What is a Product Manager?
A product manager is a role developed from the historical “brand manager” job and is often called a “product CEO” or a “product champion.” The responsibilities of product managers can vary wildly between different companies, so the traditional definition overlaps with several other positions. Consistent throughout companies, however, is that a product manager is responsible for the entire product lifecycle, driving development from conception to launch, through any upgrades, and until the eventual wind-down. The product manager also needs to straddle many functional areas as a collaborative leader within the company. At the very least, these areas include research, business, technology, and user experience. For some outliers, being savvy with sales, marketing, or finance is also necessary. Additionally, the product manager may fulfill any function on the core delivery team.
As a leader in research, the product manager is an expert at understanding their customer base and the marketplace. They solve problems for this demographic, determine market demands, and identify opportunities and needs. Focus groups, surveys, and usability testing are common market research strategies that many product managers use for the user side of their investigation.
As a business leader, product managers are not only getting their company on board with potential new products, but also getting employees excited about them. Taking into account the business’ strategic goals, the competitive landscape, and the product’s value, they are the head cheerleader for the product. As such, they continually evangelize the product’s features, and reiterate that the product itself is worth the time, commitment, and money that it takes to get it to market.
As a technology leader, the product manager must fully understand how their company builds something, and what resources the product development and release needs. They also need to understand technology trends and technical challenges, as well as the implications of their decisions and feature trade-offs during development. This is a critical function of a project manager role, and in some companies is a specialization of product management called a “Technical Product Manager” because they translate needs between the engineers and everyone else - sales, marketing, and even the customers.
6 Senior Leaders Give Their Expert Opinion About Product Management Certification
We asked six senior leaders in business when they consider it important to have formal product management certification versus training and/or some coursework. Whether you want to make a switch to the field or have been working in it for years, it is worth it to consider their advice when deciding if you should get project management certified. Here is what the senior leaders had to say about certification:
1. Mike Hayes, Vice President of Sales at Koru
“If a candidate has a classical Marketing Degree, they have often already had courses that introduce them to a career in product management. For those wishing to change careers, from account management or sales, they should definitely take courses. I have had prior employees that have taken certificates in product management from companies like Pragmatic Marketing and it dramatically improves their career prospects. I have seen many go on to senior leadership or company leadership positions.”
2. Jon Harmer, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer at LaaSer Critical Communications
“I am a big fan of education, personally, and certifications are a good stamp of someone having received and understood the education. I am Pragmatic Marketing Certified (which required a test) and a Certified Scrum Product Owner (which did not). That being said, I don’t necessarily prefer product people who have a certification. I did make a team I created go through the classes (Pragmatic Marketing) because none of them had done product management formally, and it seemed the fastest way to get them all up to speed and on a level playing field. Nevertheless, generally, I would take someone with a few years of experience and a mindset [to start with] the customer’s problem first just as quickly as someone who had taken a class.
Why you would become certified:
- To remove the perceived barrier for any jobs that prefer/require certification
- If you were a career switcher and wanted to ramp up faster as a product manager
- To fill in gaps in your personal knowledge and better understand some frameworks for product management (i.e. because you like learning)
Don’t expect a pay bump simply from getting the certification, and don’t expect it to set you apart from other product managers inherently. I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but I’d guess about 10-15% of job postings mention certification (and Pragmatic Marketing is the one that I see mentioned the most if anything is mentioned).”
3. John Schaub, Senior Product Manager at Central 1, Organizer of ProductTank, Vancouver
“I'm a Product Manager based in Vancouver, Canada. I've been in product roles for much of the last decade and I'm also the organizer of ProductTank Vancouver, which is part of a worldwide group of Product Management meetups. Product management as a profession differs a lot from one organization to another. When looking at the resume of a potential hire it is always nice to know that they have completed a core curriculum even if they don't necessarily make use of those skills every day in their current role.”
4. Bennett Sung, Head of Product Marketing at VIEVU, A Safariland Company
“I've been engaged in both product management and its counterpart, product marketing, for over 15 years. Certification has crossed my mind from time to time, especially when looking to change domain expertise. Certification brings to organizations a framework of process consistency and vocabulary. In the end, success in product management and product marketing is anchored in your ability to listen to customers and translating their feedback into valuable functionality.”
