Chris Castiglione Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

Why Product Managers Learn to Code

20 min read

Why are product managers learning to code? This week I chat with product manager (and self-taught programmer) Irma Mesa (@_justirma) about why and how she learned to code.

Irma is a product manager at Open Up Resources. Open Up Resources is a non-profit that creates K-12 curriculum, and is funded by The Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, and The Schusterman Foundation.

We’ll talk about the various resources that Irma used to learn to code (Codecademy, freeCodeCamp, as well as One Month). How is each of these coding courses different? Which was the most helpful? What did she use first? What language would she recommend if you’re new to just starting a code? All that and more! 

PS. 🐶 Please subscribe and rate the Learn to Code Podcast on iTunes!  ❤️

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Where did you grow up?

Irma: I grew up in Miami, Florida. Then I went to school at Florida International University where I majored in psychology. Thought I wanted to do surgery stuff and be a surgeon, but then I switched gears. I found out that wasn’t really for me. Which is always great. Then I just ended up going into that psychology track.

So I took a bunch of psychology classes, sociology. I was just really interested in understanding how humans behave. I think it’s really interesting, I’m a very introverted person. I’ve always been intrigued by just observing people and I think psych was that other major that I could take where I was just like, “Yep, this aligns with what I like to do,” and what will maybe help me in the future. So that’s the main reason why I ended up going towards that psych major.

Chris: When people asked you, “Hey, Irma what do you want to be when you grow up?” at that time were you thinking that you would be a psychologist of some sorts or did you have that idea in your head like what you would do with a degree? Was that important?

Irma: It sort of was, but I think I was majoring in psychology because I didn’t know. I had always had this really big passion for tech and fixing computers, and fixing smartphones and all that. I just didn’t know what to do with that, so what I ended up doing was taking the psych major and I was like, “Okay, cool. Do this and then I’ll become like a behavior therapist” right, like somebody who just works with kids that have autism or ADHD. So that was my plan, right.

But on the side, I was still tinkering with tech. I had my own little YouTube channel where I was just reviewing phone pieces and computers and all this stuff. So I had an outlet, right. I was like “Okay, I’m still doing what I still like on the side, but I’m doing this serious thing that’s gonna kind of cure me through life”, and majoring in something that I could potentially get a job in when I’m out of school.

Chris: That’s cool. I’m always interested in the influences that lead people to their decisions. So you’re telling me that you were fixing computers and reviewing things on YouTube, I mean, where do you get that idea from? Where did that come from?

Irma: That’s a good question. I mean, the fixing part usually ended up happening with my family and friends, right. So for some reason, I don’t know why, I just became like de facto. You know how to use an iPhone, so you must obviously know how to do everything else. Fix computers, remove viruses, right. Like all these different things, I’m just like, “Sure”, and it was fun. I enjoy helping people, so I just ended up like I was this person everybody would go to for tech issues.

Irma: On the YouTube side of it, I’m not really sure how that came about. I think I probably watched MKBHD or something and I was like, “That’s cool. He has a YouTube channel where he would just talk about phone cases and talk about different desktop apps that work or don’t work and why they don’t work and his opinion on that,” and I thought that was really interesting so I ended up just creating a YouTube channel one day and just went with it.

It was hard. It was hard balancing trying to do that and following my passion in tech over here and then figure out my psych major courses over there. So it was an interesting time. I was just doing a lot. I feel like I’m always doing a lot though.

How did you learn to code?

Irma: I think it was in my last year of college. So in 2015, I believe. And it was December 2014 going into 2015 and somehow I came across an article where somebody was like, “Check out Codecademy“, and I don’t know why I just ended up clicking on it. I was like, “I’m not sure what this is”, but I just clicked on it. I signed in for an account and started playing around with the HTML lessons that they had, and it was just so different that I think my mind was just grabbed onto it. And I was like, “Yes. This is unique. This is creative”, right.

