Career growth or career change: becoming a successful product manager
Did you know Glassdoor named product management a top 10 ‘Best Job in America for 2022 ’? If you’re looking for career growth or a career change, you might be wondering what the excitement is all about and how to make the most of it.
There are many paths to product management. For example, professionals with different backgrounds, from computer science and software development to marketing, often transition into a product management career.
“I believe that there’s no traditional path for product management,” says Poornima Hanumara, a senior product manager at edX. “I’ve worked with rockstar PMs who have come from a diverse set of educational and professional backgrounds.”
Read on to better understand product management and how to leverage learning opportunities for a smooth career transition or career growth.
Did you know?
The University of Maryland offers an online Master of Professional Studies in Product Management for those looking to advance their existing product management career or making a career transition through certified and flexible learning.
An Eclectic Set of Skills: What is Product Management?
Product management is an organizational function that deals with the entire product lifecycle: from discovery to delivery.
From user research to the design, development, marketing, sales, and support of products, product managers take on a variety of tasks to ensure a product’s success.
"A product manager’s job is to build a culture that consistently finds the right problems to solve and iteratively delivers a set of viable solutions that gets the right technology, or ‘product,’ on the shelf for the end user.”
“Technology and digital transformation are reshaping the landscape of work, play, and how we live our lives. As open-source technologies, engineering talent, and analytical capabilities grow, there is a near infinite number of things a company could choose to build into technology products,” as Nathan Robertson, an edX product manager, explained.
“However, this begets a few critical questions. What should you build? Who are you building it for? How will this help your business grow? What is the longer term vision and strategy that your company is building?” he said. “These are the types of questions product managers seek to answer.”
Robertson explained that ultimately, “a product manager’s job is to build a culture that consistently finds the right problems to solve and iteratively delivers a set of viable solutions that gets the right technology, or ‘product,’ on the shelf for the end user.”
Becoming a great product manager, therefore, requires developing an eclectic set of skills.
What Makes For a Successful Product Manager?
There are many theories as to what makes a successful product manager. Generally, product management is a balancing act between technical know-how and people skills.
Having a deep understanding of technical skills and soft skills, as well as the ability to work with cross-functional and engineering teams, is crucial.
“Product managers are not lone wolves on whom all things rise or fall,” Robertson explained. “They sit at the confluence of a tight team of product designers and engineers, and are connected to a broader community of stakeholders, customers, and users.”
What Does a Product Manager’s Career Path Look Like?
Someone in the early stages of their product management career needs to be able to demonstrate an ability to work with engineering to solve problems. At this level, they are operating mostly as an agile project manager, helping to identify solutions to problems that match a business’s capabilities and strategic interests.
As a product manager grows, they need to demonstrate they can work with their team to find problems. This is where a product manager begins to grow in research, UX, and data analytics skills. They gain experience with market research, marketing strategies, integrating customer feedback and problem solving. If product managers can find unsolved problems in their market and find connections between these problems and the business goals and core strategic capabilities, they transition from an agile project manager to a new value creator, building a roadmap of opportunities for the business.
Once that base is built, the road really opens up to specialize.
What Skills Should a Product Manager Have?
A good product manager needs to possess core competencies, emotional intelligence, and company fit, according to Harvard Business Review .
Core competencies are skills that enable a product manager to perform well on the job. These competencies include being able to skillfully navigate various tasks, from conducting customer interviews, capturing user stories, providing customer support, revenue modeling, to pricing and tracking performance metrics.
A product manager with high emotional intelligence is an expert in relationship management, as well as self management. This person understands how to build relationships, empathize with team members, customers and colleagues, and easily navigates internal and external relations to design and deliver a quality product.
“The most important skill for a product manager is customer empathy,” said Hanumara. “It enables a product manager to have unique insights into the customers’ needs and become an advocate for them within the company. It also comes in handy when you have to keep the team focused and make hard prioritization decisions. Once a product or new feature launches, this skill also helps product managers to stay humble and really learn how to improve it.”
It’s crucial that a product manager understands how their role fits within the company. Company fit depends greatly on who within an organizational structure is responsible for driving the product development process, the business model, the relationship between leadership and product manager, and the stage of growth a company is in (large organization or startup). Ultimately, alignment between a product manager and the company plays a significant role in success.