5. Kevin Mease, Senior Vice President World Wide Support at MicroStrategy
“Generally, I would like someone to have a background in several different areas before they consider product management as a career option. A great product manager will understand the customer, market, and technology, and have a well-rounded background. Coming in with a few years under their belt, I highly recommend going through some form of training before starting a new job in product management. You need a framework/template to center your thinking. You will constantly be pulled in different directions with each conversation (throughout the day), so it’s important you have a framework to fall back on. It’s also important to brush up on your skills as you go and I think every three months is a good cadence for additional training. The type of training also varies pretty dramatically between where you fall on the product management spectrum (i.e. generalist, product marketing or technical product manager).
Kevin’s advice to product managers:
- Run your product like a hedge fund. Pick the lowest cost, highest-value features and do those first.
- Run your process scientifically. Start with a hypothesis, run a small trial, use control groups, challenge your assumptions, and find out what works and what doesn't. You will be wrong, so fail fast.
- Your time should be 30% planning, 30% execution and 30% communication. The remaining 10% should be saved for beers.”
6. Gayle Laakmann McDowell- Founder of CareerCup, Consultant (acquisitions & tech hiring), Author of 3 tech books, Developer (Google, MS, Apple)
“My basic understanding is that the project management certifications demonstrate that you have a baseline of knowledge. You can learn that knowledge elsewhere, of course, but this is proof that you have that. Still, a knowledgeable project manager can be ineffective: if they're bad with people, disorganized, lazy, or a variety of other things. I would recommend that a project manager learn the general things covered in a project management certification -- at least enough to know what they don't know. You can do that through a certification, or just through independent of on the job learning. Getting the certification could be useful if your desired company wants it, but not all companies do.”
The Difference Between Certification and Taking Training/Courses
From the expert opinions, it is clear that they do not feel like Certification in Product Management can hurt someone’s career prospects. Further, they agree that experience in business or other business backgrounds are important to develop as a professional. In fact, the difference in just taking some training or courses and in getting a Certification may be the appearance of understanding and consistency within the field. Further, when changing fields it may be a signal to prospective employers that you have the credentials and the professional experience that they require.
The Product Management Field
If product management seems like a complicated field to get into, it’s because there is no single, sure-fire way to break into it. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook, most product managers typically already have business experience and come from a variety of fields, such as advertising, marketing, promotions, sales, or engineering. Nevertheless, some big companies often start their incoming employees who possess a MBA as junior product managers until they can determine their career trajectory. This job is currently increasing at a faster-than-average rate worldwide for 2014-2024, at 9%, with a median salary of $124,850 in the United States.
Software product managers are considered a specialization of product management, but many people in technology fields assume that they are interchangeable titles. It is true that software product managers are more likely to come from a technology background such as engineering or software development, but it is not a requirement. As a result, most software product managers are able to communicate effectively with their company’s technical team and translate their challenges from a business perspective. However, not being mired in the technical details may be a challenge for those coming from a technology background. Regardless of your background, however, all professional product managers recommend listening to their stakeholders first and making decisions based upon the marketplace.
The Difference Between Product Managers and Project Managers
Although these two professionals often work hand-in-hand, there may be some overlap in responsibility and expertise based on the size and structure of the company, and this can make recognizing them difficult. According to the Product Management Institute (PMI, 2004), project management is the “temporary” performance of activities (a project), “to create a unique product, service, or result.” Project managers work in limited timeframes with specific outcome objectives. They are less interested in actual product goals and vision, and more interested in the details of the project itself. Project managers manage risks, problems, employees, resources, timelines, and scope. To simplify their differences for a specific product, many professionals say that product managers are worried about, “what” and “why,” and project managers are concerned with “how” and “when.” While product managers look at external factors such as the marketplace, project managers are concerned with the company’s internal factors such as manufacturing infrastructure to get the product completed. A further difference is the amount of flexibility required. Since project managers have set outcomes, there is little requirement for tweaking their project, and they can focus more on the reallocating resources and managing issues. On the other hand, the product manager must show more flexibility, and proactively tweak their strategy while maintaining their vision. Product managers are successful when their product is adopted by customers, while project managers are successful when they deliver the product on time and within budget.