And every time you would write a line of HTML, you would see your H1 appear as a title on the right-hand side, right. And I think that instant gratification of, “Hey, I just wrote this thing in a non-human language”, right, syntax and it just ended up showing up on my browser.

I think that just really inspired me to keep digging into what coding was.

What resources did you use to learn to code?

Irma: I ended up doing, I think the HTML and CSS on Codecademy and I think it’s an ever-living and breathing sort of like learning. So I didn’t just say I was just going to learn these two things, I wanted to explore different resources, so I think I ended up looking up different resources. I think I came across CSS-Tricks and other resources where I was just like, “Okay, let’s develop. Let’s actually build something at this point. I think I have a good handle on HTML, I have a decent handle on CSS. I’m not gonna learn the whole thing right now, but let’s just get my hands dirty”.

I ended up building my own About Me feed, and it was pretty bad. I’m not gonna lie. Looking back at it, it was like barely any styling, H1 tag is here, and tables there and just a bunch of tags. But it was really gratifying just to know that I had built something from the ground up. Whereas before, I felt like I wasn’t really getting that from anything. I was going to school, I was seeing my grades are pretty good, but I don’t think I was getting any joy. So I think coding brought me joy. So I just ended up pursuing that on the side. After work, I would spend a few hours into the night, learning, and coding, and building, and it feels really, really cool.

Chris: That’s amazing. So this About Me page that you made, where did you learn how to do that? Was it just googling around, was in on Codecademy, or something else? That’s a really good project to do and actually, that’s what we also do in the One Month HTML course that we have as the first week. It’s just like making a portfolio page. It’s important to have one.

It’s an easy enough project to start with. It feels really good and it’s about you. So it feels like, “Hey, that’s my page”. You can show people.

Why did you decide to make an”about me” style page? And why was that a great first HTML & CSS project?

Irma: I literally wanna say I was reading something, right. Knowing myself, I probably googled what to do with HTML and CSS and I must have come across an article that just said these are some projects that you can do just to get started and get your hands dirty. I do remember coming across DevTips on YouTube and he had this really great course or series where he just builds out his own portfolio site from the ground up and I think I followed that to about halfway. But this is my second duration of my About Me page.

My first one, I can’t remember where I ended up figuring this outright, but I’m pretty sure it was through a Google search. That this was just one of those projects that you have to do when you’re first starting out. DevTips was like the next free source that I ended up landing on and his channel is really great because I just really liked his personality.

He didn’t make coding boring. He just made it really fun and light and he just shared literally everything under the sun about things that you should do, things that you shouldn’t do, the way to set up your files on your computer, right. All these things that Codecademy had not taught me.

So since Codecademy is very browser-based, or at least I think they still are. I haven’t logged in in a while. But yeah, that’s kind of where that About Me page came to be and I don’t even think it ended up anywhere on a domain or anything. I think it was just local. I just took my computer around and showed my family like, “This is what I made”.

Thoughts on learning to code with Codecademy?

Chris: I think Codecademy is a really great place to start kind of playing around a little bit and you can definitely learn. I sometimes think of it as drills. It’s almost like a worksheet where you’re just doing little drills but also a lot of my students, I’ll find when they’ll learn to code stop at Codecademy because they can’t see the next step of getting it launched into the real world. 

Irma: Yeah.

What text editor (IDE) did you use to learn to code?

Irma: Sublime was my first IDE.

Chris: Yeah, so anyone listening, you can start with Codecademy and then you can put all of that code into Sublime, Sublime Text. You can Google that application and start actually like, “Oh, now it’s on my computer”.

Irma: Exactly, yeah. And I think a quick thing to mention is, don’t be afraid to just Google things. I think that’s a thing now. It’s a given, right. But I think you might still be afraid of Googling. You might think that you have to talk to somebody to figure something out and really a lot of the answers are on Google.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have anybody around me that was a developer or a computer science major. So I didn’t have anybody to go to, to be like, “Hey, I wanted to learn more about this thing. How do I get there”? So I had to search, Google was my best friend, YouTube was also my best friend at the time. I think after that, I ended up finding little communities online. I think I signed up for freeCodeCamp for example and they had their own community. But I think when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to just Google. You don’t have to have anybody or a go-to person.

