What is the Product Manager Career Path?

The product manager career path is an exciting one with lots of possible on- and off-ramps. According to LinkedIn, interest in product management has doubled in the United States in the past 5 years.

At ProductPlan, we’ve surveyed and spoken to many product leaders about their career trajectories and past professional experience. We have found significant variation in titles, responsibilities, and hiring and promotion criteria.

This post will look at six typical roles a product manager might find themselves in throughout their product management career.

What is the Product Manager’s Career Path?

Good news, product management positions have only increased in demand in the last decade. It even ranks fifth on Glassdoor’s 2019 best jobs in America. Not a bad career to find yourself in if you enjoy work that requires a combination of strategy, design, leadership, and more. Here’s an ultimate guide to a product manager’s role for a list of the hard and soft skills needed for the role. With the right set of skills and a passion for solving a customer’s pain points the following could be a career path for you.

A list of typical product management roles

  • Associate Product Manager
  • Product Manager
  • Senior Product Manager
  • Director of Product
  • VP of Product
  • Chief Product Officer and Beyondproduct manager career path

Job Titles Can Be Confusing in Product Management

Some product organizations have associate and senior product managers. At the same time, others have only a single role with diversified levels of responsibility. Product managers in more extensive enterprise settings can even operate under titles that don’t distinctly list out “product manager” in it.

Titles like the delivery manager, program manager, or project manager are used instead of the product manager. This happens despite what that individual does in the day-to-day is, in fact, the work of a PM.

Factors like company size, budget, and business goals have an impact on how product team structure.

Even with the many different company-specific permutations, it’s helpful to establish a general product manager career path to help you plan your next move.

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Associate Product Manager

In terms of day-to-day work, associate product managers do everything a product manager does, but on a smaller scale. In other words, you may not set the product strategy or own the product roadmap, but you will set priorities for your projects. You may not be presenting product plans across the company, but you’ll be responsible for keeping your peers and manager updated.

This first stop on the product manager career path is not like school. It’s not about knowing the most, working the hardest, or beating the competition. It’s more of an art. The first step is demonstrating your empathy for the user. You must highlight your ability to identify issues and opportunities.

For this entry-level product role, hiring managers are looking for candidates who understand what product management is. Candidates must also have a clear interest in and passion for the customer.

Background preferences for this role include product marketing experience or project management experience. Hiring graduates straight-out-of-college is also common. Candidates tend to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, business, or other related fields.

In this role, you must prove you can collaborate with others. It’s critical that you can hear all sides of a story.  A main aspect of the role is to synthesize and assess different perspectives and arrive at a clear decision.

How do you stand out to become an Associate Product Manager?

Annie Dunham, ProductPlan’s VP of Product, says she always asks candidates to tell her about something they’ve recently learned.
This kind of question can reveal a lot about a person’s natural curiosity and passion for learning. You can also demonstrate these qualities using the types of questions you should ask during a product interview.

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“Product management is about empathizing with users, identifying opportunities, and collaborating with others.”

Since much of product management involves formulating and asking the right kinds of questions, you’ll also be expected to demonstrate your curiosity.

Associate Product Manager Responsibilities

Associate product managers are responsible for prioritizing tasks with a defined set of constraints. They are not necessarily determining which tasks they’re performing. Instead, they make scoping and prioritization decisions around the tasks or projects they’re assigned.
Associate product managers will collaborate daily with other product team members and other adjacent teams like UX and engineering.

During this work, they’ll communicate the status of their product to all relevant stakeholders. The job is to balance business objectives and customer needs by reconciling the business’s goals with benefits.
Common questions associate product managers as is if a feature is required, and if so, why? How is it solving a customer problem and moving the needle for the business? This last point introduces the importance of measurement.

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. Here is an excerpt from an Associate Product Manager job description (found on ZipRecruiter) at Validity:

Example Associate Product Manager Job Description

  • Contributing to problem and solution discovery efforts by conducting internal stakeholder and customer interviews and research, and developing and running experiments to validate concepts
  • Driving Agile ceremonies, including planning, grooming, demos, and retrospectives
  • Writing stories that articulate work to be done by Engineering in support of solutions and production support.
  • Working closely with Engineering to ensure solutions are ultimately delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner
  • Working closely with our stakeholder team to understand the business and adapt solutions as it evolves.
  • Supporting Customer Support, Sales Enablement, and Product Marketing in the development of feature descriptions and new release content
  • Maintaining a prioritized backlog that aligns with available Engineering capacity and maps to an overall solution roadmap.
  • Performing validation testing of production releases, bug fixes, and feature requests.

