What Does a Product Manager Look Like?
I may not be an engineer by trade (meaning I don’t sling code on a daily basis), but I’m no stranger to that look of confusion when I tell people I help companies build software products. In many cases these products are the products that make your life better.
When people ask me what I do, their typical follow-up responses are along the lines of “Huh?” “Really?” “Wow, I would have never guessed,” and “So, you are like a closet nerd?”
Honestly, what the heck does that even mean? I am a Product Manager, and yes, I work with small and large engineering teams, often with female team members who happen to make up 25% of our engineering workforce at 3Pillar, to build products for our clients. I have to understand the client’s goals and translate these goals into a format that the engineering team can easily consume and act upon. Understanding what the client wants to do and knowing the reality of what is possible within their timeframe and budget is a big part of my life. I need to know what technology is out there that can support their ideas and where they may run into some issues due to restrictions outside of their control. I work collaboratively with my teams to decide what technology stack makes the most sense, or how we can leverage an existing stack.
We’ve been hearing for years that there are a shockingly small number of females who choose to study computer science or get involved in traditionally technical industries, but I have to believe (for my own sanity) this is changing. With efforts like the DC based Boolean Girl and nationally recognized Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, I’m starting to see more awareness, but it’s not widespread yet. What I mean is that people in the industry know about these causes, but people outside the tech world are largely unaware.
I have a hypothesis about why there is still so much mystery around software development and why these gender stereotypes are so hard to break. It comes down to exposure. When building software, it’s a complex process often involving lots of new and emerging technology. If you aren’t working in this industry day and night, you may not be aware of these changes. For example, when I have conversations about front-ends, backends and the structure of the database I often see my husband’s eye’s glaze over and I realize these words mean nothing to him. He knows what I do, but only from the point of view of the outcome, not the process to get there.
I don’t think that’s uncommon. If I would say, I’m a doctor, a teacher, an accountant, a nurse, most people have some idea of what I do on a daily basis. By telling people I help define and build software I’m now entering a black hole where they feel uncomfortable or intimidated because they are unfamiliar. Maybe exposing what goes into the products we use everyday is part of the path forward. Exposing the process and showing people of all ages that software isn’t scary. All software, even the most complex, is built with simple building blocks of code that can be layered and combined to create even the most complex products that incorporate predictive algorithms for example. ANYONE can do it if they truly want to. Like any new skill, it takes time to get comfortable and proficient, but practice makes perfect and there’s only one way to start.
Below are a few resources I’ve found that help teach people of all ages to code. I had the opportunity to be a volunteer at a Boolean Girl event for our CFO’s daughter’s girl scout group last year and it was an amazing experience to see the lights go off in the girls’ heads when they realized they had just written code to make the dog move and bark. Within an hour these girls had the confidence they could do it. I hope that organizations like these continue to flourish and allow the next generation to be whatever they want to be regardless of the stereotype of the job title.
Some resources for those looking to learn to code.
https://code.org/learn (learn to code with Ana and Elsa from Frozen!)