What is freeCodeCamp? Was it useful?

Irma: Yeah. FreeCodeCamp is an online coding, I would consider it like a coding bootcamp maybe in a way. But it’s pretty much you’re teaching yourself. I think they have HTML, CSS. They go into the backend. So you can learn Node and then I think they even have a lesson now around React, which is really cool.

But you’re pretty much super fresh with HTML and then you’re pretty much learning and then also coding on the right-hand side of your browser. Very similar to the approach that Codecademy uses, but it’s all free on freeCodeCamp. They don’t charge you for anything. They ask you to donate, but it’s not a money driven company. From what I’ve seen it’s very community driven and they just want to make sure that coding is accessible to everybody around the world.

So all you really need is a browser and an internet connection and you can learn how to code probably over a few months if you really dedicate two hours a day. For six months straight, you’ll probably finish a whole entire front end development track that they have. And I think the thing with me is that I was trying too many resources and I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck.

Looking back, what I’ve learned now is that I should have just stuck to one or two. And then just used them to supplement each other instead of trying and starting new courses every other month. I’m not sure if you hear that from a lot of people but, that was a big thing that I think I did wrong. Not really wrong, but I just didn’t know any better. So it’s just switching from course to course, you know?

What’s the difference between freeCodeCamp and Codecademy?

Irma: Yeah. It’s very similar to Codecademy. From what I know, I haven’t looked into it in a bit, but from when I was using it, it was just in your browser.

The HTML tag and then you kind of practice it on the right, or this is how you write a function and then you practice it on the right.

Chris: Oh, got it.

Irma: When you join the community, I think you start learning like, “Okay, I should take this off the browser and just practice locally and learn what that feels like and what files I should have and get it right. So all these different things. I think after you join their community, part of what freeCodeCamp does is, you start learning like, “Okay, let’s get off the browser. Just do my own.”

Chris: Do they have support as well? If you have questions, can you go there and get questions and answers?

Irma: I’m close to a hundred percent sure they have that, yeah.

Chris: Yeah. It’s most likely, I’m guessing like a community in a forum. This kind of thing.

Irma: Right. Exactly.

What does a product manager do?

Chris: Got it. Awesome. Cool. A good resource to know. So right now, you’re a product manager at Open Up Resources. What does a product manager do?

Irma: What does a product manager do? [Here’s an example] Let’s say Twitter, and you think about the product that you actually use, right. You download an app or you visit Twitter online. Not only was it the engineering team and a marketing team and maybe a design team involved, right, but there had to be somebody who officially formed the vision for what Twitter should be.

And that could have been a number of people. That could’ve been the CEO or maybe the CTO, but underneath usually there are leadership people. There’s a product manager and the product manager takes that vision from the CEO and the CTO and you basically make it come to life, but not just any idea can come to life. An idea has to go through a lot of different tests, right. So you have to make sure there’s a market.

So the product manager — goes out, talks to people. They understand if there’s a market for a product. The core job of a product manager is ensuring that that idea or that MVP vision that a person in leadership has would work.

You’re taking that and you’re essentially running a bunch of tests on it to validate that that product or that idea would actually do well in the market. That could be done through user interviews, AP testing, etc. But there’s a lot of different things that you can do to make sure a product will do well when it’s in the market. And once you have solidified that this idea is actually validated you will then work with engineering, design, marketing.

And you would essentially collaborate to ship a product that is ready for use and making sure that your value proposition is something that when somebody downloads Twitter, they know how to use it and they know what it’s for and they know what value they’re gonna get out of it.

The product manager sits in-between business tech and usually, design and they’re a role that wears many hats. Every day is super different. A lot of meetings. A lot of talking to people and understanding their problems and ideas that they wanna change for a product. But the main thing is that you understand that not every idea or not every solution is the right solution. So my job is, understand why are we doing something. Who’s going to be affected by it on the other end?

