Product Manager's Career Path

Product Manager's Career Path

As well as the product manager's job, the career path of a product manager is also ambiguous. If you want to become a product manager, what's the best way to do it? And what is the goal of the product management role? People just talk "product manager", but there are many types of product managers that you can be specialized in. In this article, I listed up articles to introduce the whole career path of the product manager, specialization, how to step up, and hierarchy of product manager.

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Table of Contents

  • Product Managers' Career Paths
  • What is the Product Manager Career Path?
  • Product Manager's Specialization
  • The Growing Specialization of Product Management
  • Becoming an (Associate) Product Manager
  • How to Become a Product Manager, Straight From a HubSpot PM
  • Product Manager to Senior Product Manager
  • Becoming a senior Product Manager
  • Senior Product Manager to Product Leader
  • Crossing the Canyon: Product Manager to Product Leader — Reforge
  • Product Manager - Hierarchy
  • Kwan’s Hierarchy of Product Needs: The Four Levels of Product Managers

Product Managers' Career Paths

What is the Product Manager Career Path?

By: ProductPlan (@ProductPlan)

Source: What is the Product Manager Career Path?
Source: What is the Product Manager Career Path?

Associate Product Manager
Associate product managers do everything a product manager does, but the scale is small. You need to set priorities for your projects, but you won't be needed to define the product strategy or roadmap.

In this role, you need to show empathy for the users and highlight your ability of problem finding and defining. Also, you need to demonstrate that you can collaborate with others and listen to all sides of stories.

During the work, you should tell the status of their product to all relevant stakeholders. You need to keep the balance between business objectives and customer needs by reconciling the business’s goals with benefits.

"An associate product manager continually answers the ‘this is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it” question. They rely on metrics to determine success."

For a candidate, hiring managers want you to have a clear interest in the users and passion for it. They tend to have a bachelor's degree in CS, business, or other related fields.

How to be a product manager?

Product Manager
Product manager is a "go-to" resource for other team members. You'll be asked for tactic moves, processes, and relationships. And you should be well-known by data. To get to this position, you'll need to have some professional experience and skills such as collaboration, prioritization, and communication.

How to be a senior product manager?
• It'd be best if you could demonstrate the customer's benefit from your product so that management can be confident you're doing your job well and help us achieve their goal. And you can define the specific users' problems and tie them with the product metrics and business goals. And everything should be operated properly and run smoothly.
• It's nice if you can spend more time making strategic decisions rather than reactionary tasks/questions because of being busy to accelerate your career.

Senior Product Manager
Most senior product managers do the same duties as associate product managers and product managers. But the senior product managers' duties are higher-impact and higher-visibility products. And they look more at the broader product process.

Senior product managers should have professional experience which shows the ability to consider on their own, and it should be an accountable and data-driven decision with interdependent factors.

Senior product managers should communicate product strategy with dependent teams, involving executives and other key stakeholders.

Needless to say, senior product managers should have deep product and market knowledge.

And senior product managers can lead associate product managers and mid-level product managers.

How to be a director of product?
• They should fulfill two requirements. The first one is to become an important source of advice for other product managers. And the second one is to become an advocate for the product teams to senior leadership.

Director of Product
A director of product needs leadership experience. And you should have experience of presenting to the executives and the ability to build a team to do the work you have done previously.

The director of the product more focuses on creating better processes, increasing overall team performance, and building consensus across the organization. And you regularly meet with members throughout the company and explain things such as things happening and their reason, things you need in the product, etc. Therefore, this role relies on data.

The director of product conducts a lot of market research such as the market trend, latest information, competitors' moves, best practice of new product, and how to improve the product development process, etc.

The director of product is a mentor for other product managers. You should find the product team's strengths and put them to work for their benefit as well as mentor product managers.

And you will make sure that your team understands everything happening at the executive levels of the company or market.

VP of Product
VP of product is a high-level support resource for the product organization and is responsible for the entire product vision and how it fits into the organization.

The VP of product's job and responsibility is to budget for the product organization, to ensure strategic product decisions are aligned with business goals, to protect the team from internal politics and infighting.

Usually, the VP of product spends time considering what's going to be needed for the team in a year. And to achieve the goal, you should organize a team and make them tactical.

