Career: Should you learn to program?

Many people today seem to be advocating for everyone to learn programming. But you’re not going to learn programming at your age if you haven’t already. And you definitely won’t if it doesn’t really interest you. You can’t just “get technical” by sheer force of will. You need to be interested enough to spend a few hours figuring it out. You need a passion for it or else you’ll give up.

But there’s an alternative. You can learn programming logic using a scripting language. If you have a Mac and don’t know about Automator (available on all Macs running OSX), you should check it out. I use it for a bunch of stuff.

For example, I often want to resize an image to make it fit better on the web site. So I wrote this simple script in Automator:

resize images.jpg

I set the default value to 1280 but I also selected “Show this action” so when the script runs, I can change 1280 to 600 or whatever value fits best. You can do the same thing in Preview but I find this is easier plus I can use it on multiple files.

My dad wanted to export records from Contacts to Excel. (Strangely, that’s something you can’t do in Contacts. Sure, you can upload your contacts to Gmail and then download a CSV but that’s more trouble than my dad could handle.) So I wrote another script.

export contacts.jpg

In this case, Dad runs the script, chooses the Group that he wants to export (or leaves it blank for all groups). The script then passes that group to the next action, which finds all the people in that group, gets their contact info, and copies the result to the clipboard. Now just run Word or Excel and paste what’s in the clipboard.

Automator is like “drag and drop” programming and it’s something most people can learn fairly quickly. The key is to have an application that you want to automate. Like move a file to iTunes. Or extract the audio from a movie to make an audiobook.

I don’t know if you know it but technical people are a special kind of lazy. We never like to do the same thing more than once. We’d rather write a program to do it again and again. Like good product managers, we don’t just want to get it done; we want to get it done right so we don’t have to do it over.

If you’re not interested in learning how to write scripts, you can still learn to appreciate logic and technology. I know many product managers who have learned a lot of technical stuff just by asking for explanations. Don’t get befuddled. Ask for help. Get an explanation.

One product manager kept wasting his team’s time. He would say “do it this way” when he really didn’t understand the issues. I got him alone and explained what the people on his team were asking and explained what he had told them to do. I walked him through the capability step by step, and he was amazed. He didn’t know the product had the feature that I was describing and he’d been using it for years.

You can find a guide to help you, whether it’s someone on your team or elsewhere. Developers and other technical folks are glad to share their experience. Get a technology mentor to explain architecture and data structures and whatever technical challenges you need to understand.

A good product manager asks for help. Do you?