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All About Careers in Product Management

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Project management requires you to be both an expert and a perpetual student. It’s one of the most challenging and fulfilling careers, and right now it’s experiencing a boom, particularly in tech fields.

Behind every great product, there’s a skilled product manager. But what is product management, and where did it begin? How do you become a product manager? In this article, we’ll answer those questions as well as provide information on the field, what you can expect to earn, and offer additional resources to help you become a better product manager.

What is Product Management?

Product Management is a strategic business function concentrated on providing the best solutions to meet the needs of the market. Product managers identify the needs for new products or services, work with a team to create and launch them, oversee those already in the market, and manage those products or services successfully throughout the various stages of its lifecycle (this includes discontinuing solutions that no longer generate sufficient profit). 

History of Product Management

Product management began with one man and a single piece of paper. In 1931, Neil McElroy, an executive managing a campaign for Proctor & Gamble’s Camay soap had an epiphany. He typed a company memo that started a revolution: he wrote that organizations should treat each product as if it were a separate business and decentralize the decision-making process. It’s a system that’s been in use ever since by consumer product organizations worldwide.

Here are the main points asserted by McElroy’s memo:

  • Know the areas and quantity of product being sent to those areas.
  • Understand where sales are positive and growing, and then apply those principles to other regions.
  • Where sales are less robust, learn why that is the case. Create a plan to turn the situation around and work with internal team members to ensure the plan is successful.
  • Manage all brand messaging.
  • Manage all of the advertising and marketing budget and spend.
  • Be innovative, particularly with visual packaging of brands.
  • Collaborate with local sales managers to understand what’s working and what isn’t in their regions.

Although communication and technology have changed dramatically since McElroy’s time, these foundational ideas are still valid, and are widely used in product management today.  

Product Management within the Management Framework

How product management fits into an organization can vary by company type. Traditionally, consumer product companies have tied product management to product marketing, with  pre-product launch responsibilities including positioning, messaging, customer development, and go-to-market strategy. Post-launch activities focus on helping with sales enablement, adoption and product success in the marketplace. In technology companies, product management has been seen as a role that relates more closely to product development. Product managers working with engineering and development teams must posses a degree of technical orientation, particularly in companies that have enterprise or B2B products.
More forward-thinking organizations see a different position for product managers in their companies. Rather than placing product management in one area or another of an organizational chart, it is more useful to think about product management as a cross-functional practice: 

Responsibility for managing a product or intangible service through every phase of its lifecycle from concept, planning, development, qualification, launch, delivery, and eventually retirement. This means that it is essential for a product manager to have a comprehensive understanding of and collaboration with every area of an organization. In an ever-more competitive business landscape, particularly in the technology sector, product management has taken on much greater prominence organizationally, and product managers are assuming a higher profile. The outlook for product management positions is growing exponentially. 

The Strategic Role of the Product Manager

Behind every great product is a great product manager. A product manager has to deliver value to a business, so they play a strategic role in planning and managing collaboration with multiple stakeholders. The product manager has to thrive while working with multiple teams to ensure a tangible impact on the company, and maintain creativity and dedication to delivering customers the best product or service. One of the most successful product managers of all time, Steve Jobs of Apple, is known for saying, “If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profits will follow.”


In his 700-page guide, The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, Steven Haines states that there are three product management mandates:

  • The product manager is the person appointed to be a proactive product or product line “mini-CEO” or general manager.
  • The product manager leads a cross-functional product team.
  • The product team’s responsibility is to optimize the product’s market position and financial returns, consistent with corporate, business unit, or division strategies.  

All of these (plus creativity and people skills) ultimately add up to being able to manage the processes that create customer value and measurable business benefits. 

The Role of a Product Manager

Product managers and their teams need to create product experiences that outsmart competitors over time. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has been quoted as saying, “Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.” To do that, a product manager views challenges through four dimensions: an overview based on vision, an awareness of the time, personnel and resource constraints, and the immediate goals of what needs to be accomplished. 

