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 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?
- Is Product Management A Good Career?
- The Product Manager Career Path
- Other Product Roles
- Product Management Skills
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?
In its list of 50 best jobs in America for 2022, Glassdoor ranked the role of product manager at #10. Considering there are thousands of career paths out there, that's a pretty impressive standing!
Over the past five years, demand for product managers has exploded. The number of product manager roles in America increased by 32% over a two-year period from August 2017 to June 2019. Since then, despite mass layoffs in the tech sector in 2022 and 2023, product managers have largely been spared—and the future of product is looking brighter than ever.
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 $51,480.
It bears noting that the places where product managers are most sought after tend to be areas with high costs of living, such as the Bay Area (San Francisco, San Jose, etc) and New York, which contributes to this stark contrast. 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.
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 or Junior Product Manager
The entry-level position is an associate product manager, otherwise known as a Junior Product Manager. Bigger organizations with large product teams tend to make use of these entry-level product manager roles, who tend to be fresh graduates. Associate/junior product managers may also come from one of the disciplines mentioned above.
How can you get your first Associate Product Manager position?
If this is you, and you're trying to figure out how to break into product management without experience, remember that every great PM has done it! Here are some steps that can help you kick start your career in the field:
- Build your product knowledge: Start by learning about the products and industries that interest you. Read product management blogs, books, and articles, attend conferences and webinars, and take online courses. Understanding the basics of agile methodologies, product development, and design thinking is essential.
- Gain relevant experience: Look for opportunities in your current role to work on projects that are relevant to product management, such as working on cross-functional teams, running small projects, or participating in hackathons. This will help you gain exposure to different aspects of product development and show your potential to employers.
- Build your network: Networking is critical in product management. Attend industry events and connect with other product managers on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Join local product management groups or online communities, and participate in discussions to gain insights into industry trends and best practices.
- Leverage transferable skills: Even if you don't have direct product management experience, you may have transferable skills from other areas, such as project management, data analysis, or UX design. Highlight these skills on your resume and in interviews to demonstrate your potential as a product manager.
- Apply for relevant jobs: Look for product management roles that align with your skills and interests. Start with entry-level positions, such as associate product manager or product coordinator, and work your way up. Tailor your resume and cover letter to the job description, and be prepared to showcase your skills and experience in an interview.
Building a solid foundation of knowledge and experience will not only help you succeed in your first product management role, but it will also help you "gut check" that this is the right career path for you!
What are the responsibilities of an Associate Product Manager?
Some of an Associate or Junior Product Manager's responsibilities include:
- Assisting product managers with their duties
- Conducting market research
- Gathering product requirements
As an associate or junior product manager gains experience, their responsibilities may expand and include:
- 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
For more information on the role of an associate product manager, read our guide here.
When is an Associate or Junior Product Manager ready to advance to a Product Manager role?
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. Here are the signs your first few years have prepared you well for the next step:
- You're independent: You have the ability to lead projects independently, including setting and achieving goals, managing timelines and budgets, and making critical decisions.
- You know how to get results: You meet or exceed key performance indicators, such as revenue, customer satisfaction, and retention metrics.
- You speak up: You proactively identify and solve problems, take ownership of issues, and propose creative solutions.
- You have market awareness: You can demonstrate a deep understanding of the product and industry landscape, with a focus on user needs and competitive differentiation.
- You're a strong project manager: You can successfully prioritize and manage multiple projects simultaneously, while maintaining a high level of attention to detail and quality.
- You have a growth mindset: You continuously seek out learning opportunities and take on new challenges.
Once you've proved that you're worth your salt at the Associate/Junior level and advanced to be a fully-minted product manager, your scope of influence and responsibility will be kicked up a notch.
What are the responsibilities of a Product Manager?
As mentioned earlier in the article, here are some responsibilities of a mid-level product manager:
- Determining customer needs
- Defining the product vision and roadmap
- Working with the product team and within cross functional teams
When is a Product Manager ready to advance to a Senior role?
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.
