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A Guide To The Product Manager Career Path + Roles And Skills

The career path of a product manager is a rewarding one, and one which is constantly growing in demand and has a high salary to boot. In its list of 50 best jobs in America for 2021, Glassdoor ranked the role of product manager at #3

In this article, we'll go over what a product manager does, the differences in various roles, product management skills that will help you be a great product manager, and how a product manager's career path might look.

It’s worth noting that product manager career paths can vary widely—the path you end up taking, if you choose to pursue product management, might look very different from the one outlined below. Most organizations will offer opportunities to explore different roles, interests, and responsibilities throughout your career. 

Here’s what we’ll cover specifically:

What Is A Product Manager, And What Do They Do?

As the product manager role has mostly popped up in the last couple of decades, what it entails will vary from company to company. However, typical roles and duties have started to become more clear.

For some organizations, a product manager may be a glorified project manager or a business analyst—after all, there are overlaps in what these roles can cover.

Here is a definition from Atlassian that I feel does a great job of defining what a product manager does:

A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.

While that is a good start, let's take a deeper look at what kind of responsibilities are expected of a product manager:

  • Determine customer needs
  • Define the vision of new products
  • Develop and refine the product roadmap
  • Define the product vision
  • Work with the product team and work within a cross functional team

These are just a few of the responsibilities that a product manager will have—for a more thorough list, check out our article on product manager responsibilities.

Is Product Management A Good Career? 

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Glassdoor ranked the role of Product Manager as the third best job in America for 2021.

The number of product manager roles in America increased by 32% over a two-year period from August 2017 to June 2019. 

In our article on product manager salaries, we found that the average product manager salary in the USA was $111,868, well above the average American income of $51480.

Now to be clear, product managers are highly sought after in areas with high costs of living, such as the Bay Area (San Francisco) and New York. However, with the rise of hybrid and remote work, the ability to work anywhere as a remote product manager role has become much more common. 

The Product Manager Career Path

Now that we've covered what a product manager is, let's take a look at how a product manager's career path may look.

A typical product manager career path might follow this path, but yours can vary widely, depending on your unique interests, skills, and background.

Do remember that the field is still young, and every organization is different, so there is no exact set-in-stone path for the product manager. It's common for product managers to come from a software development background, but it's also becoming more common for those with business or arts backgrounds to become product managers.

Associate Product Manager

The entry-level position is an associate product manager. Bigger organizations with large product teams tend to make use of the associate product manager, who tend to be fresh graduates. Associate product managers may also come from one of the disciplines mentioned above.

Some of these responsibilities include: 

  • Assisting product managers with their duties
  • Conducting market research
  • Gathering product requirements

 For more information on the role of an associate product manager, read our guide here.

Junior Product Manager

Next up would be a junior product manager position, although in some cases, this will be interchangeable with an associate product manager. For those that distinguish between the two, this role is more hands-on as a member of the product team and involves taking some minimal ownership of the product.

Some responsibilities for the junior product manager would include the following:

  • Collecting feedback from users
  • Working with developers to define features, user stories, and user acceptance criteria
  • Working with the product team to establish a cohesive product vision

Product Manager

The next major role would be the product manager role, which we've talked about at length in this article. To get to this level, it may take 1-3 years—this depends on your background and the organization you work for.

As mentioned earlier in the article, here are some responsibilities of a product manager:

  • Determining customer needs
  • Defining the product vision and roadmap
  • Working with the product team and within cross functional teams

Senior Product Manager

Once a product manager has around 3-5 years of experience under their belt, they can move up to the role of a senior product manager. At this level, you'll be taking on more responsibilities in your role, which include the following:

  • Managing product managers
  • Managing collaboration across cross functional teams
  • Leading the product strategy

Product Leader

Depending on the organization, before you get to a chief product officer or VP of product role, you may end up in the role of a product leader. One of the key differences between this role and a senior product manager is that the product leader is much more focused on the product itself, while a senior product manager takes on more management duties.

Some product leader responsibilities include the following:

Chief Product Officer/VP Of Product

All the way at the top is the chief product officer, or VP of product. Organizations may have one or both of these roles, depending on the org structure. For these roles, main responsibilities might include:

  • Owing the overall product strategy of the organization
  • Aligning how the product team works with the rest of the organization

Related Podcast you can read/watch/listen to: Using Product Strategy To Make Meaningful Impact (with Chanel Maddox from Crema)

Other Product Roles

One thing that causes confusion in the product management field is the difference between what a product manager does compare to what a technical product manager or a product owner does.