VP of product requires 10+ years of work experience in product management in most cases. And having worked with development teams, managed them, and led product managers, designers, and engineers for at least 5+ years.

Chief Product Officer
Chief product officer is usually either the one that manages many VPs of the product as a product leader or just an expanded version of the VP of product.

The Chief product officer looks into a product portfolio to ensure that budget, staffing resources, and research are invested properly to maximize the ROI.

You're making strategic decisions for the 3-5 year timeframe. And you're setting product goals to inspire the team.

You're responsible for mentoring and motivating people to perform well across the entire organization. To succeed in this role, you need to develop, measure, and improve on objective criteria.

The requirement of experience varies for this role, but it is usually from 10+ to 15+, or even 20+ years.

Product Manager's Specialization

The Growing Specialization of Product Management

By: Adam Fishman (@fishmanaf) and Keya Patel (Linkedin @keyapat)

Even though every PM has a specialized field, many people think that there is a standard type of PM and their roles are equal. This happens because they are early career PM or have less understands of PM. But problems are arising when we think every PM roles are the same.

1. Tools don't transfer: PMs apply the same tool or approach that they are familiar with to all problems.

2. Slow and steady struggle: When a product area is new for PM, the PM could start struggling.

3. Focus fatigue: If PM roles are equal, they aren't sure where to focus. As a result, product managers' learning usually slow down.

4. Talent turmoil: Hiring a PM based on the achievement at another organization without verifying specific areas of expertise and skills.

5. Competing colleagues: A company or hiring manager compare PMs in the back of their mind.

Though every PM's role is different, there are commonly required skills for every PMs. That is usually;

  • "Technical & data comfort around analysis, interpreting dashboards and key call outs, understanding or setting metrics/financial goals, and working with developers/data science comfortably"
  • "Communication & collaboration to motivate and lead a cross-functional team toward a goal, while also getting buy-in from others (whether that be someone on another team or an exec)"
  • "Problem-solving to break down an ambiguous product/customer need and go about experimenting or iterating to find an appropriate solution"
  • "User understanding to empathize, listen, and co-create with the end customer and solve for an existing pain point or identify new pain points"
  • "Strategic thinking to recenter on larger picture organization, user, or investor goals while also taking into account the many moving parts across a team, product, or organization"

And there are four types of PM specialization.

Source: The Growing Specialization of Product Management
Source: The Growing Specialization of Product Management
  • Feature Work
    Most PMs work is feature work. Usually, Product managers start their careers in this field.
  • Growth Work
    "Growth product work creates and captures value by capturing more of the existing market."
  • Scaling Work
    "Scaling ensures that the product team maintains the ability to ship new things across the feature, growth, and product-market fit expansion work."
  • Product-Market Fit Expansion
    "PMF expansion is increasing the ceiling on PMF in a non-incremental way to expand into an adjacent market, adjacent product, or both."

Lastly, let's look into how each of these product work areas maps directly to the PM specialties.

  • Feature Work → Core PM
    "Product Managers that focus mostly on product feature work are Core PMs. Core PMs are laser-focused on solving for a customer pain point or need."
  • Growth Work → Growth PM
    "Growth PMs are typically laser-focused on the customer's journey with a product, through the lens of business metrics like acquisition, CAC, sign-ups, free trial starts, conversion/purchase rates, monetization, ARPU, and retention."
  • Scaling Work → Platform PM
    "Platform PMs focus on scaling product work. Platform PMs are laser-focused on their internal customers/needs and scaling internal platforms and services for continued organizational growth."
  • Product-Market Fit Expansion → Innovation PM
    "Innovation PMs are laser-focused on identifying and experimenting with new opportunities to reach and expand product-market fit."

Becoming an (Associate) Product Manager

How to Become a Product Manager, Straight From a HubSpot PM

By: Scott Judson

To become an (associate) product manager, you need to have skills such as creative problem-solving skills, strategic mindset, collaborative attitude, outstanding communication skills, high levels of empathy. But you can grow these skills through your experience, so you should have an attitude to enhance them.

If you're not a product manager yet, basically there are two ways to become a product manager. The first way is to become a product manager at a company that you're not currently working for. Probably, you can imagine this way is more common. Let's look into the steps.

