The Ideal Product Manager Career Path

A career as a product manager can lead to a lot of exciting places. Product managers can help shape new, explosive startups, or take established companies in new and bold directions.

Product manager jobs are highly coveted, and traditionally rank in the top 5-10 on Glassdoor’s list of best jobs in America.

If you’re interested in becoming a product manager, or just curious about what product managers do and where they come from, keep reading. We’ll share all you need to know about a typical product manager's career path, and how to have a successful career in this field.

What is Product Management?

First, a quick summary of what product management is.

Product management is the process of managing the complete lifecycle of a product, from inception through to bringing product ideas to life.

It includes shaping the company’s overall product strategy, and creating a plan to execute on that strategy.

The aim is to help the company ship products that resonate with and fit the needs of their target customer. For this reason, product management doesn’t stop when a product goes live. It requires ongoing review, communication with customers, and consistent tweaks to the product vision, to ensure it stays aligned with the company’s goals (financial and otherwise).

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It’s not uncommon for people to confuse product management with project management, and project managers. There are some distinct differences, which we’ll cover a little later.

What is a Product Manager?

Product managers are people in a leadership role in the product management team, to whom a large amount of responsibility falls on to ensure the product management process goes as planned.

Product managers are responsible for ensuring the right products get built, and that they meet the needs of customers or clients.

The exact duties of a product manager often differ from company to company. In each organization, the product manager job description could look vastly different, depending on the size and scope of the business.

Some companies have many product managers, as well as executive-level positions higher up in the product management hierarchy. While smaller businesses may make do with just a single product manager.

What Do Product Managers Do?

Think of a product manager as a go-between for several different groups. They'll usually sit at an intersection between the marketing and engineering teams, as well as with customers and executives.

They collect feedback on what customers want to see from the product. Using customer feedback, the product manager can decide which features or improvements should be prioritized for upcoming development cycles, and use this information to build roadmaps.

The product manager also needs to communicate with the development team, to execute on a plan to ship new products or features. Product managers may not be in charge of the day-to-day process of building the product, but they are responsible for putting together an overall vision and strategy that aligns with the needs of the customer.

Then they'll work with the marketing team, to help align the product strategy with the public-facing marketing strategy.

Product managers may also work with the founder, owner and/or executives, to build an overall product vision that matches up with the higher-level vision and financial goals of the business.

This gives you an idea of the scope and leverage of a product manager’s role, which is why a product management career can be so lucrative and exciting.

To read more, check out this sample template for a product manager job description.

How to Become a Product Manager

Not much formal education exists for product management careers. The role of a product manager is still relatively new, compared to traditional careers, and the changing duties from one product manager to the next make it difficult to nail down a universal set of skills someone needs to learn.

An aspiring product manager might take informal courses to learn the ins and outs of product management. These are available from online course providers, as well as some traditional institutions (such as Stanford’s online course on product management).

More often, a product manager grows and learns the role through on-the-job training. Starting with an entry-level product position, an aspiring product manager will work closely with existing product team members to learn the ropes, eventually working their way up and accruing work experience along the way.

Product managers might also come from another area of the business. For example, someone from customer support, or sales, or marketing might transition to the product team.

It’s more common for people to grow and learn internally because of the unique nature of the product manager role in each business.

While there are some universal product management skills you can learn, the most important knowledge for a product manager is that which relates to their own business and customer base.

That’s why often someone from customer support or marketing might make a better product manager than an external hire. They know about the product, and what resonates with their customers. This is worth as much as what you can learn from a formal course.

What Are the Differences Between a Product Manager and Project Manager?

Product managers and project managers are often confused. There are a few clear differences between the two roles.

Product managers have more broad, high-level responsibilities. They’re in charge of things like strategy and vision, and their job is a long-term one.

The product manager might not be involved too much in the day-to-day tasks of building and shipping products. They may put together a plan, but it’s other people that ensure the plan is executed on.

On the other hand, project managers do manage the day-to-day aspects of product development. Their scope is a lot more narrow and focused than the product manager’s. They’re responsible for shipping a specific project, on time, to the right specifications.