The Difference Between Product Managers and Product Marketing Managers
Product marketing managers are another position that may have some overlap with product management, but with a slightly different emphasis. Both positions must champion their products, and must also understand the customer base and the marketplace. However, a product marketing manager aligns the company behind the product with consistent messaging and differentiated advertising from competing products. This position is responsible for the marketing strategy at the level of the product, and shapes any and all communication around the product. Product marketing managers take the product manager’s vision and implement it inactionable marketing.
Product Management Training Options
Just like there is no consistent way of breaking into the field of product management, there is no standard educational pathway. Part of what makes this field so exciting is that it is constantly evolving, and there are many educational offerings ranging from formal coursework to simply keeping up with other professionals’ blogs. The educational format is chosen based upon their personal and professional needs and their experience within the industry.
The following are different formats for education that someone interested in or already in the field of product management can pursue.
Blogs and Communities: Reading blogs from people in the trenches of product management is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry and constantly learn new techniques and generate ideas for your own career. Whether you are new to the industry or have been participating in the field a while, it is critical to stay abreast of new topics, trends, and tactics. Industry leaders such as Hunter Walk (the former Director of Product Management for Google), Nir Eyal, (the author of, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products), and Teresa Torres (a well-known product management consultant and speaker) have blogs that offer advice on product management topics. Some other popular blogs include the Quora-based “The Art of Product Management,” and “Mind the Product,” a community blog on product management. A simple browser search for “product management blogs” will yield many education options. There is also a Slack community for product managers, for those looking for real-time communication with other product managers in a more private, dedicated format than Twitter.
Books: There are many books available that are geared toward improving your product management skills. They come from past and current professional product managers and from educational programs and provide a way to solidify the material that they teach their students. Some of the top sellers include, The Product Book, from the Product School, and The Art of Product Management: Lessons from a Silicon Valley Innovator by Rich Mironov. Just like reading blogs, it is recommended that professionals read these books to increase their background knowledge and give them additional professional tools.
Workshops: There are many companies and consultants/coaches that offer one to three day workshops, either on-site for entire company teams or at their own locations. For the on-site workshops, the majority of educators tailor the workshop to the company’s needs. Most workshop programs have organizational assessments that are given to the company prior to the course curricula, which helps the educators to determine the company’s deficiencies. After the workshops, these programs offer additional coaching opportunities such as on-site check-ins and advisement. This is ideal for teams in large companies, and can include team members other than the product manager, as well. There are also many hours-long or days-long product management workshops for individual professionals or students who want to improve their skillset. These workshops are on specific topics, such as ‘Intro to Product Management’ for professionals who are interested in changing careers, or ‘Managing People in Product development,’ a workshop that is targeted to a specific skillset for those already in the job.
On the Job Training (OJT): One of the less formal options for education in product management is on-the-job-training. However, fewer and fewer companies in the U.S. offer this option, and the majority of advertisements for OJT are for entry-level positions in developing countries.
Formal Courses: There are a number of formal courses online or at traditional universities that can last days, weeks, or even months. Some courses even come with built-in certification exams through the Association of International Product Marketing and Management (AIPMM) and/or “certificates” from their program. The vast majority are listed as continuing education though, and not a part of a degreed curriculum. However, some Ivy League MBA programs are beginning to offer additional coursework on product management as well, recognizing the emerging field and giving graduate students some exposure prior to graduation.
Evaluating Product Management Coursework, Cost, and Time Commitment
Any prospective student should look for courses that fit into their lifestyle and meet their budget constraints, whether they are new to product management or a veteran in the field. Paid courses run from one day (for continuing education classes) to several months, and can cost anywhere from $695 to $8,000. For example, an in-person course at UC Berkeley is five days with a six-week online portion prior to the on-site classes and costs $7,245, while an in-person course at the University of Washington is six to eight months and costs $3,990. Both courses come with their own certificate for their program.
