The first computer I ever programmed was my uncle’s Sharp PC-1211. Keen for me to hone my skills on Forth, away from what he considered the mind-softening influence of BASIC, he soon gave me a Jupiter Ace, the first computer I ever owned. It was 1982 and I was ten years old.
These two computers uncovered an itch. It took over twenty years – programming the Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, Acorn Archimedes and then, reluctantly at first, the Wintel platform – for me to finish scratching that itch. I still code now and then, but I no longer feel the same compulsion that I once did.
By the time my urge had dwindled I’d found a new obsession – Red Gate – to fill the void. But I sometimes ask myself what I would have done had I not co-founded Red Gate, and what my advice would be to other people who find themselves faced with the same realization that coding is longer enough.
Obvious, but – for me – wrong, choices would be project manager (I’m just not organised or disciplined enough), technical architect (flow charts and diagrams aren’t my thing) or technical lead (not a big enough jump away from the coding).
The unobvious – but correct – choice would have been product manager. Why unobvious? Because it’s a role that’s often misunderstood. Why correct? Read on.
Product managers help decide what products get built. They don’t necessarily generate the initial idea, and they don’t make the final call, but it’s their job to flesh out ideas and turn them into proposals so solid they can withstand any sticks and stones others can throw. Not only must they make sure the product solves a pain that people really have, but they need to work with developers to make sure their proposals can be – and do get – built, with marketeers to make sure that customers can be found and with sales people to make sure those customers will buy it.
Being a product manager is a bit like running your own business, but with much of the work that is overly familiar (actually building the product), frustrating (project management) and unpleasant (firing people) removed. If you do your job well, you can easily connect what you put in (defining the product) to the end result (happy customers), and that makes it a satisfying role*.
What can you do if you’re a top notch software developer but your passion for code is starting to fade? If you’re looking for the next step in your career, and if you don’t want to manage people or projects?
The first step is to learn more about product management and understand if it’s right for you. Here are three things you can do:
- Look at the Pragmatic Marketing web site
- Subscribe to one or two, or even three blogs
- Immerse yourself in the product management twitter stream (#prodmgmt).
The second step is to do it. If your organisation doesn’t have product managers, then it needs one. Become that person. If your organisation does have product managers, then talk with them and get involved.
Red Gate are hiring product managers. Check out our jobs page.
*The more Machiavellian of you will spot the flip side: if you do your job badly, there’s always some other factor to blame too, whether it’s changing market conditions, a recalcitrant development team or just pure bad luck.