What is a “day in the life” of a product manager?

Irma: Yeah. So let’s see. I can probably think back, I mean yesterday was probably a good example. So yesterday my day was mostly filled with meetings. I’ll come in in the morning, check my calendar, and see what I have lined up. Usually it’s a meeting with the other PM’s.

So we have a CTO and another product manager and we usually meet weekly and talk about the important things that we want to be working on for this next week. And that’s really where we ask questions. We set deadlines and see where the backlog is. So what is engineering working on and what progress are they making on it? And usually, after that, when I do have a ton of emails, I go through that.

So yesterday, we were working on a launch launching. Our company is print delivery-driven so a school runs from August to May usually, or June. And we have to make sure we’re meeting deadlines so that teachers can receive their printed books on time to actually read them and understand what they’re going to be teaching but also to have what they need to get started on the first day.

We’re going to be releasing one of our curricula for the second time and it’s going to be going out of Beta. We see what people are saying. What feedback we’re getting and then in the third year, we release it to the public so that everybody could buy it.

Right now I’m working on creating, running user interviews, so I’m creating research questions and interview questions. What are we hearing from our sales team? What are we hearing from engineering on things that have to change? What are we hearing from academics? We have a team called academics, so they focus literally on what content is in this curriculum and does it work for a teacher.

Essentially,  I’ve just been writing out this big document that will allow me to run an interview with teachers to understand are these different assumptions that we’re making or are they actually valid or is this something that we’re assuming but really isn’t a problem for somebody in the classroom who’s using our curriculum on a daily basis.

Yesterday, as well, I had a conversation with engineering. I talk to them a lot ’cause I have a technical side, I enjoy talking to them and sometimes I’ll just jump on calls with them randomly and they’ll show me the code they’re working on. Or if I’m like, “What does this mean?” they’ll open up their development environment and show me the code that they’re working on and what each line does and what it means.

And so yesterday I talked a little bit with one of my team members on the engineering team ’cause I think working closely with them is actually super beneficial. Even if you’re not in a product management position, I think it’s really important to understand what engineering is doing, who are they?

They are not just code monkeys. They are real people who want to build a great product and if you just reach out and collaborate with them it becomes a beautiful work relationship. Where everybody is collaborating and is really out there to launch a product or launch a feature that somebody on the other end is gonna find valuable.

So that’s kind of my day to day. Yesterday was a little bit of everything. Meetings, emails, user interviewing stuff, and a little bit of a chat with engineering. But yeah, every day is super different. If I talk about tomorrow or today you’re like, “Do you even have the same job”?

[As a product manager] I have three jobs. Yeah, it’s a lot of switching your hats, right. Sometimes you’re in a leadership hat. Sometimes you’re more like the observant hat. Maybe you’re shadowing a sales team member and understand what people are saying. It’s a lot, but it’s really fun. I really enjoy it because, at the end of the day, we’re still affecting teachers and students and what they’re learning from. So that’s really important to me.

Do you feel that learning to code helped you get a job as a product manager? 

Irma: Yes. I think so. I think if I hadn’t learned how to code, I would not be where I am today and that’s a big assumption. I could be wrong, but not only was I learning to code and learning syntax and what it does, but I started learning about what a full tech app looks like, right. You have a front end, a back end and there’s all these different languages that do their own thing and have served their different purpose. And just understanding how a browser works or how the internet works, right.

These are all things that I learned because of codes and because I was interested in coding. Yeah, I started off learning just HTML and CSS, but because I started learning that, it gave me that push to look into other things and just be curious.

So I think that if I had never picked up or opened up Codecademy, which I hope I would have done, either way, I would have probably been a behavior therapist right now. Not doing anything with tech and maybe doing everything with tech on the side, outside of my job. But it’s really great because now I can still be technical. I can talk with engineering and practice that the technical side of my skill set. I can talk to marketing and not be technical, right. Translate what that technical language is in there. They can understand.

