Yes – English Majors Can Lead Technology Teams (and Make $100k or More Doing It)

One of the misconceptions that kept me (and other English majors) from exploring various career options was that an English degree and technical jobs were incompatible. Why should someone who studied writing lead programmers or engineers?

Over on Medium, Lolita M. Taub writes about Jennifer Pugh, English major and technology product team manager for TakeLessons. Pugh’s story is proof even English majors can get one of the most sought-after jobs in tech.

What Should English Majors Know About Technology Product Managers?

Being a product manager is one of the most desirable jobs in tech right now. These individuals lead their products – from apps to websites to physical products – from ideation to public launch.

It’s a fun, rewarding, challenging, and lucrative job. According to GlassDoor, the average product manager salary in the United States is $108,659. Here are some sample average product manager salaries by company:

  • Facebook: $145,245
  • Adobe: $148,435
  • Google: $137,674
  • Target: $95,862
  • Starbucks: $103,911
  • Texas Instruments: $123,320
  • Zayo: $80,106

Even if you’re not looking to work for a giant company like Google, it’s clear having a product manager skillset is very lucrative.

Though a product team manager is a little different, there’s still nothing holding English majors back from learning the necessary skills for the job.

How English Majors Can Become Product Managers

English Major Technology CollaborationSo how can English majors who study literature and writing become successful product managers? Taub’s Medium post gives some answers. As Taub writes, there are 3 main misconceptions keeping English majors from pursuing jobs like this:

  1. Studying literature has nothing to do with product management or technology. Creating successful products relies on a fundamental skill all good English majors possess: the ability come up with an airtight thesis. When English majors sit down to construct a thesis, they have to examine the full experience of the text and find the most important parts to explore and derive meaning from. English majors are hardwired to constantly ask “what else could this mean?” When it comes to examining a user experience, PMs have to ask this question constantly. PMs know that finding the root issue of any problem helps you make the right product choices and saves you time and resources. The questioning nature of an English major can be extremely valuable when trying to figure out what could be going wrong in your product experience. Plus, once you figure out what you need to change in your product, an English major knows how to communicate that need to stakeholders because they are experts at creating airtight arguments.

  2. You’ll never use your creative writing skills. One thing I’ve found in Product Management is that there is no limit to the number of hats you might wear when working to launch your product. Many companies — especially startups — don’t have the luxury of separate departments handling things like product release notes, product launch emails, product copywriting, even social media posts. In my experience, part of being a good Product Manager is being able to step in and produce whatever you need to keep the product moving — which definitely includes persuasive writing skills and a creative eye.

  3. You’re not wired to understand complex technical issues. I would argue that English majors are in fact designed to understand complex technical issues. Anyone who has ever tried to make sense of Ulysses or wildly experimental poetry and has succeeded to any degree is capable of understanding complex technical issues. It’s all about decoding. Sure, you might need to get familiar with some new concepts to be able to speak the same language as a tech team, but there is nothing about an English major or anyone studying in the humanities that makes them less capable of digging into the nitty gritty details and coming up with great solutions. English majors are decoders and problem solvers by nature.

Do You Need to Know Programming to Be a Technology Product Manager?

“How am I supposed to lead a technology team if I don’t know the technology?”

That’s a great question, and the short answer is, you can’t. At least, you can’t if you don’t understand anything about the technology.

But with even a basic understanding of a technology, its capabilities, and its limitations, you can lead a product team to great success. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wrote about the late Steve Jobs,

Steve didn’t ever code. He wasn’t an engineer and he didn’t do any original design, but he was technical enough to alter and change and add to other designs. I did all of the Apple I and Apple ][ myself, including the feature choices. I did all of the BASIC myself (it’s in handwriting as I couldn’t afford an assembler). The only person who helped write some of the Apple ][ code was Allen Baum, who helped with the ‘monitor’ program.

This quote is pretty enlightening.

  • First, it’s clear Woz is a little hurt at how Jobs got so much credit for Apple when it was Woz doing the grunt work. (If you haven’t read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I highly recommend it. It elucidates Jobs’ great leadership abilities without hiding his general mean-ness. It’s fair.) When leading a team, make sure you give credit where it’s due.
  • Second, what we can learn from this is that it doesn’t require an engineer to lead engineers. Leadership is a skill, and you can develop it like any other skill. By practicing leadership, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, and where you need to improve.

How English Majors Can Develop Technology Product Management Skills

Developing product management skills is a lot like learning to become a copywriter or editor. You need to identify specific skills, make a plan, and practice.

Here are a few links to get you started:

I’d also read The Lean Startup by Eric Reis. It’s a great look into how successful small teams ship great products.

If I were in college again and wanted to learn this skill…

I would think of a web app or program I wish existed. (Could it be an app that automatically adds homework reminders to my calendar? Or a daily reading calculator to let me know how many pages per day I need to read to finish a book by a certain date?)

Then I would attend a computer club or web design club or even make a flyer saying I’m looking for a developer. (I might contact a professor in the information science/technology department and ask about getting in touch with student developers for a portfolio project.)

I’d also get in touch with a graphic designer who could help us develop an attractive, user experience (UX) driven app.

Finally, I’d have our team develop the app from planning to launch. We’d have to create a calendar, use a project management tool (like Asana or Trello), and go through revisions. This would give us a fantastic portfolio piece we could use to show employers and land those high-paying jobs. (Even product manager internships pay $5,000–$7,000 per month!)

Your Next Steps

Read Taub’s entire article over on Medium – it’s only a 5 minute read. Then begin researching product manager job listings to identify skills and types of experience I’d need to get the job.