One of the interesting aspects of product management as a profession is that the product manager’s role and title can differ depending on the company and the lifecycle of a product. As the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM) has noted, “Product management is a profession just like medicine, law, architecture, accounting, civil engineering, and most recently product management. However, unlike these recognized and respected professions, product management remains somewhat misunderstood. As a direct result of the lack of standards and common practices, each individual, company and industry has created their own unique definitions of the product manager role and product management discipline. This lack of standardization has led to much confusion and has prevented the profession from growing the way the product management profession has in the past 40+ years as a result of PMI’s efforts to introduce product management standards.” 

Despite the lack of strict definition, there are areas of concentration and core knowledge that are common in what product managers do in their jobs. 

Inbound and Outbound Product Management: In some larger organizations, responsibilities are divided between inbound (product development( and outbound (product marketing). Inbound product management duties require taking in information about the potential product or service, such as market research analysis, review of market trends, and market sensing. Outbound product management focuses on how the product is marketed and how consumer segments are targeted. You can also characterize inbound product management as a “pull” phase where information is absorbed and outbound product management as a “push” phase where information is externally channelized. In many smaller organizations, the product manager handles both areas.

Core Knowledge Areas: A strong product manager will be a Renaissance man or woman, with a unique combination of traits and abilities:

  • User experience know-how: They need to be empathetic, able marketers to build the right product or service, with the capacity to understand and create a compelling customer experience that is both in-touch with the current environment and predictive at the same time.  
  • A passion for technology: Product managers must be knowledgeable and curious about all things technical, particularly so they can understand the technology behind the product or service they are developing and also in their work with the engineers in charge of development.
  • Well-honed interpersonal and management skills: Building great relationships and clearly communicating with all teams is essential. They also must be able to establish the credibility to rally a team around product strategy. Additionally, the product managers should maintain a framework for prioritization.
  • Deep business skills: Thriving in ambiguity and quickly adapting to effectively get things done is essential, as is the ability to break problems down into tasks and proactively look for solutions. A large part of product management is focused on maximizing business goals, so focusing on measurable results and product key performance indicators (KPIs) is essential to maximize return on investment (ROI). To achieve KPIs and ROI, a good product manager should understand sales, marketing, pricing and other business goals, and have a solid grasp of math and finance.

A successful product manager is someone who has an unending need to acquire knowledge and a large reservoir of energy. These positions are currently in high demand: a quick search on Monster.com yielded 1000+ postings for product management jobs in everything from toy manufacturing to space exploration. 

Careers in Product Management

First-class math and financial acumen are high-priority skills for product managers, so that profit and loss for their product or brand can be scrutinized and acted upon. From the beginning to the end of any product, having a grasp of those numbers, along with creativity and interpersonal skills will be useful to identify opportunity areas for your company’s product or service. That means it may take a few years of demonstrated business-related work in consulting, finance, or accounting to be successful. 

Since product management is a mix of marketing, organizational, technical, and people skills, real experience tends to be what hiring managers are looking for. So, despite possessing degrees in related fields, it may take a while to earn a spot on a product management team. The easiest way to break into product management may be getting into your first position through an internal transfer, since this position requires a knowledge of the company, technology, and its staff inside out.

As mentioned, job descriptions and titles can vary from company to company and field to field. In technology companies, product management is even less defined than in packaged goods or other areas, so you’ll need to do your research. To start thinking about new careers or advancing in product management, here are some job titles and descriptions to consider:  

Entry Level:
Associate Product Manager (PM) - Associate PMs have the opportunity to learn the ropes from senior product managers and by working closely with other disciplines within the company. Responsibilities include collecting and focusing on product and customer requirements, clarifying vision for the product, and collaborating with cross-functional teams to ensure that KPIs and customer satisfaction goals are achieved.

Mid-Level

  • Product Manager - This role is responsible for the strategic and tactical aspects, product roadmap, and definition of product, and product line or service features. The job involves working with multiple teams and usually includes marketing, forecasting, and profit and loss (P&L). It requires market and competitive analysis to develop a solution that delivers unique value.
  • Group Product Manager (GPM) - Charged with the leadership and direction of a product team, this is the most significant non-executive product management role and often manages other product managers. Daily responsibilities include research and product development. Strategy is most often provided by an executive, but the GPM is responsible for implementation and execution.

