The Product Manager Career Path | Lucidchart Blog
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If you’ve ever considered a job in product management, you’re not alone. Product manager roles are increasingly coveted positions, with high salaries and ample opportunities for growth. In fact, product management ranks fifth on Glassdoor’s 2019 list of best jobs in America, with over 11,000 job opportunities available.

But what exactly does a product manager do? And are you up to the task? Below we take a deep dive into the product manager career path so you can decide for yourself.

product manager career path
Product Manager Career Path (Click on image to modify online)

What is product management?

Modern product management has its roots in the 1930s when Neil H. McElroy drafted a memo at Procter & Gamble to justify hiring for a new role: the first product managers. These “brand men” as he called them would be uniquely responsible for a brand, from sales and marketing to client relationships.

Procter & Gamble’s new brand men role paved the way for the modern product-centric organizational structure and the role of the product manager as the voice of the customer.

Today, product management is an interdisciplinary role that combines strategy, design, leadership, and marketing to launch a successful product.

Because it encompasses so many responsibilities and intersects with so many other business roles, product management is often misunderstood and can look different from one company to another.

However your company (or prospective company) defines their product management roles, there are a number of core skills product managers need to be successful:   

  • Strategic thinking
  • Business mindset
  • Clear communication
  • Collaboration
  • Listening
  • Strong project management
  • UX background
  • Technical proficiency

Because product management is such an interdisciplinary role, many product managers break into a career in product management from another background. That’s good news if you’re interested in transitioning to a product manager career from another field.

Product management vs. project management

Product managers and project managers often get confused. Though the two managers often work closely together, their roles are distinct.

An easy way to think of it is that the product manager is the CEO of the product. They oversee everything product related from setting strategy, prioritizing releases, and championing the customer. Their job covers the entire lifecycle of the product.

planning product roadmap example
Planning Product Roadmap Example (Click on image to modify online)

On the other hand, a project manager typically works on projects within this ecosystem. Their projects are time-bound and are often set by the product manager or another business leader.

Their goal is to finish a project on time and within budget, ultimately helping the product manager deliver on their larger initiatives. Once a project is complete, the project manager moves on to the next initiative.  

How much can a product manager earn?

The job sounds interesting, but let’s cut to the chase: What is the earning potential?

A career in product management can be both professionally and financially rewarding. Depending on your experience, skill set and level of responsibility, product managers can expect to earn anywhere from $80,000 to more than $150,000 a year.

Product management roles

There are several main product management roles you are likely to find across companies and organizations. While the specific responsibilities may vary from company to company, the basic roles are outlined below.

Associate product manager

Entry level

Associate product managers report to a product manager. The day-to-day responsibilities will overlap with that of a product manager on a smaller scale. You don't choose your own assignments, but you will have ownership for them.

Responsibilities might include:

  • Data analysis
  • UI design
  • Defining features
  • Making recommendations

This is an entry-level role, so it's a chance to learn the ropes and demonstrate how coachable you are and how well you listen to and understand the customer and product market.

Product manager

Mid-level

Product managers are mid-level roles. While you don’t necessarily have to have a direct product management background, you should have professional experience and demonstrable skills in communication, leadership, and strategy.

Product managers are responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and features of a product. You’ll need to be able to work with cross-functional teams, including UX, engineering, and marketing, to conduct accurate data analysis, forecasting, and market research.

The role is both strategic and tactical and requires strong leadership, collaboration, and product knowledge.

product roadmap with smart containers
Product Roadmap with Smart Containers (Click on image to modify online)

Senior product manager

Senior level

A senior product manager (PM) shares similar responsibilities as the product manager but on a higher level. Senior PMs usually have a solid background in product management by this point in their career.

In addition to managing higher-value products, senior PMs also lead the junior PMs and act as the liaison between the product management team and the business leaders.

Direct of product management

Senior level

The director role moves away from direct product management to leadership. Their focus in on making sure the team is running effectively and improving processes. You should have a strong management background and be comfortable working with senior and executive leadership.

VP of product management

Executive level

The VP of product is an executive position responsible for big initiatives and building and promoting products that will have the greatest business impact. While the role is less hands-on in product development, high-level responsibilities include:

  • Budgeting
  • Strategic alignment
  • Communicating with and building leadership buy-in

Chief product officer

Executive level

Larger organizations may have a chief product officer. The role typically reports to the CEO and oversees all product activities in the organization. Similar to the VP of product, a chief product officer is in charge of defining the big picture product strategy for the company and setting long-term goals.

Tips for charting a career in product management

Product managers often come from a variety of backgrounds, including engineering, marketing, operations, tech support or IT, and sales and customer support. So if your experience with product management is laterally related, have no fear—you can still make a successful pivot into this rewarding career path.

However, there are a few ways to give yourself a leg up on the competition. Use the following tips to develop hard and soft skills that will help you succeed in product management.

1. Learn code

Even a basic proficiency in writing code can set you apart to hiring managers. PMs who know how to code are called technical product managers and are in high demand because they can communicate their ideas more effectively with developers and engineers.

2. Build analytical skills

Being able to collect and sort through data to identify patterns, develop strategy, and solve problems is a fundamental part of the product manager role. The stronger your analytical skills, the more successful you’ll be as a product manager.

3. Understand UX

Great product managers know their customer inside and out. That is why a background in user experience can be such a valuable asset for aspiring PMs. Building your UX skills can help you dig into the customer mindset and ask the right questions to develop a stronger product line.

Product management is a growing and dynamic field with great opportunities for career advancement and professional development. And if you’re a problem solver with big ideas and a talent for leadership, it might even be the job for you.