A line drawing of a man surrounded by icons representing different aspects of product management.

How to Become a Product Manager: Best Career Advice

by Mads Soegaard | | 70 min read
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Becoming a product manager is a goal many aspire to, and for good reason. In this role, you focus on guiding the development and success of a product or product line.

However, becoming a product manager can often feel complex and daunting.

Are you curious about product management? This article bridges the gap between business, technology, and user experience.

Product management ensures a product's life cycle runs smoothly. It's about aligning strategy, vision, and user needs. Within this domain, there are multiple roles. There are technical product managers, growth product managers, and more. Each role comes with unique responsibilities. 

Let’s explore the journey to becoming a product manager and discover the nuances of various roles.

What Does a Product Manager Do?

A product manager crafts a new product's vision, strategy, and features. They set goals, inspire their team, and prioritize a product's success in the market. They remain vigilant about market shifts and consumer behavior

Here’s an overview of what the day-to-day responsibilities of product managers look like: 

  • Understanding user needs

  • Survey the market for competitive insights

  • Chart out a clear product vision, which can span multiple years

  • Share this vision with leaders, teams, and other interested parties

  • Collect research and feedback about the product

In some organizations, product managers also take on a project management role. However, if the roles are split, product managers work closely with project managers to keep product efforts on track. 

To clarify, let's differentiate between products and projects. A product is any offering, tangible like furniture or digital like a mobile app, designed to meet a customer's need. Meanwhile, a project consists of activities aimed at a specific result. This could be constructing a building or introducing a software feature. So, while a product manager conceptualizes, a project manager brings it to fruition.

A diagram showing the responsibilities of product managers.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Why is Product Management so Popular?

Product management's rising popularity is rooted in companies' business strategies. Historically, businesses have leaned heavily on sales and marketing-led growth models. Both models came with significant ongoing expenses. A shift towards product-led growth models (PLG) has emerged to counter these costs and boost growth, especially in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) sector. These models offer advantages like reduced customer acquisition costs and enhanced growth rates.

To underline the growing prominence of PLGs:

  • 34% more SaaS companies adopted PLG strategies in 2021 compared to 2020.

  • Product Plan’s 2022 report highlighted that 40% of respondents deemed product experience the most critical factor in customer acquisition.

As businesses lean towards product-focused strategies, the demand for product managers has surged. Consider these insights:

The future of product management looks even brighter for various reasons:

  1. Dynamic market conditions: With constant technological advancements, there’s a perpetual shift in market and user needs. Product managers are critical in adapting to these changes, especially in the SaaS industry.

  2. Human-machine collaboration: Despite the rise of AI, the human touch remains irreplaceable. Product managers ensure this balance with their blend of technical know-how and people skills.

  3. Digital evolution: Product managers are essential in the ongoing digital transformation journey.

  4. Diverse career opportunities: A background in product management opens doors to various roles, from associate to senior positions.

  5. Senior executives embrace product leadership: Reports show that 16% of companies have CEOs with product backgrounds, and 31% have established Chief Product Officer roles. Additionally, 55% of firms plan to amplify their investment in product teams. 

Thus, product managers' role will continue gaining traction as businesses shift towards product-centric models. Their expertise will help shape business strategies so that companies stay agile

How Long Does It Take to Become a Product Manager?

Your background, experiences, and aspirations shape your journey to becoming a product manager. It’s unique for everyone. The time it takes to transition into the role of a product manager varies, as it isn’t one-size-fits-all. So, let’s go over different scenarios to help you understand better the time it’ll take you to become a product manager.

Fresh Graduates

If you’re stepping out of university, you may find it challenging to immediately land a product manager role. Fresh graduates begin in entry-level positions like product associates or junior product managers. 

With a bachelor's degree, it might take 2-3 years of experience in these roles or closely related fields like marketing or engineering before a company considers you for a full-fledged product manager position. If you pursue an MBA, which many in the area do, that's an additional two years, but you emerge with better opportunities.

Total Time: 2-5 years

Professionals from Related Fields

Individuals from areas like software development, data analysis, UX design, or business development possess transferable skills in product management. Their familiarity with the product life cycle, user-centered design, or market strategies provides an advantage. 

