How to Start Your Career in Product Management

Discover the ways you can kickstart your career in product management.

Written by: Kristen Baker


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It’s mid-February in Boston. Considering the temperature has been hovering around a bitter 20 degrees, I can tell you one of my favorite items I own is my very warm and cozy Woolrich Parka.

Think about some of your favorite products — the Nike sneakers you wear everywhere, the Adobe Photoshop software you invested in to hone those graphic design skills, or the Ray-Ban sunglasses you wear all summer long.

It’s safe to say we all have certain products we love and promote. But have you ever thought about how these items you wear and use actually came to be?

Who planned the way the product would solve for certain pain points (like being freezing all winter long in Boston)? Who led the team of people who created the product to solve for those pain points? And who helps continue to identify the need for updates and modifications to improve the product over time?

The simple answer: Product management.

Before we discuss what product management actually is, it’s important to note this piece is a broad overview of the industry and is by no means an all-inclusive guide — this page is here to simply help you kickstart your career in product management and educate anyone who’s curious about the field.

Now, let’s get started.

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Product managers don’t create a product individually — that’s the work of product development. A product manager clearly articulates customer problem areas, determines the scale of an issue, and gives direction the design and development teams can execute on.

Product management provides a well-thought-out vision and precise direction for product development to use to actually build or update a product.

Types of Product Management

A career in product management is particularly interesting because product managers come from all kinds of backgrounds. This diversity creates a variety of types of product management.

Customer-Focused Product Management

The customer-focused product manager likely has a background in sales engineering or customer support. They're focused on the product and how it best serves its customers.

Customer-focused product managers are the most canonical version of product management. They have the best understanding of a product's customer base and are more externally than internally focused.

Business-Focused Product Management

The business-focused product manager likely comes from sales or sales management. They're focused on how to fund, develop, and improve the product and how it impacts the business.

Business-focused product managers have a unique understanding of the product's place in the market and can be found working with products in more competitive or established market.

Engineering/ Technology-Focused Product Management

The engineering or technology-focused product manager likely has an IT or software engineering background. They're focused on how a product is developed vs. what it is or what it does for customers.

Engineering or technology-focused product managers can be found working with more technical products, such as SaaS products or external APIs.

Design-Focused Product Management

The design-focused product manager likely has a background in product design or development. They're focused on a product's design, functionality, and user experience.

Design-focused product managers excel when working with products where the user experience and interface is the main differentiator.

10 Product Management Terms to Know

As you read this guide, begin to learn about product management, and spend more time in the field, you’ll notice a lot of the same lingo repeatedly being used. Below, we’ll define some of this vocabulary to help you get a better grasp on what the terms mean.

1. Product Owner

We’ve discussed the relationship between product management and product development — but who’s the product owner? A product owner comes up with the initial idea for the product. They explain the concept to product management teams so they can begin their work. In some cases — depending on the company, needs, and resources — the work of a product owner and product manager may actually be done by the same person.

2. Scrum Product Owner

Scrum product owners (or scrum masters) support product owners. They’re the people in charge of backing the concept of a product or a new feature to an existing product. Their main role is to ensure project success — by “project”, I mean the creation of the new product from start to finish. They make sure the product owner and the rest of the team have all the necessary plans and processes in place that will lead them to the finished product they have in mind.

3. Product Vision

The product vision explains what the completed product will look like and keeps all team members focused on one end goal. It’s the description of a product’s purpose, the explanation of why it’s being created, and the summary of what the product will achieve for customers.

4. Product Lifecycle Management

Product lifecycle management (PLM) is the process of overseeing the lifecycle of a given product. It includes the overarching vision and plans behind a product, including its design, construction, and sale. A product’s lifecycle begins with its conception and continues until it reaches customers. The lifecycle may continue after the product reaches consumers if it requires updates and/ or modifications.

5. Critical Path

In project management, the critical path is the longest, overall duration a project should take to complete from start to finish. The process of creating a critical path requires you to finish one task completely prior to beginning the next. This allows the team working on the given project to determine the shortest amount of time possible for them to complete the project.

6. Go-to-Market Strategy

A go-to-market strategy, or GTM strategy, is how a company brings a new product to the market. It’s the strategic plan a company uses to release, promote, and sell a product. This may include a business plan for the product (including information about the target audience and buyer personas), a marketing plan, and a sales strategy.

7. Release Management

Release management is the process of managing and planning each stage in the release of a product so that all cross-team members are aligned on their role and schedule. This includes everything from the product’s development to testing to the time it reaches customers.



