Do Product Managers Need to Code?

One of the most common questions aspiring Product Managers ask is: Do you need to learn how to code? In this blog post, we'll look at the pros and cons of learning how to code as a PM.

Francis del Rosario
May 26, 2023

With the promise of not needing degrees to get into the tech industry, many career shifters see working in tech as an easy way to land a six-digit job and escape the monotony of their current careers.

And while it’s a valid sentiment, shifting into tech requires more than a passing whim. An online certificate alone is not enough. The tech market is currently undergoing layoffs and saturated with entry-level talent, that many are asking if it’s still worth to pivot into tech.

One of the likely destinations for non-tech talent is Product Management. The role does not normally require technical skills you’d get from a Computer Science degree. Nor does it require you to go to expensive developer or design bootcamps to bridge the technical gap. The role of a Product Manager is varied. Different companies require different things from their PMs, so the scope of work varies by quite a large margin - although certain components remain the same across the board.

product manager on his laptop

This variance in job scope results to many aspiring Product Managers constantly asking whether PMs need to code.

There’s quite a bit of conflicting opinions, so in this article we’ll go through some of the reasons why you should or should not learn how to code as a Product Manager.

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What does a Product Manager do in the first place?

Before we can assess whether there’s a necessity for Product Managers to code, let’s set our baseline of what Product Managers do in the first place.

In general, Product Managers are conduits of information collecting feedback from the top (upper management, investors), bottom (product execution team), and outside (customers, market movements) stakeholders. A PM is then tasked to synthesize all these data into a coherent product strategy and guide the product development towards being a profitable proposition.

Now that that’s clear, let’s move on to the reasons why PMs should learn how to code.

Why should Product Managers learn to code?

Learning how to code can help Product Managers on different facets of product development. Some more than the others, but it also ties into the PM’s immediate, medium, and long-term goals.

product manager thinking

Reason No. 1: You will have a better technical understanding of your product.

Since you know how to code, you can communicate better with your engineers. Having the right technical vocabulary gives you a head start compared to non-technical PMs. This leads to increased credibility when dealing with the development team because they know - that you know - what you’re talking about.

Conversations flow faster as a result as you can explain concepts, actionable items, and deliverables relatively more effectively as everyone is aligned. You don’t need someone else to explain what X feature does, and what kind of Y effects it will have if we do Z. Explaining your product decisions to stakeholders will be anchored on solid technical understanding and makes you much more convincing.

Reason No. 2: You will have a more accurate project estimation.

One of the problems with being a Product Manager who doesn’t know how to code, is that you have no way of knowing if you are being given sensible estimates. A lot of the time, new PMs with no technical understanding will give in to whatever timeline their development team sets for them precisely because they have no reliable frame of reference yet. On other accounts, it can also swing the other way. Neophyte PMs sometimes set unrealistic standards much to the chagrin of the development team.

If you know how to code, you can account for the time spent on buffers caused by the attending intricacies of the project. You can make pretty valuable judgment calls on how productive your team should and must perform given the resources allotted to them. The key is learning how to find the balance and what’s reasonable — and knowing how to code helps a ton in letting you arrive at an accurate estimation.

a man and a woman developer, thinking

Reason No. 3: You can strategize and grow as a PM more effectively

At the outset, having a technical background already expands the array of projects that can be assigned to you. Some features require a more technical understanding of the product to be an effective PM. These are often gated away for non-technical PMs, and companies usually hire a specific technical product manager for them.

In the future, climbing the product ladder will eventually grant you the power to hire people in your team. Knowing how to code gives you a fair assessment of potential team members’ technical proficiency. This is helpful as Product Managers live and die with how much they can amplify their product team.

Knowing how to code also puts you in a special place to determine which emerging technologies are pure hype or actually groundbreaking. Knowing so gives you the advantage to join early product teams that have the potential to scale exponentially in the future.

Why should Product Managers NOT learn to code

Now let’s move on to reasons why coding may not be the best time investment for Product Managers.

software developer coding inside a dark room

Reason No. 1: Coding is a hammer to a door lock

While knowing how to code is great in terms of understanding the technical aspect of the product, it’s rare for Product Managers to need to dig deep into the nitty-gritty details of coding.