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Watch this video to understand more about user-centered design.

Transitioning to a product manager role requires a holistic understanding of product management. You can undertake some courses or certifications to gain that understanding. Depending on your experience and adaptability, you could transition within 1-3 years.

Total Time: 1-3 years

Experienced Managers from Other Domains

Senior professionals or managers from different areas might have leadership, strategic thinking, team management, and technical skills‌. However, they might not directly understand product life cycles or user experience design.

If you have relevant experience, the best route for you could be a combination of formal product management training and on-the-job learning. Your managerial expertise can speed up the transition, but complete understanding might take 2 to 4 years, depending on your familiarity with user-centered design.

Total Time: 2-4 years

Formal Education and Certifications

Several institutions and platforms offer courses, degrees, and product management certifications. These programs, ranging from a few weeks to a few years, provide structured learning and exposure. While they won’t transform someone into a product manager overnight, they significantly bolster the transition, especially when combined with real-world experience.

Take a look at our learning path and learn how to become a great product manager.

Total Time: Course duration + 1-2 years of experience

Factors Influencing the Transition Time

  • Mentorship: Having a mentor in the product management field can cut down the learning curve. They can provide guidance, networking opportunities, and valuable insights.

  • Networking: Building relationships within the industry can open doors to opportunities, offer insights, and facilitate faster transitions.

  • Hands-on experience: Proactively taking on product-related tasks can provide invaluable experience.

  • Continuous learning: Staying updated and attending workshops, webinars, and conferences can accelerate one's readiness for the role.

While the timelines presented offer a guideline, remember that everyone has a unique journey. Thus, passion for products, a user-centric mindset, and determination hold more importance to succeed in the role.

The 12 Most Required Product Manager Skills

Product managers wear many hats and juggle various responsibilities. This demands a diverse skill set that includes both hard and soft skills. Here are some of the most crucial skills they should possess.

1. Market & User Research Skills

Research is the backbone of informed decision-making in product management. It equips managers with insights into customer needs, market trends, and competitor strategies. Essential market research skills include:

  • Data collection: Knowledge of methods like surveys, interviews, and focus groups

  • Quantitative analysis: Ability to interpret statistical data, understand market size, and spot patterns

  • Qualitative analysis: Understanding customer sentiments, preferences, and motivations

  • Competitor benchmarking: Analyzing competitors' products, strategies, and market positions

  • Trend forecasting: Anticipating market shifts and customer behavior changes

  • Creating reports: Presenting findings in a concise, actionable manner

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These skills enable a product manager to make data-driven choices, validate product ideas, and stay competitive. 

2. Technical Proficiency

While only sometimes a must-have, technical knowledge proves invaluable. A product manager doesn't need to be an expert coder; basic knowledge benefits them. 

Understanding the technology behind the product ensures effective collaboration with engineering teams. This knowledge:

  • Facilitates better communication about product features.

  • Helps in setting realistic timelines.

  • Ensures feasible product requirements.

3. Roadmapping Skills

An exceptional product manager delivers as committed. The ability to break down tasks, package them efficiently, and sequence them for maximum impact is essential. This skill translates to crafting a detailed product roadmap.

A comprehensive roadmap aligns everyone on upcoming features, timelines, and the broader product vision. It offers stakeholders vital context and ensures timely product delivery.

Moreover, it provides a panoramic perspective of the product's future trajectory. This insight helps in resource allocation and focus determination.

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4. Proficiency in Data Analysis and Research

A product manager must be adept at interpreting and applying data. Far from confining, an analytical mind combines strategy with flexibility.

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Watch this video to learn how to fit quantitative research.

Quantitative analysis helps product managers make various decisions, such as: 

  • Risk management benefits from statistics

  • Market insights influence pricing

  • Financial evaluations guide resource distribution

Being data-centric aligns with a goal-driven mindset. Tracking key metrics like customer conversion, user attrition, customer satisfaction, and feature uptake becomes crucial. These metrics evaluate product success, functional efficiency, and user satisfaction.