How To Become a Product Manager Without Experience: Building Your Path to Product Management
Whether you’re looking for career growth opportunities or a career transition, one of the best ways to move forward in a product management career is to focus on learning.
As a product manager, it’s beneficial to know what you don’t know. This awareness will help you understand your key strengths and identify areas for potential improvement.
Then, you can focus on finding the right way to develop necessary skills. Some paths to consider include:
1. Take an introductory course
Introductory product management courses often provide a snapshot of an entire field and teach you the most important fundamentals. If you’re new to your product management role, consider taking an introductory course.
“My advice for skills development is to take an introduction to product management, or read ‘Cracking the PM Interview ’ to understand the skills needed to be a successful product manager,” said Hanumara. “Then you can take courses that target those specific skills.”
Did you know?
In addition to a full degree program, the University of Maryland offers a Product Management Fundamentals course as part of its professional product management certification program on edX.
2. Take additional courses to hone skills
For anyone with a basic understanding of the role of a product manager looking to dive deeper, taking additional online courses or a boot camp in product management to develop an area of expertise might be the right career path. Doing so can help you dive deeper into specific areas like product strategy and product marketing, and further develop your technical background and leadership skills.
3. Find a mentor
As Hanumara said, “Find a mentor. This could be either a seasoned product manager or someone who has recently transitioned to a product management role (and has recently been in your shoes). They would be able to not only point you to resources but can also be an advocate for you.”
4. Consider a master’s degree
Finally, if you’re sure of your desire to accelerate your professional growth or transition into a PM role, a master’s degree might be the right path.
“For product designers, product developers, and others already working in the space of products, there is an opportunity for advancement by earning their master’s degree,” said James V. Green, managing director of learning and development at the University of Maryland. “This will help them round out their skills with a certified understanding of how to manage all of the product aspects that could accelerate their career progression.”
"A master's degree in product management can enable a career change to this diverse and dynamic career."
“For consultants, software developers, market analysts, and others in the business or technology space, a master’s degree in product management can enable a career change to this diverse and dynamic career,” Green said.
Professional certificates and individualized courses have been the traditional avenue for career change or development of hard skills in this field. More recently, reputable institutions have developed full-scale degree programs to allow professionals to specialize in product management. Many of these programs are now offered online.
The University of Maryland offers a wide portfolio of online learning opportunities geared toward busy professionals interested in product management. From a Professional Certificate to a Master of Professional Studies in Product Management, the university is opening doors for those looking to transition into a product management career.
The Road to Seniority and Salary Opportunities
Product managers typically find their work to be meaningful and well-paid, with considerable opportunities for career advancement. On average, salaries for product managers in the US vary from $70,000 to $170,000, according to PayScale. This broad range can be attributed to factors like education, experience, geographic location, and industry expertise.
The field also sees ample opportunities for career development and advancement, ensuring that motivated and passionate product managers can enjoy meaningful work with abundant benefits.
Common Jobs and Salaries for Product Managers
Product Management Jobs
Associate Product Manager
Senior Product Manager
Director of Product Management
Vice President of Product Management
*Data gathered from PayScale
Take the Next Step: Explore a Top Program
If you’re ready to take your career to the next level by elevating your product management skills, consider exploring top programs to find the right fit. Start by learning more about University of Maryland's Master of Professional Studies in Product Management. The online Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Product Management is designed as a five-step experience for learners to build the knowledge, methodologies, competencies, and relationships to lead the product life cycle from discovery to delivery.According to Green, learners who complete the degree at University of Maryland are able to:
Understand how to successfully navigate the roles and responsibilities of a product manager, championing change with internal and external collaborators, product leaders, and influencers.
Learn how to truly know their target customer, the customer’s underserved needs, value propositions, product feature set, and user experience, then integrate this knowledge into product and market requirements and positioning plans.
Translate product, ideas, and product vision into tangible assets by creating wireframes, 3D renderings, prototypes, product roadmaps, and minimum viable products (MVPs) to test assumptions and validate customer interests.
Develop techniques for designing and modeling for fast feedback and idea sharing, iterations, system optimization with open architectures, validating functions and verifying performance, and leveraging and enabling the system designs, platforms, and ecosystems.
Embrace modern product leadership to form and motivate product teams, and grow organizations that can discover and deliver new products at scale.
Visit the program page and fill out the Learn More form to gain additional insight into the program, including coursework and application requirements.
Last updated: May 2022