Product Manager Career Paths: 3 Myths Debunked

When ProductPlan spoke recently with Brian Crofts, the Vice President of Product at Namely, as part of our Product Lessons Learned interview series, Brian made an offhand comment — it wasn’t even central to the point he was making — that we thought was so important that it spurred us to put together this post.

Brian, who before heading up product at Namely held various product management and finance roles at Intuit, told us, “Like most people, I didn’t go to school for product management. I studied economics and finance and discovered product management later.”

Most of what you’ve heard about the standard product manager career path is probably inaccurate — incomplete or anecdotal information at best, and outright mythology at worst. These erroneous ideas about what it takes to become a product manager and to advance in your product management career seem to have one thing in common: They suggest that the path to a long and rewarding career as a product manager is very narrow. But this is largely nonsense.

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So let’s debunk some of those product manager career path myths, okay?

Product Manager Career Path Myth #1:

You have to go to school for product management.

As Namely’s Brian Crofts explained in our interview with him, he studied economics and finance in college, and his first job out of school was as a finance intern at Intuit.

That’s probably far from what most people think is the standard product manager career path. But that’s our point: There really is no such thing as a standard career path for PMs.

Some executives, entrepreneurs and product managers will tell you that there is a surefire academic path to a career in product management. Some will argue that you should study business and computer science in college. Others will say that if you want to manage technical products, you’ll need a technology degree, and that if you want to manage consumer products, your best path will be a degree in design (combined, ideally, with a business degree).

These are all fine suggestions. You have to study something — and business, design and tech are certainly great subjects to learn. But they don’t explain the successful career of our friend Brian Crofts, who studied economics in college and is today in charge of product for a fast-growing HR software company.

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“As long as you are a lifelong learner, you can blaze a path into product management from any background.”

The truth is, a successful product manager career will require as much knowledge as you can bring to bear, across as wide a range of subjects and disciplines as possible. And with that in mind, as long as you are willing to be a lifelong learner, you can blaze a path into product management with just about any type of academic background.

Product Manager Career Path Myth #2:

To have a successful career as a product manager, you need to master… fill-in-the-blank [agile, waterfall, Six Sigma, etc.].

One interesting insight that came from our interview with Lea Hickman, VP of Product Management at InVision, was Lea’s comment that there have been fundamental changes to product management over the years.

“We are no longer in a world where we create 70-page PRDs and product specs to hand off to engineering,” Lea told us. “With the advent of agile and lean development methodologies, it’s fundamentally changed the work a product manager does, not only from a task perspective but also the type of skills that are required.”

Now, consider that statement in light of the first myth we dealt with above, that if you want a product management career you’ll have to choose from a short list of industry-approved disciplines to study in college.

What Lea was pointing out here was that the fundamentals of business, product management and development have changed — and, by implication, will likely change again in time. This means that if you took product management-related classes in college a decade or so ago, you probably would have learned PM processes that today would be outdated.

As Lea also explained, “Early on in my career, product management was more like project management. It was someone who was part project manager, part systems analyst — where you were writing very detailed specifications.” But today, she went on, “That has evolved into something where a product manager is more like a mini-CEO, someone who can understand holistically what the problems really are, identify if they’re big enough problems to go after, and work with a core team to find the most efficient way(s) to solve them.”

Notice that Lea wasn’t speaking about specific processes or tools or technologies needed to be a successful PM. She was speaking about the big-picture understanding of how a product manager can add value for her company — identifying problems worth solving, knowing how to work with a team to solve those problems, and taking full ownership for her product’s ultimate success.

Many PMs are mistakenly told to focus on mastering a process — Six Sigma or agile development, for example. And while those can be valuable tools for a PM today, they alone are no substitute for understanding exactly where you as a product manager are adding value to your product, your company, your customers and your industry. The tools and methodologies will always change. Agile is the development process of choice today for many organizations, and if you work for one of them you might as well throw your waterfall knowledge, ahem, over a cliff.
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But the fundamental principles of product management — knowing your customers, understanding their pains and desires, and solving problems for them in a way that benefits your company — those principles are timeless. And those are the real skills you’ll need to enjoy a successful product management career path.

Product Manager Career Path Myth #3:

For a successful product management career, the most important trait you’ll need is [whatever follows in this statement will be false].

There is no single most important trait or ability you’ll need for a successful career in product management. What people who hire PMs are looking for will vary according to industry, organizational culture, product team culture and even the individual interests and biases of the hiring managers.

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“There is no single most important trait or ability you’ll need for a successful career in product management.”

You might take this as a negative — because it means you can’t focus all of your time and energy mastering a specific skill, and then be sure it will lead to a series of increasingly important and fulfilling product management jobs. But we prefer to think of this truth as a positive — because it means that no matter what type of natural abilities you have, and what you’ve chosen to study, you can find PM roles that will allow you to express and hone those abilities and that knowledge.

And if you’re convinced we’re wrong about this one — if you’re sure there must be one all-important skill or trait that everyone hiring or promoting product managers is looking for — consider what we heard in our Product Lessons Learned interviews with today’s product leaders.

Lea Hickman told us that at InVision, where she heads the Product Management team, “We look for a very specific type of product manager. Our company solves workflow problems for design teams, so our PMs usually have a design background. The other key is that they be very entrepreneurial. We typically look for folks who have founded or started their own companies.”

But for Procore, a company that creates software for the construction industry, the skills Lea and her team are looking for wouldn’t get you very far. We interviewed Procore’s Director of Product Management, Shivan Bindal, who told us what he’s after in a PM.

“The most important thing I look for when I’m hiring is: Does this person demonstrate an insatiable amount of curiosity?” Another trait Shivan is interested in when hiring a product manager is “Can the person identify patterns intuitively as well as statistically? Can they look at a set of data or parameters or a set of answers to questions they’ve asked, and discern a compelling conclusion?”

And if trying to figure out what the most important trait will be to your successful product management career doesn’t seem difficult enough, consider what we learned in our interview with Scentsy’s VP of Sales, Marketing and Innovation, Julie Cabinaw. “When I’m hiring someone new,” she said, “The most important thing is passion. You can see that light in some people’s eyes where they just get so fired up; I call the raw meat factor.”

So, if anyone tries to tell you that there is a single skill, ability or trait that is the most valuable across the board for a product management career, chances are that person hasn’t yet worked for two companies. If they had, they would have likely found that every organization, and every product leader, is looking for something a little different in a PM for their team — a natural pattern-identifier, or someone who has founded her own company, or a person with an insatiable curiosity, or any of a hundred other traits that will play a key role for that company.

Our best advice: Study whatever lights your fire, and then start your career in whatever industry and in whatever role lights your fire. And never stop learning.

If you’d like more insights from today’s product leaders, we invite you to read our Product Lessons Learned interviews.