If you've been shooting for a senior title, you might have some questions about whether you're ready to move up. Here are some signs that you're primed for the next level, whether it's at your company or somewhere new:
- You're a leader: Demonstrated ability to lead and mentor other product managers, as well as influence and collaborate with cross-functional teams.
- You've delivered results: You can consistently deliver successful products with measurable outcomes, such as revenue growth, user acquisition, or customer satisfaction.
- You're a skilled manager: You have a proven track record of effectively prioritizing and managing multiple products or initiatives simultaneously, while maintaining a clear strategic vision for each.
- You're highly insightful: You have demonstrated expertise in market analysis, competitive landscape assessment, and user research to drive product decisions.
- You're an excellent collaborator: You have strong communication and presentation skills, with the ability to clearly articulate product vision, strategy, and progress to executive leadership, stakeholders, and customers.
- You have a solid foundation of knowledge: You possess a deep understanding of the product development lifecycle, including product discovery, design, development, launch, and iteration.
- You think like a strategist: You have a strong strategic streak and a willingness to take calculated risks, backed up by data-driven insights and analysis.
Senior Product Manager
Once you've reached the Senior level, your role will start to take on a higher-level focus. Your day-to-day will likely involve many of the same tasks as other Product Managers but you may work with more complex products and carry some level of authority over more junior PMs. Naturally, that comes with a higher level of accountability.
What are the responsibilities of a Senior Product Manager?
At this level, you'll be layering on such responsibilities as:
- Managing product managers
- Managing collaboration across cross functional teams
- Leading the product strategy
When is a Senior Product Manager ready to advance to a Director of Product or Product Leader role?
Senior product managers should have several years of experience under their belt—at least five years or more—before moving into a director of product role, otherwise known as 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.
With that said, there are far more senior product managers in the world than there are directors and product leaders. This is what sets these candidates apart:
- You have superb leadership skills: To become a successful leader or director of product, senior product managers need to have strong leadership skills, including the ability to motivate and manage teams, develop and communicate a product vision, and make difficult decisions—often without time to spare.
- You're an unflinchingly strategic thinker: Directors of product need to be able to think strategically about the overall direction of a company's product portfolio, as well as the individual products they oversee. Senior product managers who have a track record of thinking strategically and aligning their products with company goals make ideal candidates for this role.
- You're a master of cross-functional collaboration: Senior product managers who have experience collaborating with many other departments are better equipped to manage the many stakeholders involved in a director of product role. They should also have experience working closely with sales and customer support teams to profoundly understand customer needs and feedback.
- You have highly developed business acumen: Directors of product need to have a strong understanding of business metrics and financials, as well as the ability to create and manage budgets. Senior product managers who have experience managing budgets, forecasting revenue, and analyzing data to make data-driven decisions are standout candidates.
- You have unimpeachable communication skills: Directors of product need to be able to communicate effectively and diplomatically with both internal and external stakeholders, including executives, customers, and partners. Senior product managers who have strong communication skills and can articulate a clear product vision and roadmap should stay focused on honing these skills if they hope to advance.
Director of Product/Product Leader
Depending on the organization, the product leader or director of product may act as the head of product in the company—in other words, the role with the highest level of product oversight. This is more typical for startups or companies that have yet to introduce higher-level executive functions such as VPs of Product and CPOs.
Businesses that do have product VPs and/or CPOs in their executive team might still employ directors of product beneath these roles, or they may not—it all depends on the dimensions of the business.
As a result, the role can be difficult to define in a broad sense, but if you are beelining for this role, you can expect to focus much less on team oversight and much more on strategic vision. Decisions you make at this level will have broad implications for the business.
What are the responsibilities of a Director of Product or Product Leader?
The scope of responsibility within this role can vary quite a bit between organizations. However, some typical responsibilities at this level include the following:
- Owning the product vision and direction
- Hiring for product-based roles
- Owning the process for product development
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:
- Owning 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)
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 Manager||Product 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, make sure to 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 out: 10 Best Product Management Tools Of 2023
Also Worth Checking Out: How To Hire A Stellar Product Manager With This Interview Roadmap