Working in the Coding World Without Writing a Single Line of It
I am one of three women on a 14-person development team at a software company that builds sophisticated products for organizations that want to build better software faster. For most female developers, this imbalance is ordinary. But I’m not a developer.
In fact, throughout my life I’ve written only a few lines of very simple code. I have no degree in computer science or software engineering. My undergraduate education is in history and international studies, while my graduate degree is in information science. This is not the sort of background you might expect for a woman in a technical role in a software company.
So, if I don’t code, but I do work with closely with developers and face many of the same challenges as women who do code, what is my role?
I’m a product manager (which I became after I worked as a business analyst). That means, at the highest-level, it’s my job to understand what our end users need and expect from our products, then turn those needs into concrete features that our development team can create. If this sounds pretty technical, it is.
In fact, I’m one of the representatives of the product management team who also sits on the development team. And while my product management group is comprised of four women and two men, the ratio of men to women in this function at other software companies is often the reverse.
Because much of the effort around increasing female representation in technology focuses on coding, I wanted to spotlight product management to introduce another avenue where women can excel and become leaders in the technology sector. I also wanted to compare the challenges that women coders and woman in other technical roles face (which are quite similar) and point out that the world of technology encompasses a variety of roles and career paths that can be equally rewarding.
Product Management as a Career Path
When I was in college, I didn’t know that disciplines like business analysis or product management existed. Since then, I’ve learned why these functions are so valuable to software organizations. As I mentioned, a large part of product management is working to understand user needs and design features that meet those needs — after all, the code in a product is useless if it doesn’t help people accomplish their goals.
This means that product managers have significant responsibility when it comes to ensuring that the software being produced will help end users. Product managers not only work with development teams and other stakeholders to determine what gets built, but also influence when and how it gets built. While the role can be challenging, it is also rewarding to be part of a team that creates a successful software product.
And prospects for a career in product management are bright. In fact, product management is listed as #8 on Glassdoor’s list of best jobs in the US, just above software engineering.
Another attractive aspect of product management is that it draws people from a variety of educational and work experiences, many of whom can find success in the discipline by exercising their unique skill sets. For example, studying history helped sharpen my analytical reasoning and communication skills, which I use every day as a product manager.
Technical Nature of the Work
Being a product manager (or a business analyst) does not mean sacrificing your ability to do work that is technical in nature. While a large part of my job entails working with stakeholders outside of engineering to gather information, equally as much (and sometimes more) time is spent on feature design and collaborating with the development team to design workflows that meet complex user needs without unreasonable technical overhead or effort. In our case, many of the features we design are highly technical, since Tasktop focuses on the complex world of software lifecycle integration.
As a business analyst, my work was equally technical. One of my first initiatives at Tasktop was to succinctly diagram the relationships of the “artifacts” in the various modules of HPE’s application lifecycle management software tool. This involved detailed analysis. Another initiative was to help devise a test plan for a new capability the team was building, which included creating a comprehensive list of permutations for the different variables that would influence what our product could do, and stating the expected outcome.
Even though I didn’t write a line of code for these projects, I did use math and science skills like logic and analytical reasoning as well as other skills obtained through math, history, sociology, language and information science courses. My job today involves understanding and solving complex problems, and I feel intellectually and analytically stimulated in this role. As a bonus, I can also exercise skills like organization and communication.
Product Management Challenges
Women in product management not only work in a male-dominated environment within our own departments, we also work with engineering teams that are primarily male. As a product manager for two highly technical products, there are often times where I don’t know as much about them as the developers, and rely on them for their expertise. For example, only the engineers know the technical pros and cons of implementing product features, and I have to ask for their guidance without feeling self-conscious. This comes with practice, and is easier when you’re part of a cohesive team. On the flip side, I hold the long-term vision for the product, understand customer use cases and possess insight gleaned from frequent customer interactions. These dynamics — the expertise give and take — make the job even more interesting. The bottom line: In spite of a few challenges, being a female product manager can be exceptionally gratifying.
Expanding the Horizon of Technical Leadership Roles Girls Should Consider
Product management is just one of many technical roles that exist in the software development world. Other roles include business analyst, solutions architect, pre-sales engineer and data scientist, to name a few.
Just as I’d never heard of business analyst or product management roles until after I had finished my graduate degree, other girls may not know about these positions. As a society, if we really want to encourage young girls to get into leadership roles in technology, I believe that focusing more broadly will help the cause.
I have found success, happiness and the ability to lead as a business analyst and product manager at Tasktop. I encourage girls to look into a variety of technical roles, and for the conversation about women in technology to extend beyond coding, because an increased number of women in technology will benefit us all.
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