Moreover, self-sufficiency in research and analysis eliminates reliance on team analysts. Making decisions based on dated or irrelevant reports becomes unnecessary. Whether it's market studies, customer interviews, or product data scrutiny, top product managers gather the required data independently.

5. Strategic Thinking Skills

Strategic thinking is a culmination of planning and business knowledge. It directs a product manager to align the product roadmap with the broader company vision, facilitating product-led growth. 

A SWOT analysis exemplifies strategic thinking in action—analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. By mastering strategic thinking, product managers can make timely decisions, set achievable targets, and pivot as situations demand.

6. Prioritization Skills

A good product manager excels at managing resources, particularly time. This skill hinges on proficient prioritization.

Product teams can't achieve everything with limited time. Thus, it’s essential to recognize urgent tasks. This involves strategizing and answering pivotal questions:

  • Which projects should hold priority above others?

  • How should you sequence the tasks?

  • Which areas demand excellence?

  • Which issues need immediate action?

Effective prioritization yields impactful, tangible results.

7. User-Centric Approach

Companies build every successful product around their users. Successful product managers understand users' needs, desires, habits, and challenges. This involves:

  • Actively listening to customers.

  • Empathizing with their worlds.

  • Framing the product as their much-needed solution.

Tools like CRM, micro surveys, usability testing, and focus groups help product managers in this process. 

Knowledge in UX, especially UX management, research, and design, refine the ability to assess products and spot potential areas for improvement. It acts as an added advantage for a product manager.

8. Communication Skills

Effective communication is foundational for a product manager. Verbal and written skills are essential as product managers represent the product within the company and beyond. This includes pitching the product vision to internal teams such as engineering, sales, marketing, finance, and external clients. Also, product managers handle crucial written documents like technical product specs.

Here are the nuances of this essential skill:

  • Active listening: A product manager must understand others' views, respond well, and make impactful decisions.

  • Negotiating skills: With frequent resource limits, a product manager must argue for their goals.

  • Ability to push back: Product managers need assertiveness to prioritize based on importance. They need to decline tasks that stray from core objectives.

9. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize, understand, manage, and respond to one's own emotions and the emotions of others. It consists of several key components:

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing and understanding personal moods and emotions

  • Self-regulation: Managing and controlling one's emotions, especially in stressful situations

  • Motivation: Drive to achieve for the sake of achievement

  • Empathy: Understanding the emotional makeup of others

  • Social skills: Building relationships and managing interactions with others

High emotional intelligence allows individuals to navigate social complexities, empathize with others, and influence their environment. It's essential for product managers, as it promotes better communication and conflict resolution.

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For instance, designers might benefit from visual explanations, while developers need precise technical details. Emotional intelligence also plays a role in team management. Recognizing individual strengths and team dynamics helps a PM steer the team well.

10. Stakeholder management

Great PMs build authentic, trustworthy ties with stakeholders as they inspire and empower them. These bonds are essential for effective negotiation, conflict resolution, and aligning diverse teams toward common objectives. This balancing act becomes crucial when product managers juggle customer demands, engineering constraints, and revenue targets. 

Solid internal relationships translate to additional backing during crucial product stages or persuading an engineer for an urgent fix. Externally, they can motivate customers to test or try early product versions. 

11. Storytelling 

Storytelling can transform work into art. A product enthusiast captivates audiences with vision and persuasive storytelling. It helps spark excitement for the product. 

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Being passionate about your product paves the way to becoming a visionary. It demands curiosity about industry trends, participation in critical dialogues, and an understanding of your product's market. 

With this foundation and the skills mentioned, your storytelling will blend wisdom with genuine emotion. This combination captures proper attention and secures loyalty.

7 Crucial Steps to Become a (Better) Product Manager

7 crucial steps to become a better product manager.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Step 1 - Understand the Role

Before starting your product manager career, you must have enough knowledge about the field. So, you can start with some self-study. Look up blogs, read books, and listen to podcasts. Focus on understanding:

This will give you a clear picture of product management. Plus, it will help you decide if this career is for you.

