What do you do if coding is no longer enough?

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:

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.

Have you considered product management as a career? What are the pros and cons of this particular path? Post here, or carry on the conversation on Twitter (I’m @neildavidson, or tag with #prodmgmt).

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.

6 responses to “What do you do if coding is no longer enough?”

  1. Will says:

    Instead of moving into management I’ve always leaned more towards entrepreneurship. So now I use my technical skills to develop and sell information products online.
    This means I had to learn about online marketing, graphics, adwords, landing pages, shopping carts, wordpress, etc. Less programming but still quite technical compared to the average person. I create content and test the ideas quickly on the internet.
    I still do IT consulting (webMethods integration projects) but the online projects are definitely more interesting.

  2. Indian says:

    yes, its a difficult choice if you have to leave coding and think of an alternative.
    Project management Or starting your own firm seem good choices as you can still do coding whenever you want 🙂

  3. Andrew Butel says:

    I’ve done exactly that – after 10 years of coding I moved into product mgmt 18 months ago. It satisfies the developer in me – I’m at the forefront the product including its direction and execution, but it doesn’t fully satisfy the entrepreneur in me.
    One of the great things about coding is that you have a lot of freedom to achieve the goals set for you – so there’s loads of room to grow and learn. Moving into product mgmt was a whole new world to learn so was exciting – but for me, the learning plateaued too soon. If you’re addicted to being stretched, then its a great next step, but not necessarily the end-game.

  4. Dan Olsen says:

    Good post, Neil. My dad bought me a VIC-20 when I was 9, so I can relate 🙂
    I agree that product management can be a very rewarding field. I would point out that it can be more or less rewarding depending on the particular company and often correlates with factors such as sector, company size, and culture.
    Personally, I’ve found that being a PM for consumer Web products in a not-too-big but not-too-small company that has a strong customer-centric culture is the best combination (not that PMs in other situations aren’t or can’t be happy).
    I’ve seen a trend in the last several years where technical skills are more in demand for web PMs, much more so than in the software days.
    Being technical helps you accurately estimate the effort required to build a feature and brainstorm different ways to accomplish the objective to identify the solution with the highest value and lowest effort.
    Even more in demand for web PMs are UI design skills. Not so much visual design, but interaction design, information architecture, and having a good sense for usability.
    The best web PMs I’ve seen are the ones who have solid PM skills combined with technical knowledge and good UI design skills.
    I’ve given several presentations on product management that are posted at http://www.olsensolutions.com/index.php?p=speaking
    in case they’re helpful to your readers.

  5. Most companies realize the need for product management only after they’ve had a few failures. Nowadays we’re seeing more startups adopt the role earlier; I guess the founders have seen the importance of having a systematic approach to defining and delivering products. In fact, agile methods mandate a product owner or product manager so that development is grounded in market data.
    The key to product management is patterns. Developers know what can be included; product managers should know whether they should be included. It’s not enough to hear a problem once from one customer; companies that succeed care about problems that occur many times in many clients. The key is to identify markets, not just customers.
    Thanks for including Pragmatic Marketing and my blog at http://www.productmarketing.com in your resources.

  6. Saeed Khan says:

    Thanks for including On Product Management in your list of suggested blogs to read. For those thinking about becoming Product Managers, they might want to read the following:
    It’s a series I wrote called: How to be a Great Product Manager.