Even if you’ve been considering product management as a career for a while, you might still wonder how you can become a product manager. What do you even study for that? What kind of experience do you need? What should be your first step?
There’s 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, and service roles all have clear-cut responsibilities and requirements. If you’re a customer success manager, for example, you help customers get the most out of the product with excellent customer support.
But the role of a product manager isn’t as clear-cut. They work at the intersection of customer service, product development, user experience, engineering, and design. They can also take on a mixture of marketing- and sales-like responsibilities (though they’re neither marketers nor salespeople). So it’s confusing to understand what they do — but I’m here to help.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about becoming a product manager — even if you have no experience in product management, which was the case for me when I was hired as a HubSpot 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 — with the objective of helping the business and its customers.
There are two main considerations to be made in the prioritization of what's built: the likelihood of maximizing customer value and business impact. The product manager must optimize both of those areas to generate the most value for the business. Ideally, this leads to products that are useful to the consumer and profitable 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 making sure everyone is clear on their objectives. In product management, it's important to meet deadlines, so PMs need to be proficient communicators with strong leadership skills.
How much does a product manager make?
How much you make as a product manager depends on your location, your company’s location, and your years of experience.
According to Glassdoor, a product manager makes an average of $111,090/year. On the low end, product managers can make $72,000/year, and on the high end, they can make $171,000/year.
Salary.com reports slightly different ranges. The median salary for a product manager is $86,866/year, and the salary 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 isn’t required to become a product manager. When hiring product managers, companies most often look at your problem-solving skills and your experience in the industry. Some companies prefer candidates who have a technical background or who have experience specifically 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.
What does a product manager do?
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 that 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 is often up to the product manager to prioritize which problems need to be solved most urgently, and to validate customer challenges as problems that are worth solving now or in the future.
Below, I cover some common responsibilities of a product manager.
Conducting 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 bottom line at the business.
To that end, product managers are often tasked with conducting user and market research to find out how the product is doing and what improvements should be made. They then communicate these findings to the engineering team, which takes the changes into effect, and then the marketing team, which crafts messaging to communicate these changes to the target audience.
In some instances, product managers are expected to create the messaging, then send it to the marketing department.
Liaising 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 true for a new product in the works. Product managers continuously partner with engineering to create an effective and bug-free product, then work with sales and marketing to get it off the ground.
Product managers are also responsible for reporting updates to leaders and stakeholders.
Managing the Product Life Cycle
At a high level, 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 in case the market becomes oversaturated.
Distribution plays a key 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.
Example Product Manager Responsibilities
- “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.”
What makes a good product manager?
A good product manager has strong problem-solving, strategic, collaborative, and communication skills, as well as empathy and creativity.
Creative Problem-Solving Skills
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 solving problems for customers and for the business.
Being a problem-solver isn’t enough. They have to be creative about it, too. If their user research alerts them to a bug in the product, they’ll brainstorm a few solutions from the user’s perspective — solutions that may not occur to the engineering team.
Managing a product’s 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 final end goal in mind. A strategic mindset is characterized by keen listening and questioning skills, as well as bias awareness and task prioritization.
You can cultivate a strategic mindset in your personal life, at school, at your current job, or in all of the above. By intentionally building this skill, you can be better prepared 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’re still working alone, you’re collaborating with others to achieve a positive end result.
Collaboration is key in a strong product organization. Without it, everyone would be working in silos, and nothing would get done. As a product manager, you’ll be expected to proactively work with other people within and outside your team to solve problems and create 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 might want to skip 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 be expected to 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’ll need to be able 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’s 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.”
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 any experience or within your current company.
How to Become a Product Manager
Chances are that if you’re reading this post, you don’t have any experience in product management.
Most product manager roles require a bachelor’s degree. Luckily, you can study any discipline and still land a PM role. There’s no particular field requirement, although some PM roles may request a technical background.
Before applying for product manager roles, ensure you have:
- A bachelor’s degree in any discipline
- A true and vested interest in the field
- A budget for product management courses
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 that you actually dislike. If you’re just out of university or planning to switch from another discipline, be sure to research the role prior to 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. This should give you a much better idea of what the role entails and 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 at. Google, HubSpot, and Slack are just a few examples.
2. Take a product management certification course.
Product management can seem complicated from the outside-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 — in fact, that’s what I did. I took the course at General Assembly.
This step is important because it can also help your resume stand out from other resumes in the pile. 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 a ton of courses out there: Cornell, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern all offer product management certifications. Check out our full 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. That you oversaw a project from start to finish shows that you have the skills to manage a product’s life cycle from development to launch.
The fun part about this is that it can be anything, so long as you’re interested in it and it requires similar steps to product management. I personally 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 that 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. You’ll also want to document how you worked 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 a lot of time. As a product manager, you’ll be expected to communicate with external teams and stakeholders on a weekly and even a daily 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 won’t be 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. It’s important for them 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 a career in product management. You can apply without experience. While the roles are temporary, many programs lead to a permanent role 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’s 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 at smaller businesses first, then working your way up to bigger and more prominent firms. That way, you can get a taste of what a product management interview is like before you try to get a job at a company such as Facebook.
To that end, check out some companies where product manager roles are always available.
Project Manager Jobs
Product manager jobs can be found virtually anywhere, but there are a few companies where you’ll always find product manager roles due to growth.
Product School lists more companies where you can apply.
Wanting to become a PM at your current firm? Check out how I did it below.
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 can prepare you and strengthen you even if you don't work in your product team yet.
Keep solving problem after problem. That's what I did to become a PM at HubSpot. I was previously in the service team but successfully made the shift to product management. If you work at a firm that also has a product management team, you can do the same thing I did and apply internally.
Here's my best advice for becoming a product manager and best 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 just like you. I was working as a customer support rep 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 go through the exercise of validating potential solutions to bring to market.
After presenting the problem and solution, I linked up with a fellow classmate to actually pursue the problem I had researched and decided to create an app that helps manage your monthly digital subscriptions (like 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 the process in building the app, I conducted user and market research, I designed and tested prototypes, and I partnered with a developer to build an iOS app to bring a solution to market. To be clear, I didn't actually 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 after failing to find a viable business model. While I didn't have the commercial success I had hoped for, or the title of product manager yet, I had done all the things that a PM would do to validate problems and solutions.
You don't have to build a mobile app to get the experience that I am talking about here. Start a side hustle. Build a business. Work on a problem set that affords you the opportunity 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 had moved 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.
Every time the billing problem surfaced, I had my teammates send the customer my way. I would hop on a screen share and document the steps for 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 were able to mitigate the billing problem with an elegant solution that the product team released a few weeks later.
I learned a ton along the way — how to triage, how to prioritize, how to liaise with various teams. But, at the end of it, I still hadn't become a PM. It was time to move onto 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 on a solution you yourself 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 really small businesses get started with HubSpot through a self-service onboarding model.
The challenge was getting a customer segment notoriously difficult to onboard and retain, to do so at scale and with little to no human resources. My role had become half-program management, half-implementation. I was spending time on the phone with customers to learn how I could 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, tracked engagement rates with my onboarding resources, and worked with internal stakeholders in product, sales, and support to create the program that still exists today. I worked on this program for close to a year and got a ton of exposure to other PMs in the organization. I was essentially acting like a product manager without some of their core responsibilities.
Keep track of the projects you're managing and 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 of 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
It was the collective experience of identifying and solving problems for a couple of years that 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 identifying, diagnosing, and solving problems end-to-end, collaborating cross-functionally, and taking ownership of project successes and failures.
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.
Originally published Jun 17, 2021 11:45:00 AM, updated June 17 2021