1. Research the role and talk to current product managers.
You may connect with existing product managers on LinkedIn or watch YouTube videos of product managers explaining their roles. This should give you a much better picture of what the job requires, as well as some insight into the sorts of businesses that recruit product managers.

2. Take a product management certification course.
It is recommended for you to take a course in product management because the PM role seems complicated from the outside and it'd be hard enough to research about it.

And if you have a certificate, it helps your resume stand out from other candidates' ones.

3. Start a side project and document it — failures included.
Starting a side project and overseeing it from inception to finish is the best thing you can do. You can manage a product's life cycle from development to launch since you managed a project from start to finish. By showing how you solved the problem throughout the project as well as telling your failures and mistakes, you can prove that you learned it and have skills in managing the lifecycle of the product development.

4. Work on your communication and storytelling skills.
Product management needs strong communication and storytelling skills so that you can tell ideas succinctly while delivering high impact.

5. Build a technical background.
It'd be nice for you to have a rudimentary technical background because product managers usually work at a tech firm. And by getting this knowledge, you can show your future employers that you're willing to learn new technical things if needed.

6. If applicable, apply for an Associate Product Management program.
Associate Product Management (APM) programs provide fresh graduates and early-career professionals with the opportunity to enter the product management field. You can apply even if you have no prior experience. While the positions are temporary, many of the programs lead to permanent positions inside the company.

7. Apply for a PM role.
If you are accepted into an APM program, you will not need to complete this step. If you're farther along in your career or didn't get into an APM program, however, now is the time to apply for PM positions. It is recommended to start with smaller organizations and work your way up to larger and more well-known companies.

The second way is to become a product manager at a company where you're currently working. If your company has a product management team, you can follow this step.

1. Find a project you can own end-to-end at work.
If you're taking a product manager's certificate course, it can be an example. Not only the course but also at your company, there could be a project that you can own till the end. Or you can start a business by yourself. But the thing is to work on a problem set that allows you to try new ideas and fail. On your way to becoming a product manager, you'll pick up some useful tips.

2. Volunteer to solve problems as a side project at work.
Companies empower their workers to tackle the most difficult challenges, whether they work for a startup or a major organization. If you don't have the autonomy or time to work on challenges that aren't related to your main job function, keep exploring until you find one that you and your boss think is worthwhile.

You can identify a problem or inquire about it with your teammates or boss. In addition to your regular work, take on the chores of studying, testing with, and implementing a solution that you own.

3. Build a track record of tackling tough problems, conducting research, and leading cross-functional collaboration.
At your company or during the certificate course, there will be many challenging problems. As a candidate of a product manager, you need to work collaboratively. And what is important is that keep track of the projects and experiments you're working on, record your findings, and utilize what you've learned to start networking with your product team. Alternatively, if you're seeking a PM position outside of your current company, keep track of your accomplishments on a personal blog or in your LinkedIn profile.

4. Apply for a PM job opening at your company.
With your experience and record described above, you can apply for a product manager job opening at your company. You can demonstrate skills such as talking with prospects or customers comfortably, having expertise for the product role you're applying for, measuring, analyzing, and packaging key results for internal stakeholders. And these skills, experience of being successful and failure, collaborating cross-functionality, and taking ownership of the project will be your highlight in the interview.

Product Manager to Senior Product Manager

Becoming a senior Product Manager

By: Lenny Rachitsky (@lennysan) and Jackie Bavaro (@jackiebo)

Product manager's career is mysterious. We share the understanding that you start as an individual contributor and work your way up to become a CPO or Vice President of Product. What happens in the middle, though?

Jackie Bavaro describes the best framing for what to focus on to level up into a Senior PM. There are three most important differentiators of senior PMs:

1. Strategy

  • Senior product managers prioritize work depending on how much it advances the product's long-term strategy.
  • There are three parts to a strategy: (1) vision, (2) strategic framework, and (3) roadmap. You can start whichever you want.

2. Autonomy

  • Great senior PMs seek a lot of feedback and advice, but they can lead their team, deal with stakeholders, handle issues, and ship great products without their manager's help. They understand when to challenge the direction they've been given rather than accepting it as a given.
  • Autonomy doesn't mean just being capable but also winning the trust necessary to function autonomously. It needs proactive communication and a track record of successful launches to achieve this. You'll need to share your work with your boss on purpose.

