Are you considering a career in product management? You might wonder how to become a product manager. What do you study? What kind of experience do you need? What’s the first step?
There is no shame in wondering. It was a mystery to me, too, before I became a product manager at HubSpot.
Product management is unlike any other career out there. Marketing, sales, or service roles, like a customer success manager, have clear-cut responsibilities, but the role of a product manager is not as apparent. They work at the intersection of customer service, product development, user experience, engineering, and design. They can take on marketing and sales-like responsibilities without being marketers or salespeople.
It’s challenging to understand the entire scope of a product manager. In this post, I will cover everything you need to know about becoming a product manager, even if you have no experience in product management. That was the case for me when HubSpot hired me as a PM. Let’s get started.
What is a product manager?
A product manager (PM) is a professional who helps manage the research, design, testing, and go-to-market strategy of a product, software, or service. Product managers liaise with their company’s engineering, user design, marketing, and sales teams to successfully take a product from development to launch.
While there are many responsibilities of a PM, the key function of a product manager is deciding what to build to help the business and its customers.
There are two essential considerations to make in prioritizing what to build: the likelihood of maximizing customer value and business impact. The product manager must optimize both areas to generate the most value for the business. Ideally, this leads to beneficial products for the consumer and profitable products for the company.
The PM is also a key player in the product development and management teams. They’re in charge of distributing information and ensuring everyone is clear on their objectives. In product management, it’s critical to meet deadlines. Product managers need to be proficient communicators with solid leadership skills.
How much does a product manager make?
How much you make as a product manager depends on your location, the company’s location, and your years of experience.
According to Glassdoor, a product manager makes an average of $111,090/year. Product managers can make $72,000/year to $171,000/year.
Salary.com reports slightly different ranges. The median salary for a product manager is $86,866/year, and it can range from $67,000/year to $124,000/year.
ZipRecruiter’s data shows that the national average is $66,670/year, with the low end at $32,000/year and the high end at $98,000/year.
Is an MBA required to become a product manager?
No. An MBA is not required to become a product manager. When hiring product managers, companies most often look at your problem-solving skills and experience in the industry. Some companies prefer candidates with a technical background or experience selling B2B products.
A product manager oversees an array of responsibilities during development and production. Let’s review a few of these tasks in the section below.
Product Manager Responsibilities
A product manager is responsible for outlining a product vision and creating an actionable strategy for bringing it to production. It’s their job to coordinate each engineering team and lead them from initial planning to the final product release. They also identify deliverables for the rest of the development teams.
In practice, this means a product manager needs to identify customer pains or challenges the business seeks to solve. Then, product managers work with design and development teams to validate and implement solutions and ultimately launch a product to the market.
Depending on the organization, it’s often up to the product manager to prioritize which problems need to be solved most urgently. They have to also validate customer challenges as problems worth solving now or in the future.
Below, I cover some average responsibilities of a product manager.
What does a product manager do?
A product manager may cover several responsibilities, a few examples of which are listed below:
- “Own product strategy from concept through launch, along with future iterations.”
- “Connect with the customers to identify insights to drive decisions.”
- “Utilize research and analytics to build delightful and innovative products.”
- “Connect with internal product teams to identify new opportunities where a marketplace can help customers grow better.”
In addition to these tasks, the overarching role of a PM includes three primary functions. These functions are common across most product manager roles regardless of industry or company.
Conduct User and Market Research
One of the primary goals of a product manager is to create or enhance a product so that 1) it helps the customer and 2) it’s more competitive in the industry. The creation or improvement of the product should increase retention and improve the business’s bottom line.
To that end, product managers are responsible for conducting user and market research to find out how the product is doing and what improvements it needs. They communicate these findings to the engineering team that implements the changes and the marketing team that crafts the messaging to the target audience.
In some instances, product managers act as copywriters in creating the message, then send it to the marketing department.
Collaborate with Engineering, Sales, and Marketing
Product managers are responsible for liaising with engineering, sales, and marketing to help deliver a polished, high-functioning product to the end-user. If it’s for an existing product, the engineering team executes the proposed changes, the sales team sells the new and improved product, and the marketing team positions the product for success.
The same would be accurate for a new product in the works. Product managers continuously partner with engineering to create effective and bug-free products, then work with sales and marketing to get it off the ground.
Product managers are also responsible for reporting updates to leaders and stakeholders.
Manage the Product Life Cycle
Product managers oversee the product life cycle from beginning to end, starting with the development stage and ending in the decline stage. The objective is to avoid the decline stage or have a strategy in place if the market becomes oversaturated.