Learning how to code has also introduced me to so many people. I’ve attended meetups and I’ve met people there, who I would have probably never met and learned their story and how they got started and it really just opened my eyes to the tech industry. I think without it I would’ve just been in a totally different industry.

So I’m happy that I did pick up Codecademy. I’m happy that that article came across my browser or my phone at that time and that I was able to find an interest in something that was new and exciting. And I didn’t really know where it was going to take me, but it took me to where I am today and that’s all I can really be thankful for.

What tech resources do you use to stay up to date?

Irma: I usually listen to two podcasts and one of them is called Developer Tea, which is really great and then I also tune into which has Wes Bos and don’t remember the other guy’s name, but they’re both really great because they talk about the current trends of programming and tech in general. So that’s where I usually get my code fix and then I’m a part of a few different slack workspaces of folks that are either just getting into coding or already super experienced and they’re just there to really help others. Which I think is really cool.

So right now, for example, I’m trying to build out an MVP for a product idea that I have and so we talk to my slack workspace and just be like, “Hey, what approach do I take for this or is this the correct approach or is there a better way to go about this where I won’t be creating a lot of dependencies for my project?”

So those are the main things that I do. And then every once in a while I’ll go on to the Verge, which is super tech-oriented, not really coding much but that still give me an eye on what Google is doing. They just released Stadia, or they’re about to release Stadia,  things like that.

I really like just being in touch because technologies just move so fast and I’m like, “Can I keep up? I don’t know. AI’s coming around”. And you wanna learn all these things, but you only have so much time in a day so I have learned to just really pick and choose what I want to spend my time on because my time is really valuable and I should really only spend time listening or reading or talking to people.

You wanna make sure that you’re doing that because you wanna do it. Don’t learn a language because Joe said it was the right language to learn. Just be able to do your research and then kind of go from there ’cause time flies. So make sure that you’re really working on and listening to things that you wanna spend your time on.

What productivity hack is your favorite? 

Irma: For productivity, I use the Pomodoro Chrome extension. 

Chris: Ah, me too. We actually have a video on how to use the Pomodoro method.

Irma: You do? it’s great. So yeah I just go to take breaks and get up from my desk because I work from home so it’s good to get the blood flowing again. It just helps me to remind me like, “Hey, you’ve worked for X amount of time. Cool. Get up for 5 minutes, walk around, get some water, grab some coffee and then get back into it”.

And yeah, those are the ones that come to mind, to the forefront right now. I was in a phase where I wanted to use every tool, but I’m also cutting back on that because the more tools you have-

Chris: You mean everything or is there a tool called every tool?

Irma: Oh, no. Every tool.

Chris: All at once.

Irma: Yeah, I used to download every single tool out there and then I was just like, “I need to pick and choose”. I need to be more picky about what I download. Actually, look more into it. So yeah, those are the ones that come to mind right now.

Chris: One that I like, I know we’re talking about your tools, but I’m curious if you’ve heard of this one, is OneTab.

Irma: Yes, actually. Yeah.

Chris: It’s really simple. Yeah, but it kind of changed my life ’cause basically if you have 20 tabs open, you can click OneTab and it will just condense them into one tab and make a list of all the things that were open and so it’s really easy to go back.

Irma: Exactly.

Chris: Yeah. If you use it for five minutes, you’re like, “Oh, yeah. This is a

good idea”.

Irma: So it’s funny that you brought that up because I recently switched to Firefox as my default browser because I was like, “Data and privacy”. So I ended up finding this tool called Workona. It’s really cool. It’s very similar to OneTab and pretty much it creates projects for your browser. So let’s say you have the One Month podcast browser, right, you can create a project called the One Month podcast and you have all your different notes or your podcast page open and that’s just like all that holds.

