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Do I need a CS degree to break into product management?

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: February 9, 2018

Why not? | Technical fluency | Becoming technically fluent | Summary


Why does everyone think you do? (Top)

Aspiring PMs often mistakenly believe they do because technology companies like Google, with its engineering driven culture and founders, popularized the CS degree requirement.

For decades, Google listed a CS degree as a minimum requirement in all PM job postings. While some companies still list it as a requirement, the reality is that many successful PMs at top tech companies don't have one.

The dirty little secret

The canonical example of a product manager without a CS degree is Google's first SVP of Product Management, Jonathan Rosenberg. While Rosenberg had an impressive background and strong educational pedigree (an MBA from the University of Chicago and a BA in economics from Claremont McKenna), he did not have a CS degree.

Rosenberg ran the PM organization at Google from 2002-2011, overseeing an impressive stable of products, including Search, Ads, Android, Gmail, Apps, and Chrome. Clearly, his lack of a CS degree didn't impede his progress.

It might seem like a cruel twist of fate that the leader of the product management organization that arguably did the most to popularize this requirement didn't actually have one himself. What's critical for us to understand is: why?

The CS degree as a recruiting filter

The reason that technology companies make CS degrees a requirement is not because they believe that those without one will fail. In fact, it's common to hear engineering leaders at companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon bemoan the fact that university CS degrees are woefully behind the times in terms of teaching useful, modern day computer science.

The answer, quite simply, is recruiting efficiency. Using a CS degree as a filter on the job description is a helpful way to ensure that candidates who are applying have technical chops. But ultimately, it’s just a proxy for the true requirement: technical fluency.

OK, so what is technical fluency? (Top)

Technical fluency is critical because PMs are the hub of a product development organization. On any given product team, a designer might not interact much with a customer support rep, and a customer support rep might not interact much with an engineer. However, the PM has to interact extensively with all functions, and with engineering in particular.

As a result, you'll need to be just as comfortable communicating with the customer support reps as you are with your lead engineer. If you propose making a change to the product and your engineering counterpart responds with something akin like, "That would require substantial changes to the API," or, "Our current database design won't support that without a lot of modifications," you need to be able to engage intelligently in those conversations.

Thus, leading technology companies want PM candidates to have a strong technical fluency because it means they can:

  1. Communicate effectively with engineering: if you can't communicate with engineering, the product quality will suffer.
  2. Understand technical implications: if you don't understand the implications of your product decisions, product quality will suffer.

Thus, technical fluency is quite simply: the ability to effectively translate non-technical ideas into technical ideas and vice versa. For more detail, check out the conversation below between Jonathan Lewis, a Group Product Manager at Twitter and former Facebook PM and the RocketBlocks Founder, Kenton Kivestu, on just how technical a PM needs to be.

How do I become technically fluent? (Top)

The great news is there are myriad ways to become technically fluent and plenty of resources that can help you on your journey. We recommend doing two key things: establishing a technical foundation and working on a technical side project.

đź’ˇ Shameless plug: Our PM interview drills can help

Establish a technical foundation

To function as an effective PM, you need have a breadth of technical understanding that goes beyond knowing how to code in a single programming language (e.g., knowing JavaScript or MySQL).

While it certainly helps to know a language (or a few), the more important first step is to understand the overall picture of how tech products fit together. You'll want a solid understanding of key topics like:

  1. Tech stacks: how code fits together to create a final product
  2. APIs: how software programmatically interfaces with itself
  3. Databases: how data is stored to power an application, analysis and more

RocketBlocks Product Management is specifically designed to help aspiring PMs build a fundamental understanding in each of these topics (and you can learn more about that here).

Technical side projects

Another great way to build and improve technical fluency is to take up a technical side project. It doesn't need to be anything complex: a simple to-do list app, a web app that stores your favorite restaurants in different cities, etc (here is our detailed advice on side projects). Remember, as an aspiring PM, it's more important for you to build an understanding of how technical aspects of a project (e.g., a front end, a database, servers, etc.) come together to make a product function than for you to be an expert in any given programming language.

Side projects are an excellent way to build technical fluency because they act as a forcing function. To complete it, you'll need to either:

  1. Collaborate with a technical partner (e.g., hire a contractor, convince a technical friend, etc.) to build it
  2. Learn the required coding yourself (e.g., learn HTML, basic MySQL, etc.) to build it

Both experiences will build your technical fluency significantly. The first will force you to interact with technical staff in the same way you would as a PM at a technology company. The latter will force to grapple with multiple programming languages as you assemble a product yourself. While you likely won't have to do that as a PM (since building the product is engineering’s responsibility), you gain insight into the challenges of building a product from top to bottom.

Should I learn to code?

As mentioned above, learning to code, especially in the context of building a specific side project, is a helpful way to build technical fluency. However, it should be cautioned that it, in and of itself, is not sufficient. PM candidates who understand how technology products are built and the implications of making changes to each component are much more successful than those who can program in one language but lack the bigger picture.

Summary (Top)

The key takeaway is that a CS degree is definitely not a requirement to be a PM, even at companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. While product management is a technical job, the core skill that leading companies seek is technical fluency - how you learn that skill is irrelevant. For those at the start of the journey, we recommend checking out RocketBlocks Product Management, which provides educational material on key topics and drills to build and solidify your understanding.

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.