Step 2 - Gain Relevant Education And Skills

There's no fixed degree for product management. However, studying business, technology, or design can help. 

Begin by evaluating your current skills against essential product manager abilities. List your strengths and identify areas needing improvement. This self-assessment will guide your learning journey ahead. Communication and problem-solving skills are versatile. So you can practice them in various settings.

Suppose you're more into flexible learning. Online options exist, too. IxDF offers courses tailored for aspiring product managers. These can boost your knowledge and make your journey into product management smoother.

Step 3 - Get Experience

Start in roles related to product management, such as marketing, design, or engineering. This experience helps in understanding different aspects of product development. Some companies offer associate or junior PM roles for beginners.

Where you work can offer chances to learn about products. Consider shadowing a UX designer, web developer, or product manager. Alternatively, chat with them over coffee or a Zoom call and learn from them. 

Learn what makes a product designer different from a UX designer

Engage in networking that aligns with your comfort and authenticity. If colleagues are product managers, consider a casual coffee or video chat with them. Participate in online communities, join local or digital events, and interact with fellow course participants who aspire to be product managers.

Step 4 - Build a Portfolio

As you learn and start implementing your skills, you’ll make way for creating a relevant portfolio for the product manager role. You can showcase relevant projects even if you haven't held a PM role. You must showcase ‘what’ you work on and ‘how’ you work on it. 

  • Document any product-related initiatives, from minor features you've ideated to user flows you've designed. 

  • Include challenges faced, solutions proposed, and outcomes achieved. 

  • If you lack real-world examples, create hypothetical product case studies. Describe a problem, your process, and your solution. 

A well-curated portfolio demonstrates your approach, thinking, and problem-solving abilities. You have to keep the portfolio updated, visually engaging, and concise. Potential employers value tangible evidence of your skills and capabilities.

Take inspiration from top product manager portfolios: 

Step 5 - Master the Tools

Familiarize yourself with platforms like Jira for task management, Figma for design collaboration, or Trello for project tracking. Being proficient in these tools can give you an edge. It's not only about knowing how to use them; it's also about understanding how they can streamline processes and enhance team collaboration. 

Attend webinars, watch tutorials, or take short courses to boost your proficiency. Stay updated as new tools emerge in the market, making it easy to work and collaborate with others. 

Your efficiency in using these tools demonstrates your commitment and readiness to transition into a product management role.

Step 6 - Stay Updated

Continually update your knowledge of product management. The tech and product worlds go through rapid changes, as do best practices. Subscribe to leading PM blogs, follow industry experts on social media, and participate in webinars. Engage in discussions on platforms like Product Hunt or Product Coalition to keep a pulse on emerging trends. 

Attend industry conferences to gain insights from the frontlines. This ongoing learning enriches your skillset and helps you bring the most current and practical strategies to your role. Being updated enables you to network better and contribute to conversations and discussions.

Step 7 - Continuous Feedback and Learning

A well-established feedback loop, where you collect, analyze, and act upon insights, helps you improve your work. It's not about receiving feedback but understanding and implementing it. In your initial days, you must treat your mistakes as learning opportunities. 

The product management field involves a steep learning curve. Thus, staying open to feedback ensures you remain on the right trajectory. You can cultivate relationships that encourage open communication and make it a habit to seek input. 

By intertwining feedback with ongoing learning, you position yourself and your products for greater success and innovation.

The Best Industries and Companies to Pursue a Career as a Product Manager

Best companies for product managers

There is no definitive answer to the best tech companies for product managers, as different companies may offer other benefits, challenges, and opportunities. However, based on some standard criteria that product managers may consider, such as salary, industry, work environment, and innovation, here are some of the companies that get mentioned as the best ones for product managers:

  1. Airbnb: Airbnb leads the travel and hospitality industry, offering product managers opportunities to work on products that shape unique experiences for travelers and hosts worldwide. Airbnb's culture embraces mission-driven, creativity, and diversity.

  2. Netflix: As a leader in the streaming entertainment industry, Netflix employs a data-driven approach to product development and remains committed to innovation. Product managers at Netflix work on cutting-edge technologies and products that change how people consume media.