And then on top of that, you can maybe have the OneMonth course, and the One Month course browser only holds things related to your course, but maybe what you’re planning on doing next. It’s really interesting because it just keeps everything on one single browser and you can just tab switch into all these other projects that contain all your other tabs depending on what you wanna focus on.

So at work, I have one specifically for every project that I’m gonna have coming up and all those different projects have a document for this, a document for that and a sheet for this and it’s only related to that project itself. So what it allows me to do is just focus on one project at a time instead of having 30 tabs of 30 different things I’m working on I can just condense.

I’m only going to focus on X project for today so I’m only going to have this project open with five tabs that only relate to this project. So it’s really cool. Myself and another co-worker started using it recently and it’s really been helping us just focus on one thing at a time.

Why did you take One Month’s Learn JavaScript course?

Irma: [The course] was really, really great. I took it back in 2017. I did One Month’s Learn JavaScript course as I mentioned earlier, I think I said, “There’s no way you can learn this in 30 days”, right, but that’s not really the point. I think the point is, just like get your feet in what JavaScript is and in 30 days it really gives you the ability to feel a lot more confident in what you’re able to do.

So the really cool thing about One Month, and what I remember when I took it was that each week, (it’s like a four-week course), each week on Sundays, you have a project and that project pretty much builds on what you learned the past few days. And that really helped me because it kept me accountable to what I was learning. So I was like, “Cool. Let’s learn about API this week”. And I didn’t just learn about it and not do anything, right. There was a project that I had to do. And it was due on a certain date and a certain time.

So it creates this sense of, “Cool. Somebody’s going to be checking this and I really need to do it and it’s really going to help you at the end of the day if you do the project”. I mean, really put the effort that you need to put into it. So it was really great.

I would definitely recommend it to anybody who’s interested in learning JavaScript. Even if you’re a super starter, it goes into what you need to know from the beginning and instructors are great. I really liked the fact that your work was graded and if there were questions, I could just send them in Slack and there was a community there to help out. So yeah, I really enjoyed it. I think you guys did a really great job with the course

What language do you think should be the first language to start with if you have no experience learning to code?

Irma: If you have no experience? Like you’ve never heard HTML and CSS probably, right? Yeah, I would definitely start [with HTML an CSS] and I would also suggest people to research, like literally just Google, “How does the internet work?” right. Because that gives you a lot of information that you didn’t know usually about how browsers work, how they process code and how the internet works in general.

I think it goes through the HTTP protocol and how that works with the server, then your climb facing the computer and how it all connects, and how one thing has to give permission to the other thing to load the page on the browser.

So I think it really helps people really connect like, “Cool. I’m not just writing HTML and CSS.” There are other things that are happening with my code in the background that I can’t see because this is built, I don’t know how many years ago and it just all happens, and that’s why things can load onto a page, and this is how HTML loads to the page and how CSS loads to the page. So definitely my suggestion is to start with understanding how the internet works, how browsers work, and then at the same time dabble into HTML and CSS to start. For sure.

Chris: Great. Cool. Well, thanks so much for joining us on the show today. It was so great to talk to you. If people are listening and they wanna find out more about you, where do they go?

Irma: The best place to probably reach me is Twitter. So and then I also have a website where I just have a little bit more about myself, what I’m doing and I have my email there so if you’re interested in chatting more, definitely reach out.

Final Thoughts

That is another episode of Learn to Code here at One Month. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. We are on iTunes. You can leave a rating. That would be super, super, super helpful. Thank you in advance for doing that. I love you, I really love you. Does it feel nice to hear that in your headphones? I love you. I love you, I do. I really like a rating, I really do appreciate it, it helps.

Share the podcast with a friend who is learning to code if that’s helpful to them. In future episodes, we will talk with some more successful people from a variety of different fields, whether it’s data journalism to product managers to engineers, doctors, all different people who are learning to code and using it in their job. And I think that’s just such a fascinating and exciting thing to look at. So we’re gonna look at that. We are also on Spotify and YouTube

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Why this product manager learned to code


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Chris Castiglione Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.