8. Value Proposition

Your value proposition (VP) is a written statement directed towards your customers about the ways your product will meet their needs and solve for their pain points. It details how your product will provide value in their lives.

9. Product Roadmap

A product roadmap is a broad explanation of the vision and direction of a product over time — it serves as a guide for all people working on the product to refer to throughout the creation process. It ensures all team members are aligned on their specific roles in getting the product ready for customers, describes why it’s being made, and explains the value it’ll provide customers.

10. Product Specification

Product specification, or product spec, is a clear blueprint provided by product management and given to product development. It explains:

  • What they’ll be building
  • Why they’re building it
  • Who they’re building it for
  • What the final product should look like/ include
  • How the team will measure the success of the new product

Depending on the product type, company, and industry, a product spec may be either very detailed or very brief. Product specifications may also include user stories and buyer personas to further support the work of product development.

We’ve covered what product management is and some commonly used terminology within the field. Now, let’s talk about the skills you’ll need to become a successful product manager. By understanding these skills, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you already have what it takes to enter the field or if there’s an area or two of expertise you should work on.

To become a product manager, you’ll need a mix of personal and technical skills. Some of these may come naturally to you, and some may require background knowledge and/ or previous work experience. Remember, this is just an overview of the skills you’ll need — they may vary a bit based on your company and exact role.

Let’s dive in.

Personal Skills Product Managers Must Possess

As a product manager, you’ll need a mix of five major personal skills — these will be necessary throughout all points in your career.

1. Communication

As a product manager you have to clearly communicate, both verbally and through writing, to product developers and designers about what they need to create. This includes communicating the need for the product and related details about the customer pain points they’ll be solving for to ensure they execute in a way that meets your criteria.

2. Organization

You’ll need to be highly organized as a product manager — that’s because a lot of the work you do in the field is detail oriented and systematic. You manage and organize all of the information given to you by product owners and customers, then pull apart these details and organize them in a way that makes sense to product development.

3. Creativity

Although being methodical is important as a product manager, you also need to be creative. Creativity is what will help you think about new ways to solve for customer pain points, develop effective decision-making processes across various teams, and communicate with your team members.

4. Strategy

As a product manager, you’ll need to strategically contribute to the product vision, product lifecycle, go-to-market strategy, product roadmap, and more. This means you need to consider the long-term effects of your decisions and plans, as well as the overarching goals and aims of your team and company, when contributing to the plans for the product. You also need to work strategically to determine how your solutions will solve for your customers’ needs and decide how your product will be created by development to ensure it’s cohesive with your business plan.

5. Analysis

Without the use of analytics, you wouldn’t be able to determine how well you’re doing at your job, how well your team is doing as a whole, how successful you’ve been at solving for your customers’ pain points, and how well you’re communicating your vision and plans to other teams like product development.

Whether it’s through regular feedback sessions, surveys, polls, or customer reviews, you need to be highly analytical as a product manager. You’ll find yourself testing out a variety of different plans and ideas before moving forward with one throughout your career. Additionally, analysis of your work — plus the work of your team — is how you’ll learn about the changes and modifications you need to make to existing products so they meet customer needs.

Technical Skills Product Managers Must Possess

The following technical skills may not come as naturally to you as some of the personal skills we reviewed … and that’s all right! These will be easier for you to understand and develop as you gain more experience in the field.

1. Product Lifecycle Utilization

As a product manager, it’s critical you understand how to use the product lifecycle to your advantage. That’s because it helps you and the teams you work with plan each stage of any product you’re working on including its introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. It also defines everyone’s role throughout the lifecycle so you can ensure it meets all necessary criteria at each stage.

2. Product Release Management

Part of your work as a product manager requires you to oversee and manage product releases. Your job is to make sure everyone — other managers, designers, and developers — understands the exact end goal of the new item or update and how they’re going to get there to make for a smooth product release.

3. Product Design Knowledge

It’d be very difficult for you to come up with a viable product strategy and plan for your designers and developers to use if you didn’t have any product design knowledge.

Although you might need to check in with other teams on certain things from time to time, having a general knowledge of product design will allow you to go to your designers and developers with a realistic plan. This saves you time in the planning phase and saves your designers and developers time while creating the product.

4. Product Strategy Development

As a product manager, you’ll be working on product strategies. Your product strategies describe who your target market is, who your buyer personas are, and how you plan on achieving success with your new product. They help you create concise plans to build the product and develop reasonable strategies for designers and developers work with. Product strategies are also a great way build cases for the need of new products that will solve for customers’ pain points.