Do you always start as an Associate Product Manager?

It’s important to note that not all organizations structure their product teams with the Associate Product Manager’s role in mind, just as not every organization needs associate PMs.

However, allocating for associate PM roles allows for scouting and capturing the right talent early on. Stellar product managers can be challenging to get since they are in such high demand. Thus, attracting great junior talent and developing them is an effective strategy both from an output and budgetary perspective.

When are you ready to move from an associate role into a full product manager role?

You’ll need to be entirely on top of the above activities. You’ll have established yourself as the “go-to” person for your product set. Additionally, you will need to have developed an excellent working relationship with engineering, UX, marketing, and other teams.

It would be best if you were comfortable delegating some of your tasks to someone else and trusting in the process you’ve helped establish. You should be prepared to speak to what is needed in the associate role to mentor your replacement.

 

Product Manager

This mid-level product role is like the associate-level product manager position. Except that in addition to being the product’s “go-to” resource for other teams, you’ll also be the point person for the product team related to your product.
To get to this point on the product manager career path, you’ll likely need to come in with some experience. You don’t necessarily need direct product management experience. But you’ll need to have had some professional experience that demonstrates particular skills. Skills such as communication, collaboration, and prioritization.

You might not need hands-on product experience. Yet you’ll need to be able to speak to basic product concepts and walk in with a hit-the-ground-running attitude.

 Duties and Responsibilities

You’ll be consulted for advice on the process, relationships, tactical moves, etc., and will need to be confident and well-informed by data. Here is an excerpt from a Product Manager job description (found on SmartRecruiters) at Square for their Cash App division:

  • Develop innovative, industry-leading features and products that uniquely serve Cash App’s customers – differentiating via design and creativity
  • Identify opportunities and scope/research them to build a perspective on what we should be building.
  • Drive the strategy, tactics, and delivery timelines for your product area
  • Inspire your cross-functional peers to build strong partnerships in delivering excellent products and services
  • Influence key stakeholders throughout Cash App and Square overall to align resources and prioritization

When are you ready to move from Product Manager to a senior position?

Management will need to be confident you’re doing your job well that you are driven to help the team accomplish its broader goals.

It would be best if you had a demonstrable understanding of the customer benefit your product provides. To articulate the specific customer problems, it’s solving and tie product metrics to business goals in a compelling way. In other words, everything should be running and running smoothly. Internal and external customers should feel informed. Engineering, UX, and marketing should trust and respect you.
Managing all the moving parts and focusing on realizing value can be a difficult task. This is why it’s common for product managers to create a production process to rely on.

Effective product managers create a light amount of processes to save time further down the road. Which often leaves them open to consider the next move in their career.

Having more time to dedicate to making strategic decisions than reactionary ones due to being stuck in a crazy busy state will pay dividends in your product career’s acceleration. You’ll know it’s time to move on to the next point on the product manager career path because you’re hungry for more.

If you’re in this phase of your career and are looking for a sounding board, here is a breakdown of other product managers’ 10-year career goals from our recent State of Product Management Report.

Career Goals Product Managers | State of Product Management Report | ProductPlan

Senior Product Manager

At a minimum, a successful senior product manager will come in with professional experience that demonstrates the ability to think on their feet that they can be accountable for decisions and make data-driven decisions based on many complex, interdependent factors. That they can lead by example.

A senior PM should also demonstrate mastery of the three product manager communication streams. This role is often responsible for communicating product strategy with dependent teams. Involving executives and other key stakeholders when necessary.

On a final note, this role also requires deep product and market knowledge because of increased authority and responsibility.

The level of experience and insight that Sr. Product Managers can provide at organizations of all sizes is one reason they have sought after.

Depending on the org’s needs, it could make more sense to hire an experienced PM. Compared to a lesser-experienced one (associate product manager, etc.)—but of course, a higher cost comes with the gained knowledge.