Senior Level

  • SVP, Product Management - This position reports to a C-level executive, EVP or GM, and leads a larger product management team. They work closely with other key leaders in cross-functional teams to ensure the right product or service is being offered in support of business goals.
  • Director, Product Management - Reports to the Vice President of Product Management or CEO. This senior role requires the ability to collaborate with executives and other cross-functional leadership. The Director, Product Manager must be able to  articulate a clear product vision, foster customer communication, and prioritize and define product or service features that will drive business.
  • VP, Product Management - Usually an executive in larger organizations, this influencer is responsible for major initiatives and value creation for the business. They keep cross-functional teams in alignment, and are normally part of the executive team that forms the highest level strategy for the company and sometimes is included in merger and acquisition (M&A) activities. 
  • Chief Product Officer - This role typically  reports directly to the CEO and is responsible for all product activities. They are usually in charge of overall product strategy, aligning it with the corporate goals set by the CEO and company board. This position often also acts as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

In light of the kind of multi-faceted skills and expertise required in these careers, product managers at every level usually bring experience in other professions including design, research, information architecture, sales-engineer, marketing manager, business analyst, or other positions. Brian Lawley, author of 42 Rules of Product Management says that product managers should “Only move forward with creating a product that will be ‘above the bar.’”

What Certifications Further Your Career?

Very few product managers have a degree in product management, although Harvard, Cornell, and Northwestern’s business schools are adding product management programs and courses to their MBA programs because so many MBA seekers want to become product managers in the tech industry. In general, there is no single degree that qualifies you as a product manager. One suggestion for those who are interested in technology fields would be to get a degree in computer science and in the humanities, or a multi-disciplinary degree like cognitive science.

If you want to add credentials to your resume, however, there are product management certifications available from:


Pragmatic Marketing offers Pragmatic Marketing Certification (PMC), which is good for entry-level product managers. Exams are administered at the conclusion of each course and no separate registration is required. Resources are provided to to alumni. 


AIPMM offers a Certified Product Manager (CPM) program along with a wide variety of courses in workshops around the world. A more advanced approach, the coursework requires familiarity with MBA-type material. Extensive study is required. The cost of the certification exam is additional after coursework.


Proficientz offers a range of face-to-face and online training courses and certification for (PMC) for B2B and B2B2C. Certification exams are free after successfully completing paid workshops.

However, the best way to learn more about product management after college is on the job. The best product managers have practical experience encompassing leadership, analytical and data skills, technical skills, initiative, product design skills, and a strong customer focus and work ethic. 

Does Learning Product Management Set You Up to Be an Entrepreneur?

Many aspiring entrepreneurs feel that they want to start their own company, but they’re not quite ready. A position in product management at a stable company, with access to every aspect of business and value-building, is a great place to hone your skills and learn how to best create and sell successful products or service. As a ‘mini-CEO,’ product managers have already learned to perform entrepreneurial work: developing products and services that meet customer needs, processes that are more efficient and effective, strategies that look at the world differently, and programs that have never been tried before.

How Much Do Product Managers Earn?

Product managers in the United States are well-paid, reflecting the wide-ranging skills required for the job. Salaries vary according to geographical area and industry. Glassdoor cites the median salary for product managers nationwide as $108,659. According to Payscale, “Salaries for Senior Product Managers in the United States are generous, with average pay above six figures ($117K) per year. Including potential for bonuses and profit sharing — peaking near $25K and $20K, respectively — total cash payment to Senior Product Managers can bottom out near $85K or peak near $162K depending on individual performance. The particular firm is the biggest factor affecting pay for this group, followed by geography and experience level. Job satisfaction is reported as high by the vast majority of workers.” 


Source: salary.com
The table from Salary.com reflects some of the ambiguity around product management titles compensation, but is in close alignment with the other sources.  

Resources for Product Managers

Being a product manager means that you have to stay informed about best practices not just in a single area of expertise, but in many. Here are some resources to help keep aspiring or current product managers on top of their game.
  
