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Lynn Zukerman
Lynn Zukerman

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Product to Programmer: why I gave up a great Product career to learn to code

After 5 years as a Product Manager, I’m turning to the dark side transitioning into software engineering. The weird part: I liked being a Product Manager. This post explores why I made this decision and my approach to learning programming.

If you’re considering changing careers within the tech space, maybe you’ll find some useful nuggets below.

A Product Manager is like an orchestra conductor

If an agile team is an orchestra, the Product Manager is the conductor.

It’s their responsibility to ensure that the musicians (Software Engineers) are playing the score as the composer (UX Designer) intended. And ultimately, that their performances (products) align with the vision of the orchestra owners (CEO/executive team).

As you can imagine, it’s a highly visible and collaborative role, and it comes with a strong sense of ownership over the team’s success.

I was in an account management role when I interviewed internally for my first product job. Leading up to the interview, I met with half of the engineers at the company and read multiple books on product management. I wanted it so badly.

And the role lived up to my expectations. For the first year as a new PM, I was sad when the work week ended on Friday and excited on Sunday evenings. I know, I know… EYE ROLL 🫣

Eventually that level of zeal wore off, but I never stopped jotting down new feature ideas at 2am. Product management can be intoxicating.

But there is no music without musicians

Just as a conductor shouldn’t be playing the violin, a strategic Product Manager shouldn’t be focusing on tactical execution. While I was happy as a conductor, I also wanted to make music.

I regularly crashed software implementation planning meetings just because I was curious. I mapped out the technical ecosystems at each of my companies and became an expert in querying databases to help triage issues.

As I was growing in my career, it became clear that my focus on the tech was actually holding me back from becoming a great product leader. There’s only so much time in a day. Spending an hour discussing the pros and cons of a technical implementation strategy is an hour less time spent gathering user feedback, doing competitive research, or writing product briefs.

Good product management also necessitates [honest] politics. Users need to feel heard. Stakeholders need to be consulted. And leadership needs to understand why that thing they want is going to take twice as long as they expected. But the politics drained me.

At the end of the day, I was more energized by solving problems than defining them.

Picking up the violin

My nagging desire to learn to code was finally realized this past summer when I started taking a computer science course. However, I was still employed, and it was hard to find the time and brainpower to code after work. I started rushing to wrap up my Product responsibilities so I could get back to my studies.

It wasn’t fair to my company, my team, or myself. Luckily, I had the privilege to be able to quit my job and pursue this interest for at least a few months.

My goals are simple:

  1. Have FUN learning 🤓
  2. Build a couple of cool projects 🛠
  3. Figure out what I want next out of my career 🌅

I decided against a dev bootcamp because I wanted to learn the fundamentals of computer science. I’ve heard great things about bootcamps, but their curriculums are understandably geared towards teaching students the bare minimum skills to get a job vs. computer theory.

Instead, I’m taking advantage of some incredible and free online courses* and only spending time on the subjects and technologies that I’m most excited about.

I’m also taking an agile product management approach: creating sprint plans, holding stand-ups and retrospectives with myself, documenting the plan/results (through these blogs), and demoing my projects for anyone who will humor me.

If YOU are someone who will humor me, or if you’re curious to see where this journey takes me, then follow me here, find me on LinkedIn, or reach out directly! I’m hoping to meet new people in the tech community, and I’m very open to feedback.

*As of Dec 2022, I’m wrapping up Harvard CS50 Computer Science Fundamentals, and partway through The Odin Project. Both of which I highly recommend.

Photo credit -- @chenspec on pixabay

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