What is the Product Operations Career Path?

Product operations is an increasingly important part of the product ecosystem. This supporting function enables the success of the product management team. It frees them to focus on other demands on their time and attention. As product operations staffing matures, so has the range of titles, responsibilities, and career pathways in this discipline.

This article explores the skills and characteristics of excellent product operations personnel. It covers specific product operations roles. And explores where savvy professionals might find themselves in their product operations careers.

Significant Variation Exists Within Product Operations Roles

Prospective product operations professionals should familiarize themselves with the product operations manager’s role. There isn’t yet an established, consistent hierarchy or functional view of product operations found from company to company.

Generally, organizations develop product operations roles as needed to offload non-core tasks from product managers. The goals are to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and value-add of product management. As a result, product operations career evolution has more to do with the organization’s specific needs, size, budget, and industry.

A product operations manager at a smaller technology company may engage in different activities than someone at a larger firm. However, the consistent thread running through both roles is a focus on enabling the work of the product team.

Size matters quite a bit in this case. Larger organizations need a lean and intrepid product operations team to maintain consistency across products. Meanwhile, smaller companies need more tactical support around managing data, tools, and communications. The problems product operations must solve further shape product operations’ specific evolution at each company.

Questions product operations job candidates can ask during an interview

With all this variation, how can future product operations professionals find jobs that best fit their skills and interests? Beyond the usual screening questions about strategy, culture, processes, and values, product operations professionals may also want to ask some of the more pertinent questions below during the interview process:

  • How does the product team define successful product operations?
  • Where does the organization see product operations evolving in the next 2-3 years?
  • Does this role focus on one product, or does it span multiple products?
  • In what ways does this role support communication and information flow with other parts of the organization?
  • How developed are the organization’s processes? Is the role of product operations about building and documenting processes—guided by the needs and requirements of product? Or is it about refining, documenting, and shepherding the ongoing use of established processes?
  • Where does the product operations domain intersect with data?

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What Skills or Characteristics Make a Great Product Operations Professional?

Successful product operations staff always look for opportunities to increase efficiency. They are great at juggling multiple priorities guided by the lens of what product needs to be successful. A strong product operations worker must know the product well, which demands deep curiosity and insight.

Good perspective-taking skills are also necessary. Product operations must listen closely to stakeholders beyond just the product team, putting themselves in their various shoes and understanding their individual needs and concerns.

What do the sales or marketing teams need to know about a product? How can product operations help tailor information, metrics, and data for each audience so the right information gets to the right people in a timely manner?

Getting familiar with data is key to success

Familiarity with data is a great way to gain a foothold in a product operations career. Product managers face a firehose of customer data. And there are increasing calls for customer obsession and direct contact with customers. So, product managers sit at the intersection of both incoming and outgoing data. However, managing and automating this data is outside the scope of core product management duties. And here lies an opportunity to offload some of this wrangling to a product operations professional.

Organizing, automating, and making meaning out of this data tsunami is another critical product operations skill that lets product managers spend less time digging up or transmitting the basics and more time extracting the deep value that eventually informs the product roadmap. Pair this ease and expertise with data along with some deep product knowledge, and you become an invaluable asset to product management. In some cases, bubbling up insights that may not have been on anyone’s radar yet.

Finally, top-notch communication skills are essential. In many ways, product operations represents aspects of the product team to the broader organization more frequently than product managers. The cadence of reporting and informational updates play a key part in the representation.

What is the Product Operations Career Path?

With this appreciation for the developing nature of product operations and some important questions to help better understand the opportunity during the interview process, what are the roles typically found in product operations?

Some product operations roles include:

  • Product data analyst
  • Product operations specialist
  • Product operations manager
  • Product operations director

The brief list above is by no means exhaustive. However, it represents the general gist of the roles companies are currently hiring. Smart searchers will note terms such as specialist are a substitute for a coordinator, lead, team lead, etc.

