This guide is all about becoming a product manager, including information about product manager degrees and product manager job descriptions.
Developing modern products, particularly technological and digital products, is a process of endless iteration and adaptation. Product managers operate at the broadest strategic level of this product cycle, from the original incarnation to eventual retirement.
Executives turn to product managers to align a product’s strategic vision with the many relevant stakeholders. In contrast, functional experts and project managers look to a product manager to make tactical decisions throughout the development process. A helpful way to view this role is like the main gear in a giant machine, where many smaller gears connect and unite.
Successful product managers have a knack for lateral thinking and quick decision-making. From a more academic standpoint, product managers are typically a cross between business strategy and some specific set of relevant technical skills. Are the degree programs that prepare students for such an organizational role? How can someone become a product manager, anyway?
Product Manager Degree Options
The simple answer is that many universities offer programs that craft a cocktail of courses from both business management and the school of IT. While one could also simply double-major in business and IT, a custom-tailored product management degree is available at most well-known business schools.
Degrees exist primarily at the bachelor’s level and master’s level, supplemented by a slew of online bootcamps and shorter-term options primarily targeted at career professionals. The primary distinction between these two routes will be the depth of the content covered, the academic rigor of the program, and (of course) the cost.
University bachelor’s degrees are best suited for folks with no real professional experience yet, and thus a longer journey ahead when it comes to skill development. Both master’s level programs and online certification bootcamps cater to a similar crowd of professionals. Most of them seek to translate their experience and hard-earned field knowledge into a certification that proves their mettle to future employers.
MBA programs, in particular, provide strong concentrations specifically catered to the aspiring product manager, recruiting a mix of tech experts and tech-savvy business managers into a collaborative and hands-on learning environment. This is a great opportunity to swap skills, learn from one another’s experiences, and network for new career opportunities. Here are a few starting points for any aspiring product managers among our readership:
- Product management certificate program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management
- Product management certificate program at Berkeley
- The Carnegie Mellon MSPM program, which is a master’s level degree provided by both the Tepper School of Business and the School of Computer Science
- New York University’s MBA, with a concentration in Tech Product Management
- University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) 18-week Product Management Bootcamp
Of course, the training is only half the battle. The next step in any burgeoning product management career is finding a good product to sink your teeth into.
Product Management Career Paths
Like many complex technical skills, product managers often need to work their way up within a product team to gain the hands-on knowledge and skills to succeed. The reason this is so important goes back to the analogy of product managers being a central gear in an organizational structure, which requires that they get to know a variety of different teams, stakeholders, executives, and customers. There’s no shortcut to gaining this sort of organizational knowledge, and the best plan is to start small and humble.
This means the best entry point is an Associate Product Manager, which could potentially start a professional down a path towards VP of Product or Chief Product Officer (with plenty of steps in between). Even at this level, this is a management position. That means most companies will be looking for two to three years of meaningful technical or managerial experience. This could also include roles within a product team, conducting customer analyses on the business side, or defining product requirements on the technical side.
Of course, many strong applicants could supplement some of this experience with professional certifications in key areas within the field. Certifications are often highly specific and customized for a particular skill, such as Business Analysis or AGILE management from the Product Management Institute (PMI). The Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM) offers a similar lineup of both general and concentrated certifications. Keep in mind that passing stringent exams proving one’s knowledge of the field is required to attain these certifications, so expect to do your homework. In the end, your work should pay off.
Product Management Jobs and Salaries
Considering that at least a bachelor’s degree is typically required, and even an MBA preferred, there’s no question that quite a bit of time and money will be invested in this particular career path. Fortunately, the pay can be pretty high even at the lower levels of the product management hierarchy. General product managers can expect a median salary as low as $90k/year according to Payscale, $100,000/year according to Indeed, or even $120,000/year according to Glassdoor.
One key factor that impacts pay rates is the location of the job. Big cities come with big expenses and (hopefully) big salaries, while more rural regions tend to have more modest wages and living expenses. Location can also impact the ease of finding a job (although remote opportunities are on the rise), as most roles at this level will be at an organization’s headquarters. That means big cities are the primary target for job hunters looking to start a new journey in this field. Of course, there are benefits to this as well.
Considering the strategic and high-level nature of product management responsibilities and proximity to the executive team, there is plenty of room for upward mobility. After all, product managers must work across a huge variety of workgroups and departments while intimating themselves with the core wants, needs and behaviors of various customer groups. It’s an excellent vantage point for future executive-level success, assuming the product manager has the skills and disposition to capitalize on it.
Assuming the pros outweigh the cons, the final question is, what exactly does the product manager do day-to-day? What responsibilities are likely to pop up on a typical job ad?
What Does a Product Manager Do?
The job title itself implies the management of some product, conjuring up images of consumer goods. While this is a possibility, the most common placement for a product manager is within digital experience. A simple example would be a company like Netflix, where the product is the digital transmission of an entertainment service (called a ‘platform’). Let’s walk through what a product manager might do in this context, using three general frames: the customers, the technical teams, and the business teams.
The first responsibility of a product manager is captured in the commandment know thy customer! Simply put, a product manager will be contemplating every touchpoint between Netflix’s offering and the customers being catered to. This can include the signup process, the browsing experience, the content selection, the pricing, different geographic and cultural tastes, and the seemingly-infinite tiny features of convenience constantly being iterated on to improve every one of these aspects of the product.
Product as an experience like this has a nearly infinite potential for incremental improvement, which brings us neatly along to the second set of responsibilities. A good product manager will work closely with software developers, visual designers, and other functional experts at Netflix to iterate and improve the platform based on customer preferences (revealed or stated). The balancing act is between the feasibility of the technical demands from a software perspective and the value added to the customer base for each new product iteration. It is the role of the product manager to make these difficult decisions and be able to do so from a wide variety of perspectives.
The third responsibility of the product manager is collaborating with executives on the strategic level, in particular the chief technology officer (CTO) and chief marketing officer (CMO). As the product manager occupies that critical space between tech development and customer experience, they are uniquely positioned to contextualize executive-level decisions for upper-management teams. The keyword here will be distillation, where the product manager sifts and filters through vast streams of information, data, and considerations, ultimately presenting clear and compelling evidence to the executive management team (brevity being in high demand).
Linking up these three core stakeholder groups, a product manager is tasked with building win/win compromises between executive strategic vision, functional feasibility of product development, and the ever-evolving demands of a given customer base. Be prepared to be pulled in a few directions at once if you decide product management is the path!
The Product Management Opportunity
If all of those responsibilities haven’t scared you off yet, the only thing left to do is take the first step. Assuming all of the education and certification work has been taken care of, the next question is what work opportunities are in reasonable proximity to where you live now (or places you would be willing to relocate). At the time of writing this article, there are nearly 50,000 job postings on Indeed alone, with a whopping 16,000 offering fully remote opportunities.
A great strategy here as a newcomer to the profession would be to find an Associate-level product manager role that can be done remotely. This gives any new professional plenty of time to learn the ropes and determine if they might be willing to relocate on-site as they move up the ladder. As product management encompasses such a broad scope of responsibilities, finding an experienced product manager who needs an extra pair of hands is an excellent way to keep food on the table while procuring that all-important mentorship and hands-on experience. What are you waiting for? Product managers are known for their decisiveness, after all!