This may involve checking in and coordinating daily with developers, designers and other key pieces of the team. They’ll be the point of call for any problems that come up related to the project, and it’s their job to find a solution.

The project manager’s job revolves around a single initiative. When that project is done, they’ll move on to the next one. Whereas, for the product manager, each project is just a small piece of their overall job.

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The Product Manager Career Roadmap

As we’ve already touched on, typical product manager career paths can go a lot of different ways. They can come up internally through the product team, shift over from other parts of the business, or come in as a product manager from outside.

Yet while a product management career path can be unconventional, there is a more linear path that some people follow in their career as a product manager.

Here's what a product manager's career path may look like:

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Now, let's delve deeper into the different positions in the product management heirarchy.

Associate Product Manager

A common entry-level role in the product development team is the associate product manager.

Associate product managers report to the senior or principal product manager, and assist with some of their day-to-day duties.

It’s an opportunity for someone to learn the ropes of what a product manager does, and translate the skills they’ve learned in courses or formal study into real-world applications.

The associate product manager may be given responsibility for certain tasks, such as market research, defining or planning specific features, or analyzing past results. But ultimately, they report back to, and take directions from, someone higher up the chain.

Junior Product Manager

Depending on the size of the team, there may be a step up from associate product manager to junior product manager.

There’s generally not a lot of difference between the two. Assuming the company employs people in both positions, the junior product manager should outrank the associate product manager, and take on a little more responsibility.

There would be less of a focus on learning, and more focus on hands-on work for the junior product manager.

They might be responsible for communicating with the engineering team to provide guidance on the feature or product that’s under construction.

Or, they could be given the task of collecting user feedback, and participating in a two-way dialogue with users, via a feedback collection tool like FeedBear.

For a business with a larger number of individual products, the junior product manager may take responsibility for one of the smaller products.

At the end of the day, this person reports back to someone higher, such as the senior product manager. But they begin to take on some ownership of the product’s success, and recognition should things go well.

Senior Product Manager

Next up is senior product manager role.

Most senior product managers come in with some experience in product management. The person has learned their way around the daily tasks of the job, and has a good idea of how to manage and ship products, as well as how to form a higher-arching product vision.

Some companies might split this role into both a product manager and senior product manager (with the senior product manager holding rank).

The senior product manager begins to take on a leadership role in the company. They may have to manage junior and/or associate product managers, and may also be involved in recruiting new people as up-and-coming PMs.

The role becomes more about strategy and vision at this point, rather than getting their hands dirty with the day-to-day.

A senior product manager could be responsible for bigger, more important products under the company’s umbrella, while junior product managers take on smaller features or tools.

Director of Product Management

Above product managers and senior product managers is the Director of Product Management, or just Director of Product.

This is a senior level role that generally requires management experience. The Director of Product Management reports to the executive leadership, and is responsible for the product team as a whole, rather than individual products, features or projects.

They’re tasked with building processes and other high-level initiatives to help the team perform better, as well as crafting overall product strategy.

Leadership skills become a must at this level. The Director of Product should mentor others in the product department, and help select the new people to step into leadership roles lower down.

In some cases, the Director of Product Management may also become a public-facing role, representing the company in public interviews or presentations.

VP of Product Management

The VP of Product Management (or, again, just VP of Product) is an executive level position, almost certainly distanced from the day-to-day operations of building and shipping products.

This position is responsible for the overall product strategy, and matching that strategy with the objectives of the business as a whole.

The VP of Product will also work to align the product management team with other departments in the company, in order to work together cohesively.

Hiring and budgeting are two more big focuses of the VP of Product, and getting buy-in from the top of the company for what the product team needs in order to thrive.

Depending on the size of the company, there may be one or several VPs of Product, or this position and its responsibilities may be rolled up into one of the other product team leadership roles we’ve discussed.

Chief Product Officer

At the top of the heap is the Chief Product Officer, or CPO.

This is generally a position that only exists in large organizations. Smaller companies may have the VP of Product in charge of the product team, or in some cases, not even that.

But for big corporations, with multiple VPs of Product, there is usually a CPO that sits above this.

The Chief Product Officer is an executive-level position, responsible for everything to do with product. This ranges from crafting and defining product strategy, to budgeting and hitting P&L targets, ensuring cross-department cooperation, to participating in press activities.