In some cases, the job has a narrow focus. For example, serving as the business owner of an agile software tool such as JIRA, used by product management and other product development stakeholders. Other roles exclusively focus on customer data, such as product dashboards and KPI tracking.

Larger organizations with established product operations teams may have a hierarchy with job titles prefaced by an associate, senior, etc. But for now, top-level management product operations roles on par with a VP of Product or Chief Product Officer don’t really exist.

The number one focus of product operations is enabling the product team’s success. Since product operations supports product management, the product operations function ultimately reports to the head of product at some point in the organizational structure.

The following few sections look at the specifics of different product operations roles, including responsibilities, skills, and advancement opportunities.

Product Operations Specialist

This entry-level job is the perfect way to get your foot in the door in product operations. The role naturally touches on all the core areas of product operations. Successful candidates will demonstrate their ability to create and maintain systems to make the product team successful.

Data is important. So, each candidate should think about a time when they had to assemble and analyze data used for decision-making. Documentation, report building, and communication are also essential parts of this role, highlighting the “connective tissue” role product operations plays for product management.

Excerpt of responsibilities for a product operations specialist position (via LinkedIn) at Muck Rack

  • Building and iterating on systems that inform the tech team of key user issues and seeing through their resolutions.
  • Creating accountability systems that better track and circulate the status of feature development to inform internal teams
  • Documenting existing processes and systems within the product team for broader circulation.
  • Summarizing trends and themes from feature requests, support tickets, and churn reasons
  • Compiling reports on recent feature requests and upcoming launches to share with internal stakeholders.
  • Managing projects related to feature development and maintenance that sit within the product, engineering, and design teams
  • Improving the visibility of Muck Rack’s product roadmap to both internal and external stakeholders.
  • Gathering and analyzing product data, surfacing to relevant teams to inform the direction and understanding of key features

An entry-level product operations specialist role is an ideal vantage point to get a sense of the company. From here, you can get a good feel for the products and processes. In addition, specialists get exposure to various other stakeholder teams in the company. And the varied responsibilities create a foundation for an ambitious product operations professional to grow.

Specialists have a few options for advancement. They can move deeper into product management. Or they can drift away from product to operational roles on other teams. Alternatively, they can drill down to focus on just one component of the specialist role, such as communications or data or support of systems used by the product teams.

Product Data Analyst

Unlike the product operations specialist job, which tends to be more of a generalist role, the product data analyst role focuses more narrowly on data and its associated processes. This entry- to mid-level job focuses on the data generated by and used by the product team across the entire product lifecycle.

To be successful, the right candidate has data and analytical skills, familiarity with data tools, and demonstrated ability to develop, own, and manage data-related processes, data quality, and integrity. An interest in learning the ins and outs of both the product and any existing processes the product team uses is critical. Context is key, and understanding the product management context and details is essential to delivering real value.

Excerpt of responsibilities for a product data analyst position (found on LinkedIn) at MX

  • Monitor system performance and calculate success metrics.
  • Work with Product Management and Engineering to define, scope, and create new features to improve the classification & categorization engine.
  • Manage quality improvement processes and identify, track, report, and resolve issues in a timely manner.
  • Research merchants and locations to augment system coverage.
  • Plan, design, develop and perform quality assessments in the areas of Top Offenders, System Transaction Rule Creation/Update, Confidence Test Creation/Update, Validation of Model Predictions to document and evaluate performance and data integrity.
  • Configure, operate and develop manual and automated methods, processes, and procedures to test output or input based on data compliance, quality, and use requirements established by product management, client specifications, and governance programs.
  • Performs regular and ad hoc reviews, audits, and investigations of data activity and integrity; prepares reports and summaries of findings.
  • Produces and updates guidelines and documentation of data quality development processes, procedures, and standards.