Watch our webinar, Hiring and Growing a Successful Product Team, to see what product leaders look for when hiring senior PMs:

 

Duties and Responsibilities

Most senior product managers perform the same duties as described under the associate and mid-level product manager sections. The difference is that the duties come with higher-impact, higher-visibility products.

They can lead other, more junior product managers. Senior PMs also work with product leaders to contribute to and execute product strategy.

Other product managers might be heads down in the data or more involved with customer interviews and feedback. But senior product managers begin to look more at the broader product process. They start to become more of a voice for the product team to lead.

Here is an excerpt from a Senior Product Manager job description (found on LinkedIn) at Amazon:

Senior Product Manager Job Description:

  • Define products and services to improve grocery delivery quality to retain customers.
  • Develop a long-term strategy for your area of ownership and execute go-to-market plans for new features and offerings. Identify and mitigate enterprise risk.
  • Collaborate with other product owners, design, and engineering to bring your ideas to market through rapid iteration.
  • Build business cases, articulate strategy, sell your vision to leadership, understand the market, analyze consumer engagement, lead your team, etc.
  • Make hard, high-judgment trade-offs between features and speed-to-market
  • Present your findings to large groups, including senior leaders

How do you know it’s time to move from Senior Product Manager to a Director role?

Senior product managers are well-positioned to move on to a director-level role if they accomplish two things. First, become a critical source of advice for other product managers. Secondly, become an advocate for the product team to senior leadership.
This is especially true for senior product managers who consistently exhibit curiosity and passion. Not just for their product and customers but also for the production process itself.

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Director of Product

A director-level role in Product will require leadership experience. Other skills include excellent written and verbal communication, experience presenting to the executive leadership, and the ability to build and trust a team to do the work you previously did as a sole contributor.
The Director of Product role will further focus on building better processes, honing existing ones, improving overall team performance, and building consensus across the organization. Many Director of Product roles requires 10+ years of product management experience. But some smaller organizations hire directors with just 5+ years of product management experience.
For more technical Director of Product roles, a Bachelor’s in computer science can be required. However, more often than not, there is no mention of education requirements with this senior role. You’ll regularly meet with your peers throughout the company. You will explain what’s happening and why, what you need from the product, what product needs from you, etc. This role relies heavily on data. You will need your team to focus on individual KPIs while concentrating on connecting those small-scale numbers to the business’s broader success metrics.

Duties and Responsibilities

Directors of Product spend a significant amount of time researching the market landscape their product lives in. What’s the latest info on the competition? What are the new product best practices? How can we improve our product development process, the relationship between teams, and executive buy-in? Here is an excerpt from a Director of Product Management – IAM, Security job description (found on Glassdoor) at Salesforce:

Director of Product Job Description

  • Develop and drive the Identity product roadmap, driving critical capabilities from concept to customer.
  • Innovate by applying your Identity experience and best practice to deliver robust services in Public Cloud.
  • Translate product strategy into detailed requirements, user stories, and prototypes
  • Work with all stakeholders appropriate to our area to understand problems, desired outcomes and craft a solution.
  • Serve as a product owner on the scrum team(s) and work with engineers to deliver a quality product on time.
  • Engage with customers and partners to deliver roadmap updates, get product feedback, and identify additional challenges and opportunities.
  • Represent Salesforce as a domain and product expert at customer interactions

Other Responsibilities

Product directors are also a resource and mentor for the rest of the product management team. Product teams will have a variety of strengths. Part of a director’s job is to put those strengths to work for their benefit while helping individual product managers improve in other areas.

You’ll advocate for the team and your product strategy. You’ll own and present the product roadmap to the rest of the organization. Additionally, you will ensure your team understands everything happening at the higher levels of the business and the market.

You’ll take part in strategic projects as needed. Still, you will spend most of your time crafting a high-level strategy. Then ensuring your team’s activities are advancing that strategy in the most effective way possible.

VP of Product

At this level of the product manager career path, you are significantly less involved with the product development process’s hands-on activities.

There might be more than one VP of Product in a large organization, depending on the number of product lines. Whether there’s one VP or several, this role is a high-level support resource for the product organization. It is responsible for the entire product set and how it fits into the organization’s rest.