Books

  • Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore - Technology marketing
  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Product - Product development
  • Inside the Tornado by Geoffrey Moore - Technology marketing
  • Inspired: How to Build Products Customers Love by Marty Kagan - Product management
  • The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen - Lean methodology
  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout - Consumer marketing
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - Learn from product managers
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath - Change management
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - Psychology

Websites
AIPMM – Association of International Product Marketing and Product Management
PDMA – Product Development and Management Association
PPS – Professional Pricing Society
SCIP – Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals
Meetups – Software Product Management Meetup Groups

Organizations Around the Country
Atlanta GA – Technology Association of Georgia – Product Management
Birmingham AL – Product Management Association
Boston MA – Product Management Association
Denver CO – Rocky Mountain PDMA Chapter – open to non-PDMA members
Los Angeles CA – Product Manager Meetup
New York NY – Software Product Management Meetup
Raleigh/Durham NC – Triangle Product Marketing Association
St. Louis MO – Product Management Group
Seattle/Puget Sound WA – Puget Sound Product Management Forum
Silicon Valley CA – Product Management Association
Tampa Bay FL –  Product Management Association

How to Become a More Effective Product Manager

If you’re already a product manager and are looking to up to your game and improve your career, here are five tips that can help:

  1. Find a mentor. With everything that goes into being a product manager, it helps to have someone help you avoid the pitfalls.
  2. Listen, listen, listen. While your job is to evangelize, it’s important to find out specifically what your audience wants and needs to know in order to deliver the information effectively.
  3. Be responsive. Be as conscientious about your own reputation as you are about your product’s. People who are ignored may assume you are disorganized, incapable, or rude.
  4. Read widely. You simply can’t know enough and it's important to learn about more than your specific area if you’re going to understand trends.
  5. Dig your data. One of the most important skills great product managers need to have is the ability to analyze data, and provide and share recommendations for the rest of your team based on what’s really going on in order to make an impact.

Product managers need to be experts and permanent students. They must be articulate, able marketers, speak the language of technology and finance, and translate the fine print in contracts. It’s a tough job, so take advantage of everything you can to make it easier.

Tools for Product Managers

With everything product managers have on their plate, any tool that makes their work easier just makes sense. There are an abundance of tools available for everything from collaboration (TinyPM), product roadmaps (ProductBoard, ProductPlan, Roadmunk), product management (Basecamp, Jira, Trello), productivity (RescueTime, Todolist, Wunderlist), and prototyping (Invision, Proto.io, Protoshare

Since data is vital to success, check out tools that will help you understand your buyers more deeply with customer research (SurveyMonkey, UserTesting, UXCam), and give you the ability to measure metrics and analytics (Google Analytics, Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, FullStory).

How Smartsheet Supports Product Manager’s Effectiveness

Smartsheet is a spreadsheet-inspired work management tool with robust collaboration and communication features. Manage any project - big or small, simple or complex. You can also request updates, set alerts, and build reports in Smartsheet - the pre-built templates are fully customizable to help you evaluate and organize every aspect of your market and customer analysis.

Use Smartsheet to manage traditional and Agile projects, control project scope and costs, and see status and progress in real-time -  all while keeping teams focused on critical tasks. Since Smartsheet is cloud-based, stakeholders and team members can communicate and see updates from virtually anywhere. With an extensive range of smart views - Grid, Calendar, Gantt, Sights, and Card View - Smartsheet works the way you want. Smartsheet's version of dashboards, called Sights, lets you build a customized window into all of your work, in one place. 

You can see live summary reports, get reminders on important deadlines, and follow links to important documents. With a drag-and-drop layout and configurable widgets, anyone can create a dashboard in Smartsheet - no training or set-up required. And, rather than emailing a static Excel file, you can share your Smartsheet dashboard with anyone. Changes can be made and are displayed in real time, and multiple people can view and edit a Smartsheet Sight at the same time.

See how easy it can be to use Smartsheet to manage and track all your product management needs. 

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All About Careers in Product Management

Try Smartsheet for Free