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Career Guide

How to Become a Product Manager

BrainStation's Product Manager career guide is intended to help you take the first steps toward a lucrative career in product management. The guide provides an in-depth overview of the design skills you should learn, the best available product management training options, career paths in product management, and more.

How to Become a Product Manager

How Do I Become a Product Manager?

There’s no cookie-cutter path to becoming a Product Manager. Across North America, Product Managers come from a variety of backgrounds, including communications, marketing, and engineering, to name just a few. What all these people have in common is that they’ve mastered a handful of hard skills – including customer research, the ability to identify market opportunities, and product modeling and roadmapping – as well as the essential soft skills a Product Manager needs, including strategic thinking, leadership, communication and collaboration skills, and especially empathy.

The hard skills can be rather straightforward to learn, though they will require dedicated study. The soft skills that set the very best Product Managers above their peers can take longer to hone – but fortunately, these can be developed while working in a wide range of fields.

Some of the core responsibilities of a Product Manager include:

Managing the product life cycle

PMs must oversee all stages of the product lifecycle, managing every touchpoint involved in creating, building, delivering, and distributing the product.

Managing across diverse teams

There are many people involved in the creation of a product, and PMs must serve as a liaison between various departments to communicate changes and meet deadlines.

Creating a distribution plan

Developing and launching a distribution or go-to-market plan for new products and services, which typically includes overseeing the budget for the entire project.

How to become a Product Manager in five steps:

  1. Learn product management fundamentals
  2. Get familiar with the product management process
  3. Study your line of business and industry
  4. Develop your own projects to build product skills
  5. Create a portfolio of projects to showcase your work

1. Learn Product Management Fundamentals

Product Managers work at the nexus of technology, business, and user experience. It’s a position of great responsibility: a product’s entire lifecycle, from ideation to launch and beyond, can rest on a Product Manager’s shoulders. For that reason, it’s also a position that demands proficiency in a number of different areas, both technical and social.

For many, the most effective way to learn product management’s technical skills (and gain practice using its social ones) is to enroll in a Product Manager bootcamp. In this type of structured learning environment, you can be sure you’re covering all the basics while avoiding misspent time, with continuous feedback from an instructor to help keep you on track.

Product Manager is one of the most lucrative jobs in tech. Even so, recruiters find Product Manager positions difficult to fill. One of the difficulties lies in finding candidates who are both seasoned and up-to-date on the latest developments in tech; it’s a position that necessitates continuous training – yet another reason Product Managers often begin working in a different field before transitioning to product management mid-career.

A deep understanding of your marketplace and your customer base, spotting new opportunities, and the ins and outs of usability testing, not to mention your business’s strategic goals, resources, and technical limitations is a lot to juggle. Certification will not only help you to master those skills, it will also give you the confidence to feel comfortable overseeing the process.

In a certification course, you’ll also gain the specific technical skills Product Managers need – like how to develop a go-to-market strategy, define your minimum viable product, position and price your product, and create competitive analyses and status reports. The list goes on: product launch metrics, A/B testing, version control, standard measurement platforms, familiarity with wireframing, UX design, and software development lifecycle methodologies like Scrum – all of these are things a Product Manager must be comfortable overseeing.

But ultimately, the distinction between a Product Manager’s hard and soft skills is a blurry one. The Product Manager’s job requires achieving technical goals by facilitating collaboration between other people – which means a product’s success is inextricably linked to how smoothly its development team operates.

2. Get Familiar With the Product Management Process

Product Managers need to be adept at identifying problems worth solving, both within the broader marketplace and in the product they’re developing. They need to understand which products their target customers will buy, and they must learn to ideate and test a minimum viable product to ensure a product idea will meet customers’ needs.

They also need to be able to assess how best to utilize their team members’ time and skills – not to mention how to run an efficient meeting. Most software development follows Agile Methodology, a process for software development based on an iterative approach. A clear sense of purpose is essential to the Product Manager’s success: with their attention constantly pulled in a dozen different ways, it’s crucial to keep the overarching product development framework in mind.

As you learn each of the steps in the product management process – beginning with strategy and developing your product roadmap, moving through to building out the product’s features backlog and user stories, and eventually the post-launch product analytics – you’ll gain greater understanding of how these steps add up to create a greater whole, and how the decisions you make today can affect the way the future steps unfold in the future.

A good certificate course will help you to develop not only your technical skills, but also the high-level thinking it takes to identify market opportunities and user needs. By the time you’ve finished your training, you should have experience simulating the entire product lifecycle, managing diverse teams, and creating a distribution plan.

