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How to become a product manager: Top three PM career paths

Mar 19, 2021 - 9 min read
Amanda Fawcett
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Becoming a product manager (PM) is a dream for many software developers. This role requires no coding but still allows you to work with modern technologies and build powerful products. Product management is all about having vision, managerial finesse, and the ability to see a project to the completion.

The role of PM varies widely depending on a number of factors, and there is no golden ticket to landing this role, making it hard to know how to get started. If you are considering pursuing a PM role, you’re in the right place. Today, we will walk through a detailed PM career guide and examine some common career paths to help reach your goals.

This career guide at a glance:


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What is a Product Manager?

A product manager’s primary goal is to see a product to completion and support the stakeholders involved. They are responsible for the conception, creation, and launch of new products.

Essentially, the PM serves as the head of a product’s development and lifecycle, so they are in charge of distributing information, keeping everyone on track, and communicating objectives clearly. A PM’s daily routine varies a lot but has the primary focus of creating plans, launching products, and maintaining budgets.

A product manager’s general objectives and tasks are to:

  • Decide what tools and software are needed
  • Specify technical and functional requirements
  • Manage research, design, and testing
  • Develop a go-to-market strategy
  • Mediate conflicts related to deadlines and communication
  • Initiate ongoing updates and new features

According to Glassdoor and Payscale, product managers can typically make anywhere from $63,000 to $200,000 annually, depending on the company, seniority, and location. The title of a PM may differ from company to company, and there are many other roles that share similar responsibilities, including:

  • Associate product manager
  • Senior product manager
  • Director of product management
  • VP of product management
  • Chief product officer (CPO)

Product management for software is not typically taught in formal education settings. Anyone can become a Product Manager, whether you come from a Graphic Design background or Computer Science track.

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Core competencies of a PM

The three core competencies of a PM include: core skills, emotional intelligence, and a good company fit.

Core Skills

Let’s start with the core skills. To be a successful PM, you’ll need to demonstrate competency (or competency potential) with the following skills, most of which are developed through work experience:

  • Conducting user testing and customer interviews
  • Managing teams and sticking to deadlines
  • Designing and running design sprints
  • Prioritizing features strategically
  • Conducting market assessments
  • Resource allocation skills
  • Translating business requirements into technical features
  • Defining and tracking performance/success metrics

Emotional Intelligence

A good PM will also need to demonstrate emotional intelligence in order to build strong relationships with their teams, maintain organization, and navigate hurdles effectively. Emotional intelligence is a hard thing to measure, but some base qualities include:

  • Social awareness and social finesse: being socially aware empathetic, and aware of how people organize
  • Effective communication: being able to convey ideas accurately and in a way that others understand
  • Self-awareness: remaining objective with a product and their preferences
  • Self-starter mentality: being calm under pressure and initiating changes without direct instruction

Keep the learning going.

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Lean Product Management


Company fit

In terms of being a solid fit for a company, PMs need to demonstrate that they can work effectively in a specific organization. Even if you are highly skilled, you may not work well with certain culture or organizational structures. It’s important to understand what a company is looking for, such as:

  • Company stage and age: startups will look for different skillsets than a mature one, which will change your level of involvement.
  • Technical skills: different companies will look for experience with relevant technologies to their products. This will dictate what roles you can apply to.
  • Hierarchy: some companies have a lax, open environment, while others have rigid structures. This will dictate the values they expect a PM to have.
  • Company philosophy: some companies organize by the philosophy that engineering drives management, while others think the opposite. This will dictate the managerial approach they are looking for.

Career Path #1: MBA program

Many PMs start their career path by completing an MBA program. A common track is to:

  1. Accrue 3-5 years of professional experience in a related industry, such as software engineering
  2. Complete an MBA program (sometimes part-time while still working)
  3. Land a junior/assistant product management role

An MBA program can be a great option for those looking to land a PM role at a big, well-known company, particularly those with more rigid hierarchies like Microsoft, which tend to exclude applicants that don’t have formal business education.

Tip: Completing an MBA can also help you negotiate a higher starting salary.

MBA programs will help you build leadership skills, develop product vision, and learn the theories behind a product’s lifecycle in the market. An MBA track also opens up many other doors if you choose not to become a PM down the line, as MBAs are widely recognized in almost every industry.

However, MBA programs will give you less hands-on experience with execution skills, as you will not be using the common tools for the job, such as Agile or Scrum. If you choose this path, it’s essential that you demonstrate proof of hands-on experience through side projects, internships, part-time jobs, or additional accredited online courses.


Career Path #2: Specialized PM training

The specialized PM training path tends to be the fastest option. Many accredited sites offer online product management courses and certificates that are recognized by most companies big and small (and a lot cheaper than an MBA program). Think of this like a coding bootcamp for PMs.

This is a great option if you are sure you want to become a PM, as everything you learn is directly applicable to any PM job. You also get experience using real-world PM tools, and graduates usually complete programs with a product portfolio that is useful for interviews. Programs generally take 6 months to 1 year to complete.

Tip: Since there are many online or in-person certificates to choose from, it’s important to pick one that aligns with your career goals.

For example, if you want to work closely with software as a PM, it’s important to get a certificate from a technical educational platform or institution.

The trick here is to find a reliable, reputable program that is worth the time investment. Some programs teach older styles of product management that are less relevant to modern companies. You’ll want to research programs carefully and look for skills like agile development, lean product management, and digital product management.

You should also examine the certificate syllabus closely to make sure that it’ll be a successful learning environment. Some programs are text-based, which is a more effective way to learn, but does take more time to complete.

Career Path #3: Learn on the job & work your way up

This tends to be the slowest way to become a PM, but it is a great option for many. Instead of taking courses, you can seeks out a junior product management role, build up your experience, and work your way up to a product manager role (or higher).

Learning on the job is slow and requires patience, social finesse, and a self-starter mentality. It is a great option for those who want highly-specialized training or cannot afford to pursue a formal educational path. This is also a good option if you want to work with particular technologies, emerging technologies, or specific companies.

Tip: If this route sounds right for you, consider getting a mentor in your company. Convey your career goals and ask for ways to take on more responsibility. This way, you have someone higher-up to support you.

To work your way up to a PM role, you’ll need to stand out at every stage of your career. For example, even as a software engineer, demonstrate your ability to focus on the customer and solve customer problems with good product design. Demonstrate leadership capabilities early on, and you’re more likely to be promoted or reorganized.

It’s important to note that getting into a product manager role with no prior experience is rare. A great option is to begin with a startup at an early stage and work your way up. You could also consider starting your own business or seeking a company that has an Associate Product Management program.


How to get started

Now that we know the core competencies of a PM and three common career tracks, how do you actually get started? Well, first, you’ll need to decide what path is right for you, and that may take time to figure out. From there, you can flesh out exactly how you want to process.

But no matter your plan, there are some basic things you can start doing today to break into the industry:

  • Side projects: demonstrate your interest in product management by working on side projects that give you the experience with shipping a product.
  • Start thinking like a leader: Ask to work on new products where you can take a lead role according to deadlines
  • Develop a technical skillset: Learn new technical skills that you’ll need as a PM, such as SQL, advanced Excel, and agile methodologies

You can start learning the technical skills of PM today and jumpstart your career. Educative’s course Lean Product Management will teach you the modern product management techniques to bring products to the market as quickly as possible. This is the ideal place to start to build your resume and gain valuable insights.

By the end, you will have the foundations in place to bring products to the market that solve problems, generate revenue, and are built for the long haul.

Happy learning!


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WRITTEN BYAmanda Fawcett

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