Do All Companies Have These Roles in their Product Team?

From company to company, the product department hierarchy, and as a result, the product manager career path within the organization, may differ. 

For example, not all companies will have a VP of Product, or a CPO, or junior and senior product managers.

The main factor at play is the size of the organization. Larger companies, with larger product teams, are likely to have a wider range of positions within the product team.

These companies might have multiple products with their own individual product managers, or even different VPs who are responsible for different products.

Yet a small, bootstrapped startup is unlikely to have a CPO, VP of Product, and multiple product managers. For these teams, it’s more likely that the CEO or a co-founder will take the responsibility of overseeing product. In some cases, they’ll effectively be the product manager themselves.

Today’s businesses are fluid, as is the role of a product manager. So don’t take the product manager career path as something that’s going to exist in exactly the same fashion in every company.

What’s the Salary of a Product Manager?

According to Glassdoor, the median base salary of a product manager in the US today is $125,317. That puts the average product manager salary well above the overall average for US workers, which is a little over $50,000.

The actual salary for a product manager will obviously vary greatly from company to company. You can generally expect to earn more as a product manager for Google, than at a small SaaS startup, for example. 

But, as the product manager is an impactful position in almost any company, they are almost always well compensated in comparison to other employees.

How to Succeed in a Product Management Career

There are a wide range of skills that help someone be a successful product manager. These include both hard and soft skills, skills related to building products and skills somewhat unrelated.

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Soft Skills

The main things that will aid you in a product manager career path are those that are valuable in any profession. Things like:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving

  • Communication skills

  • Leadership

  • Flexibility

  • Ability to learn

  • Ability to teach

These are all skills that most successful professionals hold. For a product manager, they’re especially important. You need to be able to lead a team, to communicate well, and teach those around you the skills and processes they need to execute their own tasks and responsibilities.

You also need to be competent in solving problems, thinking critically about the things that stand in your way, and be able to learn, and apply these learnings to practical tasks.

Flexibility is one more vital skill in the product management field, which can be dynamic and fast-moving.

Hard Skills

In addition to these general skills, more specific skills that can aid a product manager include:

  • Basic proficiency or understanding of code

  • Understanding of UX

  • Ability to conduct market research and data analysis

  • Knowledge of commonly used product management software

While the product manager usually doesn’t need to actually write code themselves, it definitely serves one well to at least have a basic understanding in this area, in order to better communicate with developers and engineers.

Otherwise, it’s important to know best practices in UX (User Experience) design, to help the company build products that are intuitive and easy for the customer to use.

Research and analytics skills are a must as well. A large part of the job is to understand where your product should fit in the market, and how you can evolve to better serve your target audience. So it's vital that you understand how to conduct user research, and can match both consumer trends and individual customer needs with your product strategy.

To read more check out What is Product Management

What Else Does a Product Manager Need to Know?

As well as dedicating oneself to learning and improving the skills mentioned above, anyone looking to grow and succeed in a product manager career path should focus on being a positive person to work with, a team player, and someone who understands business development, the goals of a business, and how a business can position themselves to fit the needs of their target market.

As well as that, good time management practices, and the ability to build efficient processes will help you run teams that work well and consistently meet deadlines.

That might sound broad, but that’s what product management is. It’s a broad role, which can be extremely rewarding, and put you in a position to be responsible for a large part of a company’s success.

Final Thoughts

There’s so many ways a product manager's career path can shape out, it’s hard to boil it down to a small, concise guide.

The role may be loose and fluid in a small startup. Yet in a big corporation, product management positions may be strictly defined, offering a clear roadmap to grow from an associate product manager, through to a VP of Product or CPO.

Likewise, some companies may look for people in leadership positions in the product team to have college or university degrees; yet with the lack of formal training that currently exists in this area, you’ll find many successful product managers don’t have any higher education.

Whichever path you find yourself on, focus on learning the core competencies that assist all product leaders. Leadership skills, communication, critical thinking and the ability to work in a team are all core tenets for any product manager.

Building these skills, as well as understanding the basics of development, UX and market research and analytics, will set you up for a fruitful career in product management.

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