3. Study Your Line of Business and Industry

Becoming a Product Manager means more than simply knowing how to create a product. Every product must fill a market niche, and to find that niche, you first need to know your market in an intimate and detailed way.

For this reason, Product Manager is not an entry-level job. No wonder, then, that the vast majority of product management professionals – 88 percent, according to BrainStation’s Digital Skills survey – started their careers in a different field. But like leadership and interpersonal skills, knowledge of the digital landscape is something you can acquire long before you begin your transition into product management.

In fact, experience in many different areas of tech can be a great asset to a Product Manager. Because the role touches on areas related to business, technology, and customer experience, and because it tries to find the optimal way to get those areas to intersect, a background in development, UI or UX design, sales and marketing, data, or even business can serve you well in the role of Product Manager.

This is good news for those looking to make a career change; the role leans heavily on a broad set of transferable skills that you can pick up in related fields, with being able to work cross-functionally among the most important.

4. Develop Your Own Projects to Build Product Skills

Once you’ve learned the basic skills required to see the product development cycle through from start to finish, you can begin putting together your own practice projects to continue reinforcing your skills and gain more experience.

While you may not be able to complete an entire product cycle yourself, you should be able to demonstrate your abilities within its individual steps – writing scenarios, for example, or building prototypes, or performing user-testing and analytics. Although working on individual steps of the process in isolation may not amount to a completed product, it will still give you the opportunity to practice brainstorming and strategic thinking, and to prove your ability to write clearly, catch your mistakes and recover from them, and achieve the outcomes you set out to achieve.

But product development is ultimately a highly collaborative process; to take your practice projects to the next level, you’ll want to connect to some like-minded people looking to demonstrate their own set of skills. Pairing with others – coders, for example, or UI designers, and even test-users – will not only enable you to put together more ambitious projects, it will also help you develop some of the most important skills a Product Manager should have: communication, collaboration, and especially empathy.

You may find you already have many of these soft skills thanks to your experience working in other fields – this is your chance to apply those skills to your new role. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to gain practice using these skills on your own. Product management is ultimately about making connections between people or departments tackling different tasks, effectively bringing them together in support of a common goal. It’s a role of great responsibility, but it’s ultimately about supporting a team, not telling it what to do.

5. Create a Portfolio to Showcase Your Work

Whether it comprises the coursework you complete as part of a Product Manager bootcamp, steps in the Agile Methodology that you’ve practiced on your own, or products you’ve worked on with a team – even relevant work from your previous jobs in other fields – your portfolio is your primary tool in showing off your talents to potential employers.

Because Product Managers’ work varies greatly depending on the type of products and companies they’ve contributed to, there’s no single template for how to put together a portfolio. Instead, stick to these two principles: first, use your portfolio to highlight your strengths as a Product Manager, whatever they may be, rather than trying to include everything. This means focusing on the projects you’re most proud of, but also on using those projects to emphasize your strongest attributes – whether that’s your background in UX design, your mastery of multiple programming languages, or a history of successfully managing large teams of people.

Secondly, make sure your portfolio presents each piece in a coherent way – how does it communicate what contributions you made, what obstacles you faced and the solutions you innovated to overcome them? Think of ways to frame your strengths as a narrative, walking employers through your process to demonstrate how you approach your work.

Your next step will be to get that portfolio in front of potential hirers. Sure, you’ll find Product Manager roles all over online job boards – but working Product Managers say networking inside or outside your own company (whether that’s inviting a senior colleague out for coffee or attending a mentorship event) is a better bet than applying cold to a job posting.

Depending on where you’re located, there are likely solid opportunities to meet with other people working in the field, such as the Toronto Product Management Association meetup or Product Management New York. The bottom line is that while making industry connections and diversifying your skill set will help set you apart, there’s no singular route to landing a job – getting to know more people, and in more areas, is to your benefit.

What is the Salary of a Product Manager?

According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a Product Manager is $108,992 in the United States.

How Do I Become a Product Manager With No Experience?

An overwhelming majority of Product Managers begin with no experience working directly in product management – more often than not, a Product Manager began in another field before making a mid-career transition. In other words, it’s definitely possible to become a Product Manager even if you don’t have any work experience in product management yet.

The key to making that transition is to grow your soft skills while working in another field, then to acquire the specific technical skills a Product Manager needs. Those soft skills, which include everything from communication, collaboration and team leadership to familiarity with the marketplace, empathy, problem solving, and organization – the list goes on and on – can often be practiced in fields related to product development, and even fields as unrelated as engineering or communications. Because so much of product management is about how you work with other people, there are opportunities to gain relevant experience in virtually any industry. (Unfortunately, you’re not likely to get a Product Manager job with no experience in any field; while many of the required skills are transferable, you’ll still need demonstrable skills to transfer.)