5. Value Proposition Creation

As mentioned earlier, part of your role as a product manager is to develop value propositions so you can explain to your team members, designers, developers (and anyone else at your company) how your new product will meet the needs of your customers. This ensures all collaborators are aligned on what the product absolutely must have and do so it meets your end goal.

Now that you have an understanding of the skills you’ll need to enter the product management field, let’s review some different paths you can take to actually get your career started.

Careers in Product Management

As you begin your search for a product management position, there are a few things to consider: your education, the hierarchical structure of a typical product management department — to better understand where you’d most likely fit in best — and the type of product manager you’d like to become. Remember, different companies and departments have various requirements and titles, so there’s not a “one size fits all” way to get started.

Let’s begin by discussing your education.

Product Management Education

No matter your college degree, there are plenty of ways to make yourself stand out to potential companies, recruiters, and HR departments. Let’s review some of the more common ways to fine-tune your education to meet the requirements of different product management openings.

There are dozens of product management courses for students to take during or after they finish their undergrad degrees available both online and in person. Some schools, like Southern New Hampshire University, Fashion Institute of Technology, and Georgetown University, offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in product management in addition to certificates in the field.

Remember — every company’s different. While some may require an actual product management degree, others may simply be searching for the right culture fit, adaptability, and readiness to learn. Here’s an example of what HubSpot searches for when filling a product management role:

product manager job description example


Product Management Department Hierarchy and Structure

At most companies, roles titled “product manager” aren’t necessarily entry-level positions. However, there are entry-level positions in the field in addition to a variety of high-level positions you may be offered once you’ve been promoted from a product management role.

Let’s review some entry-level, mid-level, and high-level product management positions so you can get a better understanding of a typical department’s hierarchical structure and what your career could potentially look like.

Entry-Level Product Management Roles

Internships, associate product management, and junior product management roles are great positions if you’re in college, a recent graduate, or entering the field for the first time. All three of these roles typically consist of a mix of hands-on product management tasks and training exercises.

Mid-Level Product Management Roles

Mid-level positions are typically called product managers. As a product manager, you’ve proven yourself as an intern, associate, or junior manager, and you're ready to work independently. As a product manager, you’re in charge of leading design and development teams through the creation and execution of new products and features.

High-Level Product Management Roles

Once you’ve proven your ability to work independently as a product manager, as well as with design and development teams to create products that meet customers’ needs, you might move into a senior product manager or a scrum product manager role. This involves some hands-on work (similar to that of a product manager) in addition to overseeing entry-level product managers.

There are also product director and vice president of product management positions at most companies, if you stay in the field long enough to be promoted to one. These roles require you to oversee the entire product management department and ensure your teams are meeting all of their goals. You’d most likely report to the CEO once you’re at this level.

Here’s a diagram of the hierarchy of these roles for those of you who are visual learners:

product management department structure


(It’s important to note some companies may have more or fewer tiers, and others may have completely different titles and expectations for employees in these roles.)

Now, let’s talk about the type of product manager you want to become.

Types of Product Managers

As you begin narrowing your search for product management jobs, you’ll need to determine the type of product manager you actually want to become. There are several other types of product managers aside from the ones we’re going to touch on in this guide, but we’re going to review some of the more common options.

  • Technical product managers typically have an engineering or computer science background. They work very closely with a given company’s engineers and design teams to develop specific and high-tech product features and capabilities and then help determine how to go about creating them.
  • Consumer product managers work directly with — yep, you guessed it — consumers. They work to identify customer pain points, develop buyer personas, and determine how they’re going to bring a new product to market in a way that’ll grab the attention of the people they’re looking to convert (or retain). Consumer product managers use surveys, marketing research, polling, and other forms of data to determine the answers to some of these questions.
  • Internal product managers work on the development, creation, and modification of products for their co-workers. Internal product managers still work closely with designers and developers to create new products, however, these products are only intended for internal use — not external use/ for customers.
  • B2B product managers work on products that are sold directly to businesses. In some instances, a B2B product manager may need a more technical background, similar to that of a technical product manager, but that isn’t always required. Their work aligns with the work of consumer product managers, but instead of targeting the pain points and needs of consumers, they focus on the needs of the other business.

Start Your Product Management Career

Product management is an exciting career path. It’s a fairly new and technical field being recognized by more colleges, universities, and businesses every day. There are a number of ways to enter the field and find a position that works for you depending on your education and previous work experience. Get started by thinking about the type of product manager role you're most interested in to determine the best path to get you there.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in February 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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