A Personal Website is the Best Starter Project

I’ve written a lot about the importance of building side projects and the skills they develop in product managers. In this article, we turn tactical; I believe a personal website is the perfect first side project for a non-technical aspiring product manager, and over the course of this article I’ll explain why.

What To Build

Think of this as a mini PRD:

  • A publicly accessible site
  • That contains the most important facts about yourself as you wish to present yourself to the world
  • And the followup details that a visitor may be inspired to seek out from the aforementioned facts
  • In a clear, efficient presentation

This lays out a vision. As a first step, I suggest outlining the specific set of features necessary to bring your personal vision to light.

Skills Learned

Two of most recognized programming languages* are HTML and CSS. Obviously writing your own HTML and CSS will be a great introduction to those languages and to programming as a whole, but this projects offers even more hard skills.

An important project learning is to mimic a real-world software development process. As such, it’s important to use Git to save your progress along the way. You’ll get your first taste of commits, PRs, and if you’re (un)lucky, the benefits a version control system brings by allowing you to refer to and roll back to previous versions of your code.

Depending on how advanced you make the project, you’ll also encounter DNS records. It’s an important technology and useful to have worked with, but its most important benefit is presenting a totally new system for you to work with. The meta-skill developed through working on side projects is the ability to approach complex and unfamiliar problems. You’ll start with problems that are new to you, but will eventually work your way up to problems that are new, full stop. The role of product managers — and the products they’re building — is to solve problems. Reasoning skills that help you define a problem space, requirements for a solution, then develop a plan to bridge the two are critical to success. Start small by figuring out how to change some DNS records to point a domain to your site.

Finally, there’s the content that actually goes onto your site. It can be as simple as a collection of links, or as elaborate as a gallery and blog. Regardless, careful thought needs to be put into how your site presents you to the world. These are the design, copywriting, and storytelling skills PMs need to “fill the gaps” when a team needs someone to step up (you).

*There is some (needlessly pedantic) debate over whether HTML and CSS qualify as proper “programming languages”, as they are technically “markup languages” (Hyper Text Markup Language) and don’t produce executable code. However for our purposes, they contain enough of the characteristics of a programming language (namely, that they are unfamiliar to the project-undertaker) that we can safely lump them in here.


In the introduction, I presented this as the perfect first side project. The second reason a personal website is the perfect starter project is the momentum it builds. Finishing one project is exciting, and ideas will start to flow for what to do next.

Capitalize on that momentum.

Volume of shots is correlated to the quality of hits. Churning out project after project is the one of the most direct ways to build up product sense and the intangible auxiliary knowledge that separates great from good.

A personal website has all the necessary factors for side project success:

  • A known and proven user (yourself)
  • Complexity scope adaptable to ability (even if you don’t code, building a site on Squarespace still flexes design and copywriting skills)
  • For beginners, tons of existing examples from which to draw inspiration

Having experienced your first success, you’ll be much less likely to fall prey to an unfortunately common symptom, where projects start to feel impossible and daunting rather than conquerable. It’s a matter of mindset, which is why notching your first success is so important to starting your side project career.

Go and build! If you want to start with an example, take a look at my personal site, davidcai.me (source code link)


I put together a 9-part course on algorithms designed for non-technical readers that's a great, gentle introduction to thinking like a programmer. Get the course for only $5, or download the first chapter.