However: you will at some point also need to acquire the technical competencies related directly to the product development process. The most effective and efficient way to do this is to enroll in a Product Manager bootcamp with a curriculum tailored to cover all the basics, giving you up-to-date information and a clear overview of the industry as a whole. In a Product Manager course or other program of study, you can expect to learn skills like how to conduct customer research interviews and testing, pricing and revenue modeling, running design sprints, product roadmapping and ranking your features list.

Combining pre-existing experience with the instruction you gained in a bootcamp, you’ll be in a position to take on even the highest-level product management challenges, like assessing market conditions and identifying opportunities, and balancing the competing requirements of a business plan, technological possibilities and limitations, and (most importantly) the product users’ interests.

What Does It Take to Become a Great Product Manager?

To become a great Product Manager, you must look past core competencies to develop a series of interpersonal skills, which can affect individual project success, as well as your long-term career prospects.

Eight characteristics all great Product Managers possess:

1. Empathy

You can call it social awareness, emotional intelligence, or “good people skills,” but there’s no way around it: whether you’re conducting an interview with a customer, maximizing the user experience, or building authentic relationships within your own team, empathy is vital to the role of Product Manager. Product development is ultimately about real human beings—your coworkers, your users, your company’s leadership—and being in tune with all their needs and desires is the foundation of successfully bringing a product to market.

2. Leadership

For Product Managers, vision is a big part of the job. But it’s not enough to have a clear sense of what needs to be done—you’ll also have to share that vision with your teams and motivate them to reach it. And often, because they work cross-departmentally, Product Managers don’t have direct authority over the teams they need to inspire. In these cases, they need to rely on influence, persuasion, and even charisma, and lead by example to keep everyone focused on achieving a common goal.

3. Curiosity

This underlies all the things a Product Manager needs to know—the technical aspects of their field, the changing landscape of their marketplace—and the constant learning required to stay up to date. Curiosity also drives Product Managers’ interactions with users at the early phase of development, when open questions are under discussion. In a sense, it’s like a Scientist’s love of learning—what motivates research, in-depth analysis and A/B testing, and the experimentation with new ideas if not curiosity?

4. Creative Problem-Solving

It goes without saying that Product Managers solve problems—in fact, that’s a good shorthand for the entire job description. But especially as it applies to the design thinking method, problem-solving isn’t just a knack for sorting out practical issues; it’s also an important step in product development, making the leap from identifying and defining a need within the marketplace and being the first to innovate a product or feature to address it.

5. Triaging

Virtually nobody works with unlimited time and resources—and even if you were lucky enough to find yourself in such a position, you’d still need to weigh zero-sum options within the product itself. That is, not only does a Product Manager need to prioritize which problems the team will attempt to solve (and in which order), they also need to prioritize the features of the product itself. The first consideration comes down to product flowcharting and an ability to make appropriate business decisions and allocate resources where they’re needed most—while the second comes down to understanding the user’s needs and how the product features will function in the real world. In both cases, you’ll be facing tradeoffs, and it will be up to you to decide which course will lead to the best results.

6. Systematization

Product management typically comprises multiple projects running in parallel, all of them following a given process to see them through, whether that’s design thinking for UX or Agile for feature rollout. A Product Manager’s ability to effectively build processes like these, devising and administering the systems that will guide the different stages of development, requires a high level of organization and a great deal of familiarity with each step of the process.

7. Communication

Product management is collaborative by nature. You’ll be leading a team, or possibly several teams, as well as liaising with company leadership, presenting to investors and other stakeholders, and even sitting down with test users and clients to gain a better understanding of their needs. In fact, as a Product Manager, you’ll be connected to virtually everything the company does, from sales and marketing to product implementation, essentially acting as the hub between market, development team, and business—and routing information between all three. Obviously, an ability to listen, understand, and convey what’s important back and forth is paramount.

8. Self-Management

As if it wasn’t hard enough to manage a product’s journey, you’ll also have to manage your own, both on and off the job. You’ll need a cool head, an ability to work under pressure, and a clear sense of both your own priorities and your company’s. This isn’t just about short-term performance, or even self-care; it’s also the skill that will guide the trajectory of your career as a whole. Nobody else is going to motivate you to keep learning and growing—you’ll need to be a self-starter outside the office in much the same way you’re leading your own team members inside of it.

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