Almost all VP of Product roles require 10+ years of work experience in product management. Working with engineering teams and 5+ years managing and leading product managers, designers, and developers.

Common educational background requirements include a Bachelor’s in mathematics, statistics, or computer science. A Master’s/MBA is a strong plus.

Like with Director of Product roles, there are many job listings with no mention of specific educational background requirements.

Duties and Responsibilities

  • budgeting for the product organization,
  • ensuring that strategic product decisions align with business objectives,
  • protecting the product team from infighting and internal politics.

Here is an excerpt from a VP of Product Management job description (found on Talent.com) at Fast Radius:

VP of Product Job Description

  • Hire and Develop the best. Build a cohesive team and develop strong product leaders.
  • Set a vision. Collaborate closely with CPO & cross-functional leaders. Do this to translate the company vision and strategy into a product vision. Then create an OKR driven roadmap that employs technology and great UX.
  • Obsess over customers. Drive market research, user research, data analysis, and user testing that informs product requirements to build products.
  • Drive execution. Partner with Engineering to drive execution of the product roadmap. Advocate for small iterative release cycles to deploy quickly, test, and learn.
  • Drive adoption/engagement. Partner cross-functionally to develop the most compelling solution to drive product adoption. Then develop strategies to drive increased customer usage.
  • Build for scale. Empower the team to deliver the roadmap that balances feature development with long-term scaling.

The VP role is there to enable the product organization at a high level. To act as a check on activities from the business, C-level stakeholders, and, if applicable, the board of directors.

VPS of Product might also participate in speaking engagements and look at how it contributes to thought leadership.

Much of a VP’s time is spent thinking about what needs to happen with the team today to be ready for what’s coming a year from now. i.e., future-proofing your product and team. In this role, your product team is tactical, while you are primarily strategic.
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Chief Product Officer

If your organization has a CPO, that might be the next logical step for an experienced VP of Product. Chief Product Officer is either an expanded variation of the VP of Product role or one that oversees many VPs of product rolling up to one product leader.

Professional experience requirements range for this role from 10+ to 15+, to even 20+ years, depending on the organization’s industry and size.

SimSimilarillar to other mid to senior-level product management roles., Educational requirements also range. Typical listings mention Bachelor’s in computer science, business, finance, with an MBA being a plus.

Duties and Responsibilities

At this level, you’re looking at a product portfolio. Ensuring staffing resources, budget, and research are being invested in the areas that will provide the combined best benefit.

You’re tracking numbers 3-6 months out, but you’re making strategic decisions for the 3-5 year timeframe. You’re setting the aspirational product goals to inspire and push your team. “Here’s what we can be, here’s what we will be, here’s what success looks like this quarter, year, and so on.”

Here is an excerpt from a Chief Product Officer job description (found on LinkedIn) at Michael Page:

Chief Product Officer Job Description

  • Grow P&L by managing existing products and/or creating new product lines.
  • Create products strategy and own product roadmap; communicate these to all stakeholders, monitor development, and evaluate results.
  • Spearhead high-level product developments and enhancement and manage product lifecycle from conception to launch.
  • Formulate pricing and competitive positioning for each product.
  • Act as product advocator, participate in press activities, conferences, and discussion sessions with thought leaders and a market analyst.
  • Lead, manage, and mentor a team of Product Managers.
  • Work closely with a team of Engineers, Marketing, Finance, Operations.

Other Options for Product Veterans

Apart from CPO, there are many other options for veteran product folks: General Manager, COO, CEO, and more. Product folks tend to make great CEOs, GMs, and COOs because they’re used to working across the company to move business objectives forward.

The same methodologies they’ve been practicing their entire career. Understanding an issue, strategizing, prioritizing work, testing, validating, etc.—come into play at this level, although they look a little different.

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“Product managers make great CEOs, GMs, and COOs because they’re used to working across the entire company to move projects forward.”

You’ll make budgeting decisions not just across one department but across the entire organization. Relying as you always have on data and KPIs.

You’ll be developing, measuring, and constantly improving on objective criteria for success at this level. You’ll be responsible for mentoring and energizing people doing vastly different types of work across the entire organization.

In other words, at this point on the product manager career path, your product really becomes the product organization itself.