Again, depending on the organization, what one organization sees as a product manager may be what another organization sees as a product owner.

Related Read: 5 Methods To Land A Technical Product Manager Role (Without Experience)

Product Owner

We covered the difference between a product owner and product manager in a previous article, but here’s a quick summary:

In regards to responsibilities, the product owner is in charge of the product backlog. They keep on top of the list of new features, changes to current features, and bug fixes, in order to reach the desired outcome of the product. 

The product owner has a more specialized focus compared to the product manager who is with the product from conception to launch.

Product ManagerProduct Owner
This role is all about the big picture for a product with the whole long-term project in mind.A role that looks at the smaller details rather than the big picture. Short-term focus.
The vision of the product. Making product vision into an actionable backlog.
Customer understanding.Advocate for the customer’s needs.
Prioritize features. Highlight needs for the development of a team.
Product roadmap.Backlog, epics, and user stories.

Technical Product Manager

There is also a technical product manager—how does that role differ from just a product management role?

Here are some of the responsibilities that a technical product manager has, from Aha!—The Product Manager vs. the Technical Product Manager

  • Works with the engineering team to define requirements, user acceptance criteria, and write user stories. 
  • Less focused on the customer, and more on how the product will work from a development standpoint, and how it fits in with the organization’s software ecosystem.

The technical product manager is more likely to come from an engineering or software development background. They are more focused on the how compared to the why in comparison to a product manager.

Once again, depending on the organization, what one organization sees as a technical product manager may be very different compared to how another organization sees this role.

Product Management Skills To Be A Successful Product Manager

In your product manager role, it's important to have a list of core competencies that you are constantly improving in order to further your career and excel in your current role. You're going to need a blend of both hard and soft skills.

While it's debatable which product management skill is the most important skill to focus on, I would put my money on empathy being the top skill that you want to focus on in terms of your core competencies as a product manager.

Why empathy? When you get into the thick of product design, working closely with your product management team, product planning, or working on the roadmap, it can be easy to forget that your customers don't have the same in-depth knowledge of the product that you do.

What makes sense for you in regards to the product design, the product vision, and how the product works may not make sense to your customer, who instead of spending 40 hours a week on your product may only use it every once in a while.

When in doubt, working on empathy and the ability to walk a mile in the shoes of the user is the best skill to work on if you want to be a great product manager.

In regards to other soft skills, some of your core competencies as a product manager should include the following:

  • Critical thinking. Be sure to think outside the box and come up with a number of possible solutions to address problems. Try brainstorming with team members, and working together to narrow down possible solutions.
  • Flexibility in approach. One of the best statements I heard about product management is to have strong opinions that are weakly held in the face of evidence showing otherwise. 
  • Communication skills. Depending on what your organization defines as product manager, you'll find yourself communicating with the user, software developers, other product managers, a senior product manager or product leader, your product team, or a cross functional team. Being able to manage across all these stakeholders and communicate a consistent product vision is key.

In regards to hard skills, here are some that you'll want to have in your product management tool belt:

  • An understanding of programming. Again, depending on your organization this may vary and be more in line with a technical product manager, but having an idea of programming will certainly help when working with developers so you're not completely out to lunch when talking with them.
  • Writing user stories. You'll want to have an understanding of what users are looking for, and how to take those requests and put them into user stories for the development team to work on, along with user acceptance criteria.
  • An understanding of UX. Having a strong connection with your UX team, along with some UX best practices and techniques, such as design thinking and customer journey mapping, are helpful to know.

For a more in-depth look at product management skills to develop, check out our guide here.

What’s Next In Your Product Management Career Path?

With that, you now have a good idea of what is expected of a product manager, what skills to work on, and how the career path of a product manager may look. 

It’s a rewarding path both from a personal and financial standpoint, with the ever-increasing demand. 

If you’re looking to learn more about product management, do subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter.

Make sure you're well-equipped to do your job, here's a list of tools you should go and check: 10 Best Product Management Roadmap Tools For 2021

Also Worth Checking Out: How To Hire A Stellar Product Manager With This Interview Roadmap

By Paul Lopusushinsky

Paul Lopusushinsky is the founder of Playficient, which uses many product management techniques to improve the employee experience.

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