never write code at work. But I think that you should be able to write some rudimentary code, having had a serious play around, because it will help you think better as a Product Manager.

As Product Manager you should have a sustained critical engagement with the core domains driving value for your product. And you should be interested in the frontiers of value in your team’s work. If you’re a Digital Product Manager that probably means learning about digital technology.

You don’t need a computer science degree or technical background – a humanities degree is a strong fit, given the need to understand what ‘value’ means in a number of different domains, and to synthesize, integrate and communicate this understanding. What matters is curiosity, excitement, optimism and a lot of dour pragmatism.

When working with a user researcher, you don’t tell them how to do their job. But you know the types of question to ask, and how to interrogate and work with the answers. You need to be able to do the same thing with technology – you can’t just leave it as a magic black box. You need to be able to critically engage with software engineering to at least the same level of competence as the other specialisms in your team, and probably more, given its central role in defining what is possible. What’s special is that your engagement is focused on value rather than delivery.

Explore, ask questions, and continually think about how this domain might relate to the problems that your product is trying to solve.

Some practical next steps: If you want to be a Product Manager, learn what a function is, have an appreciation of boolean logic and ‘if’ statements, get your hands dirty writing some poorly laid-out code and deal with the consequences, play with an API or two to see the kind of value they provide, store some material in a database, play around with something that you find fun and interesting. I’ve written some guidance on learning programming here. There might be other specialisms in your team where your knowledge falls a bit short – such as data science. Take the same approach there.

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