When product data analysts are ready to move on to a new role, they have many potential opportunities. A product data analyst could lean into the operations and process portion of their past experience. Exploring other operational roles, perhaps guided by the departments they most enjoyed working alongside. Doubling down on data and moving into a different role in the data ecosystem is another possibility. For example, product data analysts drawn to the product management world could explore a shift from operations to product.

Product Operations Manager

Similar to the product data analyst role, the product operations manager role is a jack-of-all-trades to support product. However, it comes with a bit more ownership and creative control. This role is frequently the first product operations position an organization hires.

Candidates for this role may come from other operations areas, product management, data, or project/program management. An understanding of the needs of product management is key, as well as a strong process orientation and the ability to look ahead and think critically about where disconnects and breakdowns happen and avoid those outcomes.

Excerpt from a product operations manager job description (found on LinkedIn) at Clear Capital.

  • Take proactive steps to ensure the product management team and our processes and best practices scale with the company.
  • Craft and maintain practices for communication, cross-department coordination, product knowledge base management, project management, goal setting, metrics reporting, and executive updates.
  • Monitor and assess internal product analytics to help the team prioritize work and make well-informed decisions.
  • Create and maintain centralized repositories of competitive intelligence, customer feedback, and market segment use cases.
  • Own special projects including the creation of product documentation, creation of sales training tools, writing product requirement documents.

Much like the product operations specialist, the product operations manager has their pick of future opportunities based on the broad responsibilities of the role. Product operations allows an enterprising professional to learn and demonstrate a deep understanding of the product and the processes used for lifecycle management.

Subsequent roles could be deeper in product or focus on a particular part of the lifecycle, such as product launch or technical support operations. The most important aspect to leveraging a product operations background is telling a story about the impact of operations work on the product team’s efficiency and effectiveness, focusing on accomplishments related to the most relevant aspect of the next role.

Product Operations Director

Given the newness of product operations as a dedicated discipline, the scarcity of director-level positions in product operations makes sense. Some of the more senior roles in product operations focus on a specific product operations area. In some cases, this entails shepherding a particular element of product management. For example, product lifecycle, resource management, or strategic planning process owner.

Product operations directors have many of the same high-level responsibilities as product operations managers. However, they also manage a team of operations colleagues. For example, directors conduct the operational orchestra. They make sure each section comes in at the right moment and playing the right notes. And ensure the orchestra can work together and create beautiful music. While each element of product operations are important—data, communications, and process—the best directors bring a holistic approach to the role.

Excerpt of the responsibilities for a product operations director (via LinkedIn) at OpenSea.

  • Collecting, organizing, and analyzing product and customer usage data to help product management and executive leadership make informed decisions
  • Streamlining communication between the product teams and other teams in the organization
  • Documenting, standardizing, scaling product management-specific processes. Such as roadmap planning, feature requirements, and retrospectives. Also, business processes, including planning, budgeting, and reporting
  • Facilitating product feedback review and planning meetings
  • Identifying, prioritizing, and solving operational challenges to improve productivity
  • Developing and maintaining a continuing education program for product managers, researching and organizing information on product management best practices

Like other roles in product operations, directors’ future careers can go in many directions. They are guided by which product operations areas they find most enjoyable and fulfilling. Strong process leadership is an excellent skill for future directors. However, staking out a career in product operations leadership puts directors on the cutting edge of this important product function

Product Operations Can Lead to Many Different Paths

The vantage point product operations provides is unique. A budding product manager can look up from their rung in the organizational chart hierarchy and identify the top job. Meanwhile, a product operations manager must think more creatively about the skills they’ve honed going forward.

Asking themselves, “What parts of this function did I enjoy and why? Which parts were my least favorite and why?” further informs this career-oriented introspection. Moreover, the answers help point product operations professionals toward their next step. Whether that is climbing the ladder in product operations or a slight pivot into a related function.

A product operations career offers diverse opportunities as you grow and develop. The key is to focus on communication, data analysis, and automation skills. Also, you need a passion for systems thinking, repeatable processes, and product management enablement.

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