Helpful resources for Product Managers without a dev background

An opinionated perspective on what has been most helpful to me during my journey to improve my technical chops.

January 5, 2017

I should preface this piece by saying that I firmly believe there are lots of ways to be an effective Product Manager. I view the role as being somewhere on the spectrum between “Managing Things” and “Building Things” and no one is perfectly positioned in the middle on the spectrum. You’re just sort of a conduit between the people who specialize in those respective areas.

Furthermore, where on the spectrum a PM should fall in order to be most effective is highly dependent on the team and organization. It is easy to think of scenarios that would benefit a highly technical PM and vice versa. Adaptability is an important trait for PMs but it also helps to find a situation that naturally plays to your relative strengths in the first place.

All that said, self awareness is a valuable thing. And if, as a PM, you know that you over index on one side of the spectrum then it is certainly beneficial to learn more about the other side. Reducing blind spots, closing gaps, speaking the language, becoming more well rounded — pick the pithy phrase you prefer but there are lots of reasons why it’s a worthwhile exercise to learn new things. You’re basically making yourself adaptable to more situations (and, you know, avoiding a slow atrophy into irrelevance).

In my case, I began my career as PM at a larger organization and without a technical background so naturally I was leveraging a more traditional management skill set to be effective. I learned a lot of invaluable skills around goal setting, managing stakeholders, prioritizing requests, communicating effectively, influencing others, motivating teams, etc. It was a great experience and one that played to my relative strengths, which made it a fortune starting place.

In February of 2015, I moved to a PM role at a start-up. Catalant (known as HourlyNerd when I joined) had roughly 30 employees and recently raised a Series B round of funding at the time. Before getting into the next section, let me be clear — the primary reason I joined Catalant is because I was incredibly impressed by the team and believed in the company’s mission.

But, more generally, why was I interested in joining a start-up in the first place? One, I simply wanted to experience that type of work environment firsthand as a contrast to my experience at a larger company. Two, I wanted to live the cliché of “wearing a lot of hats” and being more hands on with how the product is built.

On the first point, the experience has largely been great. I say largely because at times it has been more stressful or challenging than what I’ve experience in previous roles. It is sort of the nature of the beast — the highs are higher and, sometimes, the lows are lower. But, overall, it has been and continues to be a very rewarding experience. I know it was the right next step from my career.

On the second point — well, that’s why I’m writing this post. I’ve learned a ton by being more in the weeds and thought it’d be helpful to catalogue some of the resources I’ve found most helpful. Note: this list skews towards resources that are helpful in the context of web development.

This list is intentionally not an exhaustive one — it is an opinionated one. I’ve come across way more resources than what is listed below. And I’ve definitely learned tons things from those omitted resources. And I’ve likely learned even more from in person assistance from friends and colleagues.

These happen to be the things I’ve found broadly useful and are easily accessible to anyone.


SQL

Recommendation: Tutorial from SQL Zoo

I knew a bit of SQL prior to joining Catalant but it largely consisted of simple modifications to an existing query or very basic queries like…

SELECT *
FROM table
WHERE thing = 'xyz'


… so there was room for improvement.

SQL Zoo has been my preferred online resource for building foundational knowledge and really understanding concepts. The way they iteratively build concepts within exercises seems to click for me and the fact you can do it all within your browser using their data makes it really easy to get started.


Command Line

Recommendation: Learn Enough Command Line to be Dangerous

This course might be overkill for most. It is thoughtfully written and easy to follow. I really enjoyed it. But in all honesty, I only use a handful of commands in my typical day. Things like…

cd folder/
cd ..
ls -a
mkdir
touch


… outside of those basic options, I find myself falling back to Finder or other tools.

So, again, it’s a great course but you can find simpler and free options like the Viking Code School Prep Command Line Crash Course if you only need a more cursory overview.


Git

Recommendation: Learn Enough Git to be Dangerous

This is a place where I think the added detail, depth, and expense is worthwhile. It was a tremendous help in getting me to understand Git beyond “there are branches and something in a branch means it is separate from the main code.” I don’t think I would have learned those concepts well without completing exercises myself.


Browser Developer Tools

Recommendation: The Odin Project’s Developer Tools Course

Don’t get me wrong, I knew how right-click on “Inspect” and copy and paste the error to my developer friends. But it turns out there is a lot of other cool and helpful stuff going on within those dev tools that’s worth knowing. This course links to a lot of great (and free) resources that you can quickly breeze through.


HTML & CSS

Recommendation: Code Academy’s HTML & CSS Course

Just go through it until you hit the paywall. It is super basic initially and probably familiar if you worked on creating a website in the mid-90s for a 7th grade science fair project (that’s a cool and popular thing everyone did growing up, right?). But it builds to more interesting concepts and makes it easy to follow along by giving you a sandbox to use within your browser.


Sketch

Recommendation: Videos 1–10 from Level Up Tutorials

Ok, so this isn’t exactly a technical recommendation but it is a tool worth knowing so I’m shoehorning it into this list.

I had some general familiarity of Photoshop from playing around with it growing up but nothing too sophisticated. Balsamiq also found its way into my workflow from time to time whenever I needed to quickly express an idea in my head.

But taking the time to learn Sketch has been a revelation. It really hits the sweet spot of being super approachable and quick to learn while still being incredibly powerful.

This free video series helped me get grounded in the application quickly and I’ve chased down more advanced things piecemeal from there. There are probably better resources out there but I was able to watch these videos in one night and feel like I knew the basics. From where, I played around with the application over a weekend by working on a simple idea I had. And, ta-da, I learned it well enough to help me day to day.

In terms of on-going learning, I’ve found this publication particularly helpful: Sketch App Sources


General Design / UX Thinking

Recommendation: Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Again, I’m bending the rules on what’s included in this list but I created the conceit for this post, so, whatever. Smarter people than me have explained why these books are worth recommending so I won’t bother beyond saying they broadened how I think about things considerably.


General Management Thinking

Recommendation: High Output Management by Andy Grove

In the interest of balance, I’ve decide to toss in a recommendation from the “managing things” side of the spectrum. This is one of the most dense (in a good way) resources on management I’ve ever come across. It is incredible and you will benefit from reading it.


And, finally, a confession

I’m hoping this list will yield lots of other great resources in the comments. There is so much useful content out there so please share resources you’ve found helpful or offer alternatives to what I’ve listed!