Distribution plays a significant role in the product life cycle, especially during the introduction stage. After carrying out market research, product managers identify the best distribution channels for the product.
To illustrate all of these responsibilities, let’s take a look at an example from a HubSpot job listing.
Product Manager Requirements
There are requirements to consider when diving into a career in product management. These requirements change from job to job; however, product management typically requires that its candidates have:
- An undergraduate degree.
- Years of experience.
- Specialized training.
An Undergraduate Degree
An undergraduate degree isn’t necessary for every product management position, but it’s a requirement for most. In 2018, Google announced that new hires in product management and product marketing management no longer require four-year degrees. While this is great news, not every company is Google.
For a job in product management, companies often require an undergraduate degree in business, computer science, or engineering. Additionally, employers favor candidates with backgrounds in statistics, public relations, marketing, and management.
Years of Experience
Most product management jobs require years of experience. The length of time generally depends on the specific role. High-level management positions, such as a director, request five to 12 years of experience. Entry-level positions — associate product managers — are attainable without any prior skill. Meanwhile, some companies, like HubSpot, hire qualified employees without previous experience in product management.
Depending on the position and the company, degree and experience requirements will differ. However, employers typically want their employees to have some form of training. This training may come from the hands-on knowledge you gained while earning your degree or from any years of experience. Many product management jobs require technical and data-driven backgrounds. Additional specialties that companies may look for are coding and customer support.
There are not many requirements that are absolutely necessary to become a product manager. Nonetheless, employers look for soft and hard skills that act as a precursor to the overall success of the candidate.
Product Manager Skills
In addition to strong strategic, collaborative, communication, and problem-solving skills, a good product manager has empathy and creativity.
The core goal of product management is improving an existing product or creating a new product that has been tested and positioned for success. As such, good product managers have a proven track record of solving problems for customers and the business.
Being a problem-solver is not enough. You have to be creative about it, too. If your user research alerts you to a bug in the product, you’ll need to brainstorm a few solutions from the user’s perspective. These are solutions that may not occur to the engineering team.
Managing the product life cycle from beginning to end requires a high level of strategic thinking. Because of that, good product managers always act with a strategy and end goal in mind. A strategic mindset is characterized by listening and questioning skills, bias awareness, and task prioritization.
You can cultivate a strategic mindset in your personal life, school, current job, or all of the above. By intentionally building this skill, you can prepare yourself for a PM role.
Product managers collaborate with different departments, teams, and people. If you prefer to work alone, you could still do well in a product manager role. Just know that while you are still working alone, you need to collaborate with others to achieve a positive result.
Collaboration is vital in a successful product organization. Without it, everyone would be working in silos, and nothing would get done. As a product manager, you’ll have to proactively work with other people within and outside your team to solve problems and create a positive impact.
Outstanding Communication Skills
Strong communication skills are a must for product managers. You don’t need to be an extrovert, but if you don’t like talking with people, you may need to consider skipping the PM role. You’ll not only have to speak with other team members but with customers too.
During your user research, you might be expected to email customers or talk with them on the phone. You’ll also deliver presentations to leaders and stakeholders as you advance in your product management career.
High Levels of Empathy
To understand what goes wrong on a product level, you need to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. That means you’ll need empathy. Otherwise, you won’t be able to devise a solution as you manage the product life cycle.
Having empathy can also help you understand the challenges that other teams face, which can help you collaborate better with them and cultivate a more fruitful partnership.
Let’s look at an example from a HubSpot job listing.
Example Product Manager Skills
- Confidence in representing the product organization internally and externally.
- A data-driven approach to problem-solving.
- Excellent communication skills and ability to clearly articulate vision.
- A creative approach to connecting customer feedback to product development.
- Experience partnering with engineers, designers, and other product leaders to drive product improvement and new features.
- An ability to lead and execute multiple time-sensitive projects at once.
- Healthy technical and interpersonal problem-solving skills.
Now that you know the responsibilities and skills needed for the job, let’s cover how you can become a product manager. You can do it two ways: without experience or within your current company.
How to Become a Product Manager
- Research the role and talk to current product managers.
- Take a product management certification course.
- Start a side project and document it — failures included.
- Work on your communication and storytelling skills.
- Build a technical background.
- If applicable, apply for an Associate Product Management program.
- Apply for a PM role.
Earlier, I mentioned the requirements you need to become a product manager. Most product manager roles require a bachelor’s degree. Luckily, you can study most disciplines and still land a PM role. There’s no particular field requirement. However, some PM roles may request a technical background.