When the question is how to ship a profitable MVP in a saturated market with little profit margin — the answer is not often found on learning how to fix a Flexbox or do Arrays.

PMs should know how to communicate with their development team - yes - but not do their job for them. Not only does this signify a lack of trust to the development team, it also disregards the reason why they were hired in the first place - to apply their domain knowledge and build the product. You should be interested in why a certain stack was used and not how, and then trust them.

Reason No. 2: Product Managers are Product Managers - not Coders

It already goes without saying that Product Management is an entirely different craft compared to Software Development. Likewise, it also follows that being a Product Manager requires a different kind of skillset compared to Software Developers.

In a true product-led team, Product Managers, have at their disposal, a competent development team who can execute the product vision for them. And that’s because Product Managers should instead be focusing on product management responsibilities that actually move the needle for the organization. Whether that’s talking more closely to customers, improving the process flow, or doing market research — PMs can leverage more value by doing the tasks they are designed to do. Focusing too much on handling coding responsibilities take away from the much more important, high-ticket tasks PMs should be focusing on.

Equally important, PMs will want to encourage a clear demarcation of job responsibilities to keep everyone accountable to their roles. Frequently going over to assist other sections of the team is indicative of a staffing problem.

The Product Architecture Analogy

Let’s pause for a second and imagine what building a software looks like.

A software is a house. The Product Manager is the architect. The Engineers are the builders.

While it would be helpful for the architect (PM) to know how to lay the foundation, install wirings, and insulate the house — these are NOT the responsibilities of an architect. Instead, the architect should be honing the project plan, setting the scope and budget, supervising construction, making sure the specifications are compliant with building codes, regularly communicating with the client for updates — among others.

Similarly, Product Managers have a wide assembly of specialized tasks that require specialized product management skills. That should be the focus in terms of cost-effectiveness. Learn the software architecture components, and be adept at communicating these specifications to your builders.

an architect drafting a plan

So should Product Managers learn how to code?

Ultimately, more knowledge is always better than less. If learning how to code can help you be more emphatic to your development team - and as a result making you a good PM - then maybe a coding class may be a good ROI. Having a repertoire of skills will allow you to be a multi-functional Swiss knife. That said, knowing something does not mean it’s wise to use them all the time.

Prioritization is the name of the game for Product Managers. If the situation requires for a hammer, then be a hammer. If it requires for a screwdriver, be a screwdriver. You cannot be both at the same time as you’ll fail at both.

However, the tech industry is a lot different. Often, you’ll hear Product Managers ‘wearing many hats’. And that’s because there are few organizations that have fully developed product culture. It has to be understood that the product role is not clearly defined - exactly, again, because different companies require different things from their Product Managers.

There are startups with limited resources - the situations of which - will necessitate you to perform non-Product responsibilities. There are also legacy companies with already established organizational hierarchies that resist change. With Product Managers being a recent addition, they fail to get a stable footing to promote a meaningful product culture.

three people typing at their laptops

In sum, and unfortunately, the verdict is: it depends.

  • Are you learning to code because the nature of the companies you want to join are inherently technical like AI and ML? Then, yes, learning coding can be very useful.
  • Are you an aspiring product manager who would like to perform general PM responsibilities? Then, no, do not learn coding. There are better uses of your time.

There is now a need to assess what your goals are in the Product space, so you can make the right trade-off judgments for yourself. After all, evaluating trade-offs is a core PM skill that you will need to be a master of as a Product Manager. There are benefits in learning how to code, but it is not the end-all, and be-all of Product Management — it’s quite far in fact.

If you don’t know technical stuff at first, then that’s ok. What’s important is you show the eagerness and tenacity to learn as much as possible. Your goal as a PM is to build credibility, get team buy-ins, and steer the company at the right velocity.

ship captain inside the control room

What do you have to know instead?

If you want to shift to tech, especially from a non-tech background, you need to either have good domain knowledge, lots of transferrable skills, or have something to bridge the skillset you have currently and the requirements of the roles that you are looking for.

One of those places is Co.Lab, where you can get real-life work experience by building a live product of your own with a cross-functional team in an agile environment. All with a supportive community of aspiring techies like you.

Are you an aspiring Product Manager, Product Designer, or Software Developer? The Co.Lab program is the perfect place to gain real-world, cross-functional experience that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Follow us on on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the latest updates.

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