How Do You Become a Product Manager?

A product manager (PM) is a hard-to-define but important role. According to well-known industry veteran Martin Eriksson, “Product management is the intersection between business, technology and user experience.” PMs can be found in all sorts of companies, from Amazon to PayPal to Uber and more.

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According to experts in the field, a PM must have certain core competencies that may be developed through relevant coursework, experience and mentoring. These may include:

  • Conducting customer interviews and user testing
  • Determining how to allocate resources
  • Translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Defining and tracking metrics that measure success

There is no single path to becoming a PM. Some people start in a lower-level job such as a customer service rep and work their way up to PM by building relevant skills over time. Some people enroll in business school and follow specific product-management tracks. Most product manager jobs require a bachelor’s degree; however, it’s also a popular job for MBAs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it may be helpful for those pursuing a product manager career to take courses in business law, management, economics, finance, computer science, mathematics and statistics. A digital marketing bootcamp or courses in computer science, for example, may be helpful in developing an approach to maximize online traffic by utilizing online search results, which is critical for the success of digital advertisements and promotions.

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What Is a Product Manager?

Even experienced product managers who have worked in the field for years have noted that you could ask 20 PMs, “What is a product manager and what do they do?” and receive 20 different answers. Similarly, there is not a standard job description for a product manager because each role is defined by such factors as the company, industry, the type of product and its stage of development.

The responsibilities vary depending on the company, but generally a product manager at a tech company decides what products and software to build, and helps manage research, design, user testing and marketing strategy.

Role of a Product Manager

As stated above, the role of a product manager varies widely depending on several factors. Typically, it combines elements of marketing, design and problem-solving. Product managers may conduct market research, pitch product ideas, test them, plan and oversee design and engineering efforts, and bring the final version of a product to market. The PM role is a mix of big-picture strategy as well as attention to lots of small details and decisions on a day-to-day basis.

PMs often come from technical backgrounds, and because of that are generally well-suited to form a bridge between the engineering team and the rest of the stakeholders involved in product development and launch.

Relationship management is also a major part of what PMs do. To be successful in the role, PMs need to be able to form connections with internal and external stakeholders, and have skills that may include collaboration, negotiation and conflict resolution. PMs may be tasked with balancing the needs of customers, engineering teams and the company’s revenue goals.

The role of PM may also include:

  • Developing marketing plans.
  • Estimating cost or materials requirements.
  • Direct sales, marketing or customer service activities.
  • Analyzing data to inform operational decisions.
  • Supervising employees.

Key Skills of Product Management

Product managers typically share a set of skills that may include the following:

  • Strategic thinking. They are able to identify customer needs and how a company might solve their problems in a way that is profitable.
  • Collaboration. PMs often work with teams that may include designers, engineers, sales and marketing professionals and other internal and external partners. According to ONET OnLine, 70% of PMs said the ability to work with a group or team is “extremely important.”
  • Communication. Being a skilled oral and written communicator is key, since providing information to supervisors, co-workers and others is a significant part of the PM role.
  • Emotional intelligence (EQ). Julia Austin, who teaches product management at Harvard Business School, says the best PMs have a high EQ. This gives them the ability to empathize during customer interviews, manage relationships with coworkers and be self-aware so as to remain objective.
  • An understanding of technology. While having a technical background isn’t required to be a product manager, it’s helpful when working with engineering and design partners if you have a basic knowledge of the technologies involved.
  • Attention to detail. Noticing and fixing bugs and other issues early in the process is critical to product development. Missing details can be costly and lead to product failure.
  • Knowledge of user testing. Skilled PMs effectively employ user surveys, tools and strategies. These may include interviews, A/B testing, analytics and synthesizing research into insight.

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Product Manager Career Outlook

Product managers fall into the category of marketing managers, according to BLS, job growth for this category is expected to increase 5% to 7% by 2029, faster than average for all occupations.

Marketing managers held about 286,300 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of marketing managers were professional, scientific and technical services (23%), and the states with the highest employment of marketing managers were California, Illinois and New York. According to BLS, marketing managers will continue to be in demand for their knowledge of pricing strategies and finding new ways to reach customers.

Product Manager Salary

The median annual salary for product managers in 2019 was $142,170. Salaries for PMs range based on such factors as geographic location and experience. An associate product manager with zero to two years of experience might make $96,000 a year, while a product manager with three to five years experience as an associate product manager or in a related role, such as in engineering, sales or product marketing, could make around $109,000 a year.

Depending on the company, the next levels in a product manager career path might be senior PM, director of product management, VP of product management and chief product officer (CPO), who might make around $200,000.

The highest salaries for PMs are in the Silicon Valley area of California, home to some of the largest technology companies in the world, such as Google, Apple and Facebook. The annual mean salary of marketing managers in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA area was $211,210 in May 2020.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Julia Austin wrote, “The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ and work for the right company for them.” PMs have the opportunity to “create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.”

Last updated: April 2021

This page includes information from O*NET OnLine by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA). Used under the CC BY 4.0 license. O*NET® is a trademark of USDOL/ETA.