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How to Become a Product Manager

What is a Product Manager?

Ready to start your career in Product? Find out more about BrainStation's Product Management Course

A Product Manager is responsible for developing and delivering a product, from concept to launch to continuous improvement. A Product Manager’s role, however, will be slightly different depending on their organization and the product being developed. At some organizations, for example, a Product Manager will have a hand in the marketing strategy; at others, this is entirely external to the Product Manager’s job.

The scope of a Product Manager’s decision-making will also depend on the size and culture of the company. If they’re working at a young start-up, the Product Manager will likely have a great deal of input into which products get made, while also having to oversee everything it takes to get products built and out the door—from early research to quality assurance and even writing up the release notes. In larger tech firms, on the other hand, top executives typically decide which products get made, leaving Product Managers in charge of the user research and execution phases. At the largest of these firms, multiple Product Managers are also more likely to work in parallel on narrower bands of a single product’s development—focused solely on collecting and analyzing user feedback, for example, or developing the product’s technical features.

But while Product Managers are laser-focused on delivering the best possible product, that doesn’t mean their vision is narrow; someone in a product management role needs to respond to multiple factors, including:

  • The profitability of the business model

  • The possibilities and limitations of technology

  • The functionality and user experience of the product

Negotiating these three pillars — the customers or marketplace, the technological resources available, and the company’s business goals — is at the heart of what Product Managers do, and in fact, they may be the only person within an organization called upon to weigh all three.

Like Project Managers, Product Managers have to contend with the often messy politics of stakeholder disagreements. It’s their goal to rally an organization around a single product vision.

But it’s really the two C’s that have the power to rob a Product Manager of a good night’s sleep: competition and customers. A new startup on the block might directly compete or (gasp!) launch an awesome substitute to your product. Not to mention there’s always the potential that customer demand can fall flat after spending months on development.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Product Manager?

Product Managers are responsible for product development from conception to market launch, encompassing the entire product lifecycle.

In early planning, the Product Manager is able to provide valuable insight about the realistically achievable scope of a product’s features (that is, what’s possible), what features are valuable to customers (what’s needed), and what customers will be willing to invest in (what’s profitable). These questions are at the root of which products get made and which don’t—and, if they do get made, what features those products include, how they work, and whether they succeed. In other words, Product Managers are pivotal in answering the most existential questions of the development process.

As development proceeds, numerous considerations all come to bear—the wish list of features and technical requirements, the user experience, the business requirements. There are almost always tradeoffs between these considerations, each of them with their own proponents at different levels of the organization. It’s often a Product Manager’s job to evaluate and mediate those requirements—effectively acting as the glue that holds the entire process together.

Product Manager Educational Backgrounds

Since Product Managers have such a diverse variety of educational and professional backgrounds, there are many different ways to go about becoming a Product Manager.

The vast majority of product management professionals begin their careers doing something else. BrainStation’s 2020 Digital Skills Survey found that 88 percent of Product Managers started working in another field. But since PM tends to be a more senior position, typically someone looking to get into product management would have some experience in UX design, UI design, web development, product development, business, or filling other roles within tech companies.

There is no specific educational background that leads to becoming a Product Manager, generally speaking, most product management job descriptions do call for candidates to have a degree.

Really, though, if you want to become a PM, you should think of your bachelor’s degree as the very beginning of your commitment to lifelong learning. Product Managers tend to follow a strategic plan for continuing education, with 71 percent of them saying in one survey that they held at least one professional certification in addition to an undergraduate degree. Meanwhile, 76 percent considered continuing education somewhat or very important.

A certification course offers a first-hand look at the entire product lifecycle, allowing you to acquire product manager skills and work out issues in a simulated practice scenario so you will know what to do later when the stakes are higher.

BrainStation’s part-time Product Management course gives students the chance to go through a comprehensive product launch before eventually presenting a go-to-market plan to key stakeholders.

Courses like that one will also help you build a portfolio that showcases your technical skills.

Characteristics of a Successful Product Manager

Even in a profession with such a diverse array of important responsibilities, there are some characteristics that mark a successful Product Manager.

  • They love products. In the role of a Product Manager, you have to know exactly what makes something a great product. If you’re going to work in the product management field, you have to be able to quickly assess possible flaws and conjure ideas on how to fix them. Further, Product Managers are usually considered leaders of a larger product team -- and product leadership is all about letting your team members see your passion, dedication, and enthusiasm.

  • They're empathetic. Similar to UX roles, PMs need to have their finger on the pulse of their customers. They need to understand what makes their customers tick and how to meet customer needs. PM need to use a combination of research, intuition, and experience to get inside the heads of their customers and make sure they’re giving them the product they really want and need.

  • They're enthusiastic about research. Hand in hand with empathy is understanding the value of learning more about your customers. Investing in user research and then acting on the data you find is a key characteristic of a good Product Manager.