3. Nuance

  • The more senior you get, the more judgments you'll have to make when the correct response is "it depends." These judgments are recognized by senior PMs, who reason through them in an organized manner. They can deal with confusing situations and difficult tradeoffs.
  • They can put out their thought process in minutes because of their product expertise and sophisticated mental models. They can quickly identify the most critical challenges to tackle in a confusing problem area.
  • Your coworkers and stakeholders are the ideal guides as you work on refining your sophisticated thinking. Take their worries seriously and keep an eye out for the underlying complexities. What are the conditions under which they'd be correct?

Senior Product Manager to Product Leader

Crossing the Canyon: Product Manager to Product Leader — Reforge

By: Fareed Mosavat (@far33d) and Casey Winters (@onecaseman)

There's a canyon between a senior product manager and a product leader. They see numerous careers stall at the transition from Senior Product Manager to a Product Leader. Because it's an almost different job and it requires several new skills. And it is difficult as the incentive of senior product managers and product leaders aren't aligned.

From an associate product manager to a senior product manager, you just keep solving similar problems, but the problems get difficult.

The key to the transition from senior product managers to product leaders are;

Depth in one type of product work → Breadth across multiple types of product work.

There are four types of work in product management, 1. Feature work, 2. Growth work, 3. Scaling work, and 4. PMF expansion. You'd build expertise and depth in one of these areas.

  • To succeed as a product leader,
     • Have a wider vision of product problems;
     • Maximize ROI across different types of product work and;
     • Go from an "I" shape to a "T" shape.

Being good at your job → training others to be good at theirs.

As a product leader, your value is evaluated on the total output of your team, not on your output. Therefore, you need to train other people to be good at theirs. But remember, your natural strengths are the hardest to teach.

And the most common trap this leads to is keeping the most important projects for yourself. This is called the manager death spiral.

Solving with the resources you have → Solving by allocating resources and influencing others.

Produce leader works across the organization. You have to influence others in the organization to solve problems outside your direct span of control. But usually, it's difficult because 1. Influencing Up and Across Is A New Skill and 2. You Are No Longer Judged On Your Success.

Gaining more personal scope → Creating more scope for the organization

As a product leader, you need to reduce your scope by shedding parts of your responsibility to enable new teams. And you should create a system so that you can get enough context and give enough context consistently in order to identify problems to course correct or escalate.

Product Manager - Hierarchy

Kwan’s Hierarchy of Product Needs: The Four Levels of Product Managers

By: Connie Kwan (@Conniekwan_)

The product manager's job is to make a decision. The higher risks your decision, the more experience you would want in your product managers to help make those decisions. As you see, there are four levels of product managers.

Source: Kwan’s Hierarchy of Product Needs: The Four Levels of Product Managers
Source: Kwan’s Hierarchy of Product Needs: The Four Levels of Product Managers

Level 1: Shipping ⛵️(PM)
"The most basic need that a PM satisfies is shipping features." This level's job includes debating with design on the right spec, testing some features the has customer's needs. And communicating with engineers about the feature on spec, working with engineers daily to release the product successfully.

Level 2: Planning 🚂 (Senior PM)
This role's PM is continuously challenging product-market fit and managing team for 3-6 months' midterm vision. And this role needs to draw out the customer's real needs. And these product managers are required to create a vision for the product using multiple inputs, then rally the team on the vision.

Level 3 Strategic ✈️ (Director to VP)
The strategic PM is going to take the company's vision and make pathways to BHG visible. They validate each of the pathways and find ways to test and reduce the risk.

Level 4 Strategic Partnering 🚀 (CPO)
A company needs CPO when your company is growing rapidly. CPO helps set and reinforce the company's product culture. And CPO brings the opportunities of partnership with outside of the company with CEO and CFO. Also, this role creates and tells the product story, for your team, board, and users, and helps sustain your company's revenue and fundraising flow.

Hope this article helps you understand the whole picture of product managers' career paths. If you have any questions, please DM me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Remember what you should do next?

Don’t just read this article or the attached product management articles. Instead, highlight where you resonate with and leave your thoughts and learnings with Glasp so that you can look back at them anytime and we all can get smarter at the same time ;)

See you next time,



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