With that, let’s go over how you can start your product management career.
1. Research the role and talk to current product managers.
You don’t want to end up in a job you dislike. If you’re just out of university or planning to switch from another discipline, be sure to research the role before spending one dime on product management courses.
You can reach out to current PMs on LinkedIn or watch YouTube videos from product managers describing what they do. It should give you a much better idea of what the role entails. It could even give you a hint about the types of companies that hire product managers. As you begin to research, you should take note of the firms you could potentially work for. Google, HubSpot, and Slack are just a few examples.
2. Take a product management certification course.
Product management can seem complicated from the outside looking in, and no amount of research will prepare you enough for the responsibilities of a product manager. For that reason, I recommend taking a product manager certification course — that’s what I did. I took the course at General Assembly.
This step is crucial because it can also help your resume stand out from other resumes. Without any experience, you might get bypassed by a hiring manager, but with a certification in your credentials, your resume will warrant a second look. It will also equip you for taking on the role confidently, which will come across in your interviews.
There are many courses available: Cornell, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern all offer product management certifications. Check out our entire list of product management courses you can enroll in right now.
3. Start a side project and document it — failures included.
I suggest this if you’re applying internally as well. The best thing you can do is start a side project and oversee it from beginning to end. Managing a project from start to finish shows that you have the skills to manage a product life cycle from development to launch.
The fun part about this is that it can be anything as long as it holds your interest and requires similar steps to product management. I created an app, but you could create a website from scratch. On the artistic side, you could create a mural raising awareness for a cause you care about or hand-bind journals to sell through your website.
The important thing here is to show how you problem-solved throughout the process, which means being honest about your failures and mistakes. Include documentation on collaborating with others to bring the project to completion.
4. Work on your communication and storytelling skills.
Product management requires strong communication and storytelling skills. Whether you practice presenting something in front of your pets or gather your friends for a practice meeting, you’ll want to work on your communication skills. Your goal is to communicate ideas succinctly while delivering high impact.
Product managers — and the teams they work with — don’t have much time. As a product manager, expect to communicate with external teams and stakeholders on a daily or weekly basis. Be sure to polish your communication skills and learn how to deliver a compelling story about a single product.
5. Build a technical background.
While technical product management is different from regular product management, and while you’re not expected to have a ton of technical knowledge, the fact remains that most PM roles are at tech firms.
For that reason, you’ll want to build a rudimentary technical background — not so much to actually use that knowledge but to show your future employer that you’re willing to learn if needed. They need to know that technical information doesn’t intimidate you. You can start with basic languages such as HTML or CSS. Or you can jump into a more complicated topic such as Ruby on Rails.
6. If applicable, apply for an Associate Product Management program.
Associate Product Management (APM) programs allow new graduates and early-career professionals to start careers in product management. You can apply without experience. While the roles are temporary, many programs lead to permanent roles within the firm.
If you’re an experienced professional shifting into product management, don’t disregard these programs just yet. Google’s APM roles often require some experience, so you’ll be able to set yourself apart if your current industry complements product management.
7. Apply for a PM role.
If you apply for an APM program and get in, there is no need to proceed to this step. If, however, you’re advanced in your career or didn’t get into an APM program, it’s time to apply for PM roles.
I recommend applying to smaller businesses first, then working your way up to larger and more prominent firms. That way, you can get a taste of what a product management interview is like before trying to get a job at a company such as Facebook.
To that end, check out some companies where product manager roles are always available.
How to Become a Product Manager at Your Current Company
Becoming a product manager can be a bit of a catch-22 because most PM roles require prior experience as a product manager. However, you can find valuable opportunities that prepare and strengthen you even if you don’t work in your product team yet.
Keep solving problem after problem. That is what I did to become a PM at HubSpot. I was previously in the service team but successfully shifted to product management. If you work at a firm with a product management team, you can do the same thing I did and apply internally.
Here is my best advice for becoming a product manager and how to prepare for the role.
1. Find a project you can own end-to-end at work.
A few years ago, I was eager to become a PM like you. I was working as a customer support representative at HubSpot, and I had decided to take a product management course at General Assembly. As part of my final project for the General Assembly class, I had to pick a problem and exercise validating potential solutions to bring to market.
After presenting the problem and solution, I linked up with a classmate to actually pursue the problem I had researched and decided to create an app that helps manage your monthly digital subscriptions (Spotify, Netflix, etc.) from a single app on your phone.