  3. Amazon: Amazon leads in e-commerce and cloud computing, and product managers at Amazon work on products spanning multiple categories and businesses while leveraging Amazon's vast resources and data to make informed decisions with a highly customer-centric approach.

  4. Uber: Uber leads in the ride-hailing and mobility industry, and its product managers solve complex problems and create value for millions of users worldwide. Uber employs an agile, lean, and user-centric approach to product development.

  5. Google: Google is renowned for its strong focus on user-centered design and data-driven decision-making, offering product managers the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technologies and products impacting millions of users worldwide.

  6. Microsoft: Microsoft leads in software and cloud computing, with product managers working on products spanning various categories and businesses. The company celebrates its culture of innovation, collaboration, and unwavering commitment to continuous improvement.

  7. Apple: Apple stands as a highly sought-after destination for product managers due to its reputation for innovative products and an iconic brand. Apple's product development process is famously secretive and highly disciplined, known for its meticulous attention to detail and commitment to quality.

  8. Facebook (Meta): Facebook is a significant player in the social media and advertising industries, providing product managers with opportunities to work on products reaching billions of users worldwide. Facebook is renowned for its fast-paced, dynamic culture and its emphasis on experimentation and iteration.

These are just some examples of the best companies for product managers, but many more may suit your preferences and goals. You can use Bing to search for more information about these or other companies that interest you. I hope this helps you find your dream product management job!

The best industries for product managers

The role of product managers has grown with technological advancements. Here’s an overview of a few industries and the opportunities they present:

1. SaaS (Software as a Service)

The SaaS sector is growing at an exceptional rate of 25.89% over the forecast period of 2022-2028. It offers software solutions to businesses via the cloud and cuts down on traditional hardware expenses. 

With remote work rising, SaaS tools are more valuable. Tools like Slack, Zoom, or Trello exemplify how SaaS changes workplaces. There's a constant need for innovation in user experience, integrations, and security.

Example

Microsoft's Office 365 shifted from standalone software to a subscription model. This change requires frequent updates, improvements, and additions, which makes product management crucial.

2. Entertainment

The entertainment industry involves so many things. It includes movies, music, gaming, streaming services, etc. The way this industry creates and distributes content has changed over the years. It's because digital transformation has changed the way users consume content.

Example

Consider Netflix. It started as a DVD rental service and pivoted into a streaming giant. Product managers at Netflix oversee the platform's user experience and use data analytics to understand viewing habits. This data-driven approach informs decisions from interface changes to show the team needs to renew.

Games today, especially online multiplayer ones, are no longer static products. They evolve based on player feedback, bug fixes, and new content additions. Product managers in this space ensure that games remain engaging, balanced, and profitable over time.

3. Healthcare

Healthcare presents a unique set of challenges. With technological advancements, healthcare has embraced digital solutions for patient care, record-keeping, and even remote surgeries.

Example

Telehealth platforms have gained prominence, especially post-pandemic. Companies like Teladoc offer virtual medical consultations. Product managers in such firms must ensure the platform is user-friendly for doctors and patients. They need security to protect patient data and follow medical regulations.

Another aspect is wearable health technology. Devices like the Apple Watch or Fitbit track heart rates and sleep patterns and detect potential health issues. Product managers here focus on accurate data collection, battery life optimization, and seamless integration with other health apps or platforms.

4. E-Learning

Education has evolved with technology. Platforms like IxDF, Coursera, or Udemy need constant content updates, interface enhancements, and user experience refinements. E-learning's growth opens doors for product managers to redefine education.

Example

Duolingo’s gamified learning experience shows how product managers can make education fun and engaging.

5. Green Technology

The push for sustainability has put green tech at the forefront. It encompasses renewable energy, waste reduction, and sustainable transportation. Product managers here shape innovations that fight climate change.

Example

Tesla's energy products, like the Powerwall, show how product managers can help households become energy self-sufficient.

The average salary for a product manager

According to Glassdoor, the average total compensation for a Product Manager in the United States is approximately $147,058 annually. This includes a base salary of around $111,241 per year. Glassdoor derives the figures from its unique Total Pay Estimate model using median values gathered from user submissions. 

