If you want to learn how to become a product manager and oversee the products companies sell, there are multiple avenues you can take.
Product managers work for technology companies, brick-and-mortar retailers, financial services companies and other businesses. Their goal is to boost revenue and profits from the products they’re responsible for.
Some product managers have a technical background. Others have business experience or a business degree.
This guide explores what you need to know to get started – and get hired – in this in-demand career.
And to learn more check out these courses and certificate opportunities:
Product management includes the development, design, manufacture, launch, marketing, sales, customer support and improvement of products. Though product managers don’t do all those things themselves. They create a vision for the product, set goals and expectations, and manage people who run those departments.
“Businesses rely on product management to guide their strategy as it relates to how every key stakeholder contributes to its success or failure,” says Rebecca Rogers Tijerino, president of Spherion, a human resources, staffing and recruiting company.
Stakeholders might include senior management, employees, customers and investors involved in a product’s development.
A product manager’s daily activities may include market research, data collection and analysis, and product design and development. Specific tasks may include identifying product opportunities, creating a vision for a new or improved product, developing a strategy to produce a product, launching a new product, tracking product implementation, and analyzing customer feedback and user experience data.
In a smaller company, product managers may be responsible for both the high-level strategic vision and individual project tasks. In a larger company, they may focus more on strategy and supervise a team that does most of the hands-on work.
“Whether you’re leading the growth of new, emerging products or services, or you’re in charge of guiding the life cycle of existing ones, product managers offer approaches to create value and build strong demand from key customer audiences,” Tijerino says.
Kate Zasada, a senior product manager at Zapier, says her role “sits at the intersection of engineering and design.” The company integrates apps so they work better for businesses.
“I work with our user research team to find out what factors prevent potential customers from signing up,” Zasada says. “Then I work with our design and engineering team to brainstorm potential improvements we can make to our product that are aligned with our company’s growth strategy.”
Zasada also creates product launch plans that include customer communications and metrics to track whether the new features improved the product.
Product managers need both technical abilities and interpersonal skills.
The skills required for specific jobs vary, but certain core competencies may be helpful to get hired and succeed as a PM.
Product managers need basic knowledge of business management, product management, business economics, industry and market trends, and product development and design.
They should know how to set goals, make decisions, prioritize, delegate, work across departments, build teams, collect and analyze data, set and track key performance indicators, and use customer feedback to improve products.
Other important skills include strategic thinking, leadership, time management, communication, negotiating, product roadmapping, problem-solving, conflict resolution and crisis management.
Product managers at tech companies may also need basic computer programming or coding skills.
Formal training isn’t necessary to become a product manager, but some education or experience in business, tech or psychology may be helpful.
Some business schools offer certificates in product management, with many programs offered online. Instructors may have been or currently be involved in executive-level product management roles.
“I would recommend looking at (certificate programs),” Tijerino says. “Even if you studied product management to some degree in college, learning the most current trends in the discipline is highly recommended.”
Zasada, who has a business degree, transitioned into product management after she was hired for a different job.
“The product team needed help understanding the right software to buy for our volunteer management process,” Zasada says. “I interviewed our volunteer managers and evaluated software options to make a proposal. From there, I was able to transition to the product team full time.”
Zasada now has eight years of experience in product management.
Product management used to be about gut instinct decision-making. Today, the field is data-driven. Dozens of tools and programs are available to help PMs collect and analyze data to guide their decisions, including:
- Roadmap software (e.g., Aha)
- Survey tools (e.g., Helio, SurveyMonkey)
- Project management tools (e.g., Jira, Trello)
- Programming languages (e.g., SQL, Python)
- Statistical computing tools (e.g., R, Google Analytics)
- Wireframing tools (e.g., Balsamiq)
- Design or prototyping tools (e.g., Adobe XD, Figma, InVision, Sketch)
- UX analytics tools (e.g., Hotjar, Optimizely, UserTesting)
It’s not easy to get hired as a product manager without some relevant experience, so you may need to start in an entry-level position in your company and transition into product management. You can work your way up to higher PM positions as you gain experience and develop your skills.
Here are some tips to get started:
Identify a product you can own from start to finish. Look for a problem and then design a product to solve it. You don’t have to do all the work yourself. As a product manager, you can bring others on board to help with market research, product design, marketing, and so on.
“Put your product skills to work by finding a way to launch your own project to get the skills of the job,” Zasada says. If you’re a student, you could do this “by participating in a student organization on campus, helping a nonprofit or community organization with a tech project they’re doing, or working on a side project.”
Volunteer to take on PM responsibilities. Talk to people at your company and offer to tackle some problems they’ve identified. Ask for feedback and be willing to make improvements to your solutions. Volunteering for work that goes beyond your job description helps showcase your skills and potential for a PM position.
Build a track record of developing solutions. Developing multiple products demonstrates that you can score more than one or two lucky wins as a PM. Be patient with yourself as you learn from your mistakes and don’t be shy about sharing your successes. A mentor or recruiter may notice you and help boost your career.
“Stand out with your accomplishments,” Tijerino says. “Show your ability to lead teams to success, even if it’s outside of a specific product launch. Team successes under your leadership can show hiring managers that you can motivate, inspire and cross-pollinate interdepartmentally.”
You can use social media or your own blog or YouTube channel to attract recruiters outside your company.
“Show off your product strategy knowledge by tweeting or writing blog posts with product breakdowns and trying to understand the decision-making behind a product,” Zasada says.
Apply for open PM positions. Once you have a track record of problem-solving success, you can start applying for jobs in product management. You don’t necessarily have to have the most experience; you need to show an understanding for what PMs do and that you have the skills to handle the job.
“If you’re trying to move up the ranks into a product manager role in your current company, demonstrate your desire, create a path and seek out a mentor who can help you get there,” Tijerino says.
The PM career path starts with an entry-level position like associate product manager and climbs up the ranks to senior management positions like director of product management. Stops along the way may include titles like product manager, senior product manager or lead product manager.
Some PMs work for companies that sell products to other businesses, while others work for companies that sell products to consumers.
PMs may work for startups, which are usually younger companies and may have mostly newer products, or established companies, which can be larger and have at least some mature products.
Product manager positions aren’t all the same. PMs may specialize in digital products such as software or apps, physical goods such as beauty products, or services such as auditing or consulting.
Product manager and project manager may sound like similar – or even identical – jobs, but these two management roles are actually quite different.
Product managers focus on goods and services that can be sold to customers. Their daily tasks typically involve problem-solving, data analysis, product goals and strategic decision-making.
Project managers organize, manage and track projects through multiple steps to completion. Their daily tasks usually involve executing action plans with others. These plans may involve deliverables, tasks, resources (equipment, materials, people), and delivery dates or deadlines.
Product managers and project managers may use similar tools to accomplish their goals.
You may want to continue your education with online courses, a traditional college degree in business or a technical field, a product management certification, or an MBA program.
An MBA may not be necessary to get hired as a product manager if you have at least some experience in management, product development or product design. This degree could open some doors for you if you don’t have that experience and want to step directly into a PM role, however. An MBA can also help you excel at the more analytical and business-intensive aspects of product management.
Beyond what you’ll learn, an MBA program may lead to internships, mentoring and side projects. An MBA may enhance your resume when you want to change jobs, land a promotion or be considered for a senior management position, like chief product officer.
The more you learn and the more skills you develop, the better positioned you’ll be for a successful career in product management.
Aspiring product managers can tap into a wealth of resources to learn more about this career.
Here are some suggestions.