  • They're strategic. PMs have the ability to think long term. They have a vision for the product and acting as the product owner, you have to be able to envision how the product, industry and competition are going to change and develop over time and change your business strategy accordingly. You must also have a knack for smart, data-driven decision making, a solid base of design knowledge, and an understanding of data analysis.

  • They're leaders. We mentioned leadership already, but it bears repeating: Product Managers need to be great leaders. To meet their business goals and develop a successful product, Product Managers need to motivate and supervise large cross-functional teams of people, each with different skills and backgrounds. Getting the people in that product development team to buy into their idea for a great product is the mark of a skilled Product Manager.

Product Management Jobs

Although Product Manager is a senior role, it doesn’t mark the end of your career path in product management. Here are a few of the most common product management job descriptions you'll find at tech companies and beyond.

  • Product Manager. A Product Manager’s responsibilities include the strategy, product roadmap, and feature definition of a product or products. They may report to the Group Product Manager, the Senior Product Manager, or even the CEO, depending on the size and type of organization. PMs have a leadership role on cross-functional teams, including product marketing managers, design teams, development teams, project managers, engineering teams, data analysis teams, and business analysts. They may also do forecasting, and profit and loss responsibilities. PMs analyze all the information they can on the competitive environment to become product experts. This role spans many types of activities, from strategic to tactical. They often act as a bridge between engineering, marketing, sales, and support teams.

  • Product Owner. Some agile teams actually have a separate PM and Product Owner. Defining the roles really depends on different companies and situations as well as the specific team, but generally speaking, a Product Owner may support the development team by prioritizing customer stories and answering product questions. In that scenario, the PM would be tasked with communicating the customer’s voice, making product decisions, and achieving market success.

  • Group Product Manager (GPM). The GPM is responsible for directing and leading a product management team that is overseeing a specific group of products. One of the most senior roles in product management, Group Product Managers manage other PMs and their product teams. Their day-to-day responsibilities include strategy, product development, and people management.

  • Vice President of Product Management. Found in larger organizations, a Vice President of Product Management (VP of product) usually has more than a decade of experience in product management. They oversee all large initiatives and have a voice in all strategy discussions and even mergers and acquisitions. They work closely with other key company leaders to ensure companies are investing their money and resources in the right places.

  • Chief Product Officer (CPO). The CPO usually reports directly to the CEO. All product activities inside an organization are the responsibility of a CPO. In this role, you would set product strategy and sometimes the marketing and development of the product.

Who Do Product Managers Work With?

Product Managers often work with different teams of people in many different departments in a company.

In any given day, a Product Manager role could have you working with an engineering team on the development of the product, a finance team to better understand opportunities for growing business value and the cost of customer acquisition, a legal team to make sure their new product offerings meet compliance requirements, and a support team because they're the people closest to the customers.

PMs also usually work with sales and marketing teams to coordinate on buyer personas, go to market timelines, and how to advertise product features.

And UX/UI Designers work with Product Managers closely to understand potential issues customers or users will have with a product and design solutions to those issues to ensure they aren't just creating great products, but also usable ones.

Reasons to Become a Product Manager

There are many reasons to become a Product Manager, from high salary to the opportunity to work with a wide variety of different people. Here are just a few of the reasons to become a Product Manager.

  • Flexibility. Product Managers could work in any size of company -- from a huge corporation to a feisty startup -- on any type of product. You could work freelance and create great products from the comfort of home or you could move to pretty much any major city on the globe to work in the role of Product Manager. It’s a job that can fit your preferred lifestyle, whatever that is, but you also have flexibility in another way: you can shape your role. Product Manager responsibilities vary from company to company and industry to industry, so you have an opportunity to define your own role and decide what you want your work-life to look like.

  • Rewarding work. Product management is a field that offers rapid career progression and exposure to executives of a company, who provide real insight into the opportunities and challenges their companies are grappling with. Even more rewarding? The opportunity to see how customers interact with a great product you’ve nurtured to creation. Seeing how you’ve made a product that has made someone’s life better in any way is a satisfying and inspiring feeling.

  • You’ll never stop learning. Product Managers collaborate with such a diversity of disciplines, every day offers a new opportunity for curiosity, new information, and knowledge exchange. A PM interacts with top minds in fields like design, engineering, sales, marketing, and support. Not only that, but the product management field is committed to lifelong learning. By continuing to pursue new certifications well into your career, you’ll get the benefit of ongoing mental stimulation and the acquisition of new skills.

  • High salaries and great perks. The average salary for Product Managers in the United States is between $103,000 and $109,000 according to Glassdoor and Indeed. Senior Product Managers make $125,000, with plenty of opportunities to make more with bonuses and other incentives. It’s also worth noting that Product Manager job opportunities are many; in 2018, CBS News listed Product Manager among the nine best jobs in America, noting the abundance of openings. So between the high salaries and hot job market, it’s clear why Product Manager is such a coveted job title.

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