On top of the base salary, a product manager can expect an estimated extra compensation of $35,817 annually. It includes elements like bonuses, commissions, and profit sharing.

Career Path of a Product Manager

Career trajectory of a product manager.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Associate Product Manager

Starting in product management, you get the entry-level role of an Associate Product manager. This position allows you to understand the product market and its consumers. You report to senior product managers and perform data analysis and user interface (UI) design tasks.

2. Product Manager

As the central figure in the product life cycle, Product Managers oversee the product from start to release. They manage the roadmap for timely delivery and plan the product's development. Product managers must collaborate with UX, engineering, and marketing teams to ensure a seamless process.

3. Senior Product Manager

With added experience comes the title of Senior Product Manager. These individuals handle high-profile product launches and mentor junior product managers. They connect their team with the organization's upper management as a bridge for smooth communication and execution.

4. Director of Product Management

The Director of Product Management steps into a leadership role and gets more involved in strategic oversight. Their primary focus is aligning the product's or product line's strategy with the company's objectives. They must get the product team on board with the direction and rationale.

5. Vice President of Product Management

At this executive level, the Vice President of Product Management juggles budgeting, marketing strategy, and resource distribution tasks. Their role is crucial in adjusting product strategies to align with the company's vision. After all, it’s vital to achieve profitability and progress. Effective communication is essential as they present and rally support for the product vision.

6. Chief Product Officer

The chief product officer reports to the CEO and guarantees that the company's product strategies resonate with its overarching goals and values. With at least a decade's product management experience and experience in analytics, marketing, and UX, these professionals oversee every facet of product design and its eventual launch.

Reasons to Choose This Career Path: Product Manager Success Stories

Bianca's journey to becoming a Product Manager (PM) began with a keen sense of self-awareness.

As a fresh graduate, Bianca chased the "best" roles, only to realize they weren't the best fit for her. Unexpectedly introduced to PM by her manager, Bianca's diverse background, from Sales to UX Design, prepared her for this role. 

Two elements cemented her passion: collaboration and dynamism. She relished teamwork, where every day brought new learning and challenges. The PM role's unpredictability, from planning sprints to client interactions and crafting roadmaps, energized her. 

Her background in Marketing and UX empowered her to focus on design, customer experience, and captivating storytelling. Moreover, product management satisfied her innate love for problem-solving, where data and insights led to solutions. Bianca found joy in seeing a product go from ideation to launch. 

Today, as a PM, she likens her role to that of an orchestra conductor as she helps ensure harmony among diverse teams. For her, PM isn't a job; it's where her strengths, passion, and advocacy for customers align perfectly.

Darshana’s journey to become a product manager at Amazon

Darshana transitioned from a Software Engineer to a successful Product Manager at Amazon Web Services. She always enjoyed the user-focused aspect of coding more than the technical intricacies. While coding at Goldman Sachs, mentoring in the Technovation Challenge cemented her passion for product creation. 

Her innate interest in design led her to take courses in Human-centered design. She furthered her skills with a master's degree in Software Management. Networking in Silicon Valley, interning at Groupon, and a project with IBM gave her varied experiences. 

At AWS, her product management dreams flourished. She emphasizes that there's no fixed path to becoming a PM: degrees help but aren't essential. Passion for products, continuous learning, networking, and building products are pivotal. Aspiring PMs should embrace successes and failures while seeking constant growth and feedback. 

The Take Away

Product management is an attractive field. People aspire to get this role because of its impact and growth potential. In this piece, we discussed what product managers do. Their tasks differ from those of project managers. We also highlighted the skills a product manager needs.

To venture into product management, having an MBA is not mandatory. Yet, specific educational backgrounds can provide an advantage. The tech industry is a prime area for this role. 

If you aspire to become a product manager, you need to keep a few things in mind: 

  • Product management demands a mix of soft and hard skills.

  • Continuous learning and industry awareness are critical for success.

  • Get started on how to become a great product manager with 15 courses in four parts. 

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