Three months later, our iOS app, SubscriptMe, was born and promised to help consumers manage their subscriptions, keep track of trials, and find top-rated services by other users.
As part of building the app, I conducted user and market research, designed and tested prototypes, and partnered with a developer to build an iOS app to bring a solution to market. To be clear, I did not code the app myself. I outsourced the engineering work and focused on making sure SubscriptMe was solving a real problem.
After 18 months, I stopped working on the app because I couldn’t find a viable business model. While I didn’t have the commercial success I had hoped for or the project manager title yet, I had done everything a PM would do to validate problems and solutions.
You don’t have to build a mobile app to get the experience I am talking about here. Start a side hustle. Build a business. Work on a problem that allows you to try things and fail. You’ll learn helpful lessons on your path to becoming a product manager.
2. Volunteer to solve problems as a side project at work.
Whether you work at a startup or a large corporation, companies empower their employees to solve the hairiest problems. If you’re not in a position where you have the autonomy or time to work on problems that fall outside your core job function, keep digging until you find one you and your manager believe is worth solving.
By this time, I transitioned from a support rep to an implementation specialist helping sales teams onboard to HubSpot’s CRM. At the time, we were migrating from one billing system to another, and the transition was causing a ton of customer pain around account and billing accessibility. I asked my manager if she would be willing to let me tackle the issue we were experiencing, and with her support, I went full force at solving the problem.
When the billing problem surfaced, my teammates sent the customer my way. I would hop on a screen share and document how the customer got into a weird state. Then I would resolve the billing problem for the customer and pass along my findings to the team working on that particular set of products. Ultimately, we mitigated the billing problem with an elegant solution that the product team released a few weeks later.
I learned a lot along the way — triaging, prioritizing, and liaising with various teams. But, at the end of it, I still had not become a PM. It was time to move on to the next problem.
Diagnose, or ask your teammates or manager, about a challenge they’re facing. Take on the tasks of researching, experimenting with, and executing a solution you own, in addition to your daily work.
3. Build a track record of tackling tough problems, conducting research, and leading cross-functional collaboration.
My manager now had faith in me to tackle another problem — helping small businesses get started with HubSpot through a self-service onboarding model.
The challenge was getting a notoriously difficult customer segment to onboard and retain. I had to do so at scale and with little to no human resources. My role had become half-program management, half-implementation. I spent time on the phone with customers learning how to scale a program that would onboard and train new teams without human touch. Then I was tasked with developing a complete onboarding program.
As part of my effort, I documented experiments and tracked engagement rates with my onboarding resources. I also worked with internal stakeholders in product, sales, and support to create the program that still exists today. Working on this program for close to a year got me a ton of exposure to other PMs in the organization. I was essentially acting as a product manager without some of their core responsibilities.
Keep track of the projects you’re managing and the experiments you’re running. Document your findings, and use those learnings to start networking conversations with your product team. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a PM role outside your organization, document these things on a personal blog or your LinkedIn profile.
4. Apply for a PM job opening at your company.
After spending a couple of years managing problems inside and outside the workplace, I had created a body of work that I could point to and now had experiences to draw from.
All of the experiences I described above were pivotal in landing the job of a product manager. Here are some of the skills I acquired along the way that helped me demonstrate to my employer that I could do the job of a PM:
- Learning how to tell a good story about the problem I was trying to solve.
- Understanding and practicing how to conduct user and market research.
- Feeling comfortable talking with prospects or customers.
- Having subject matter expertise for the product role I was applying for.
- Demonstrating strong oral and written communication skills.
- Garnering buy-in and influence across multiple teams.
- Learning how to measure, analyze, and package key results for internal stakeholders.
The collective experience of identifying and solving problems for a couple of years was the key to me landing a job as a product manager.
Because of the relationships that I had built and the experience garnered along the way, I was hired as a manager in HubSpot’s Product team.
Apply for a product manager opening at your current employer. During the interview, highlight your experience and expertise in identifying, diagnosing, and solving problems end-to-end, collaborating cross-functionally, and taking ownership of project successes and failures.
Project Manager Jobs
Product manager jobs are virtually anywhere, but there are a few companies where you’ll have better luck finding product manager roles due to growth.
Launch a Fulfilling Career in Product Management
Product management is a highly fulfilling career, and the best part is that anyone can get started — just like I did. If you want to become a product manager, solve one problem, and the next – and then the next. If you solve enough problems, you’ll become a product manager that any firm will be thrilled to hire.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.