If you listen to those who consider themselves product management gurus, you might think you a computer science degree, an MBA, and experience working at one of the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, or Google) to have a fulfilling and fruitful product manager career.
I’m pleased to say this is simply not true.
You don’t need a computer science degree, although it can help.
You don’t need to have an MBA, but, again, it can help.
You don’t need to work for a FAANG company, but — well, you get the gist.
The reality is that product managers come from all walks of life. Wherever you are in your career, there are routes that can lead to the product management job of your dreams.
Table of contents
- The product manager career path is squiggly
- Defining product management roles
- What does a career in product management look like?
- Planning your product manager career path
- Transitioning to a career in product management
- Progressing through your product manager career
The product manager career path is squiggly
In the 20th century, most career paths started with a low-level role at a large company. At that company, you put your head down, worked hard, and, over the course of five to 10 years, you may have earned a promotion to the next level of the organizational chart.
Keep doing this and, over the course of 30 years or so, you might find yourself working in a senior management position in that same company, with a nice house and a good pension.
In the 21st century, this narrow, linear approach to career development simply doesn’t translate. People are more likely to have squiggly careers that journey through multiple organizations, roles, and industries. Today, product managers and other professionals can develop a rewarding career while being exposed to a wider variety of experiences.
Defining product management roles
As the product management profession has evolved, the roles within it have become more and more defined.
The definitions will vary a bit from organization to organization, but typical product management roles include product owner, product manager, group product manager, VP of product, and chief product officer (CPO).
The product owner is a heavily operational role. The PO is part of the delivery team and supports the engineering team in getting work out of the door.
POs often find themselves focused on writing user stories, handling queries around what’s being delivered, and planning for the next sprint or two.
The product manager role can carry a lot of variety depending on the organization. While the product owner is focused on short-term planning, the time horizon stretches into the medium term for the product manager.
This level of planning involves more product strategy — i.e., determining what to build, why, and measuring success.
Group product manager
A group product manager (GPM) has the same responsibilities as a PM but tackles them while also overseeing the activities of other product managers.
The GPM may well maintain their dedicated PM status on a specific product, but their focus will be on leading the product team toward success for their products.
VP of product
Further up the seniority ladder is the VP of product, who looks more strategically at product development, creating new products and teams and supporting their growth from planning to execution.
Chief product officer
The highest-level product role is that of a chief product officer (CPO), who is part of the C-suite alongside the chief executive officer (CEO), chief technology officer (CTO), and so on. The CPO is the leader of the product function within the business.
This executive is responsible for shaping product activities on their teams as well as preaching product-based thinking to the wider organization — ensuring that all areas consider what is being built, why it is being built, and how success will be measured.
What does a career in product management look like?
Looking at product management as a career, it’s difficult to nail down a single, tried-and-true career path. It really depends on what you’re interested in and why you want to pursue a career in product management in the first place.
If you love working as part of a focused squad full of talented engineers working to get features out the door, then your product career might lead you to roles such as product owner or product manager and go no further.
If you enjoy working in a product environment but get your joy out of supporting and coaching others, then you might start your career as a product owner before progressing to product manager and, later, group product manager.
If you’re good at planning and strategic, visionary thinking, then your career might follow the path of a product manager, VP of product, or chief product officer.
Planning your product manager career path
When it comes to making any sort of a plan, whether you’re developing software or plotting out your career, the first question to ask is, “Where am I now?”
Assess your current situation
For career planning, it’s best to start by asking yourself (and answering honestly) the following five questions to assess your current career standing:
- What does your ideal career situation look like?
- What do you enjoy about your current role and what elements do you want to continue with?
- What don’t you like about your current role?
- What qualities/skills do you bring to the table?
- Which of your skills are underutilized?
Assuming you’ve been honest with yourself, answering these questions will reveal a series of themes, whether positive or negative.
Your ideal career situation will most likely be one in which you can employ the skills you enjoy using and participate in activities that play to your strengths.
Set long-term goals
The next step is to plan your journey from your current position to your long-term career goal.
If you’re not yet in a product role, the good news is that most people working in product management transitioned from another career, such as project management, software engineering, design, or marketing.
If you’re in an early product role, the good news is that everyone who is in a senior product role has at some point been where you are before moving their way up the product career ladder. Opportunities to learn and certify your product skills are myriad.
Transitioning to a career in product management
If you are looking to transition to a product career, you should start by assessing the gaps in your skills and experience.
Fortunately, many of the skills that are essential for a successful career in product management are actually transferable from other roles.
For example, if you’re transitioning from project management, you’re likely to be organized, comfortable with documentation, and experienced with stakeholder communication. If you’re moving into product management from a design role, you might already have a good customer focus, understand the user’s needs, and solve problems creatively.
So, since you’ve already got some of the fundamentals in place, now you just need to focus on filling in the gaps.
For experience, you may not have been exposed to some of the product management core activities, such as backlog prioritization or user research. However, there are numerous ways to support your learning and prepare yourself for a product role, including:
- Content-based support — Read articles, listen to podcasts, and watch YouTube videos
- Course attendance — Earn a certificate in product management
- Community support — Join a Slack group and attend product community meetings
- On-the-job experience — Volunteer to support your product team or find an internship opportunity
Progressing through your product manager career
If you’re looking to climb up the product management career ladder, you should seek opportunities to demonstrate your skills and experience. This will support either an internal promotion or an external new opportunity.
If you’re actively managing your career, then you should know what skills and experience are required at the next few levels of the career ladder and should seek opportunities to support your progression.
If you’re a product owner looking to become a product manager, you can gain the experience you need by analyzing product data and making suggestions for future improvements. You could also find time to interview users and implement that feedback to improve the product.
If you’re a product manager looking to become a group product manager, you should look for opportunities to support the team’s growth through coaching and product enablement. You might consider sharing your knowledge in lunch-and-learn sessions or writing up how-to documentation in your company wiki.
Whatever your current role and future goals, you can always find opportunities to develop the requisite skills and demonstrate them to those who will support your move into a new position.
To summarize, here are the steps you should take if you’re looking to transition into or upgrade your product management career:
- Ask yourself the five “Where are you now?” questions as described above
- Create a vision of your career path based on these answers
- Ask yourself the two questions re: transitioning as described above
- Plan and take actions to move you closer to your goal
Featured image source: IconScout
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