Another option is to go through an agency such as the 280 Group, which offers in-person and online options. The program’s self-study online course costs $1,295 and comes with the AIPMM exam for certification. Almost all of the courses advertised also boast instructors who have copious experience in product management or are business leaders with some fame in their respective field. There are also many “free” courses online, but the value these course offer is unclear.
Practical Skills Learned in Product Management Coursework
Each course offering boasts that students will learn the practical skills that they need to perform and position themselves in the product management field. However, some of the courses focus more on the fundamentals in product management such as research, while others teach these basics but focus more on their students getting project management positions.
Ultimately, you are looking to learn how to conceptualize, launch, and track a new product on the marketplace, all while coordinating a team and galvanizing a company behind it. This includes learning how to talk like and think like product managers in the industry.
An example of one General Assembly program identifies that its students will learn the following practical skills:
- Understand the product manager role
- Understand their product’s key risks and assumptions for testing
- Determine the most effective business model for their product
- Create wireframes, MVPs, and basic prototypes to test their assumptions
- Use research testing
- Work cohesively with developers
- Measure their product’s success and track its lifecycle
Some courses also offer training that is more advanced after a student completes the basics. For example, the Pragmatic Marketing Framework offers their “Fundamentals” course and certificate, along with more specialized courses such as “Price,” a certificate course with that teaches how to price products based upon the market.
Do Product Management Course Testimonials Matter?
Many courses have testimonials from past students, where former students extol the value of the program that they attended. They may also discuss how the program influenced their career or set it on its journey. However, it may be relevant for prospective students to consider their career path before they consider someone else’s route. Experts recommend prospective product management students look at their current company’s culture (or the culture of the company where they would like to work).
Since there is no one standard path for a product manager’s education, and because companies vary on requiring work history and certification, the professional must determine their own path based on their personal goals. Developing relationships with local company experts are a sure way to determine a potential employer’s hiring preferences. Regardless of the way a professional chooses to do so, however, continuing education in the field of product management is essential. How much, what kind, and how often is strictly up to the professional and their personal goals.
Product Management Certification
Currently, there is no universally required certification for product managers. Many businesses do not require certification for their product managers, and some companies even explicitly state that they prefer candidates that have experience over certification. Product managers come from all types of backgrounds, and have certifications or certificates from many different types of educational institutions.
The difference between a certificate and a certification is that a certificate indicates the completion of a non-degreed course while a certification is given for passing a standardized test and performing continued education in the discipline of the exam. Some educational institutions do not offer certificates or certifications after completion of their courses. The following are the current bodies that award product management certification of some variation.
AIPMM: The Association of International Product Marketing and Management is a professional association for product managers founded in 1998. The association offers five different Product Manager or Product Marketing Certifications earned through taking an exam; each costs $395. These include Certified Product Manager (CPM), Certified Product Marketing Manager (CPMM), Certified Innovation Leader (CIL), Agile Certified Product Manager (ACPM), and Dual Certified Product Manager/Product Marketing Manager. Additionally, the AIPMM collaborates with a number of private education companies that offer training and their exam to their students.
Scrum Alliance: The Scrum Alliance offers the Certified Scrum Product Owner certification (CSPO). Scrum is part of the Agile software development movement for managing product development. CSPOs own products on Scrum teams, and are certified after taking the Scrum Alliance’s two-day course. The Scrum Alliance offers several certifications, but the CSPO is the only one relevant to product management.
Scrum.org: Scrum.org is another organization specific to software development in the Agile methodology. The organization offers a two-day Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO) course and certification. The course and certification is specifically for product managers who are responsible for software development upon the Scrum framework. There are two levels to the PSPO Certification, PSPO I and PSPO II. The certification exams cost $200 and $500, respectively.
ISPMA: The International Software Product Management Association offers two levels of training and certification for Product Managers, the Foundational Level and the Excellence Level. The Foundational and Excellence Levels are three-day courses with certification exams, given and recognized internationally. The Foundational level is targeted to students with little or no experience in software product management and the course and certification combined costs $2,699. The Excellence Level is for certified Foundational Level professionals with three years of experience. Together the course and exam cost about $3,500.
Private Institutions: Many programs offer their own certificates after their training to signal completion of the course. These are awarded after the courses are complete, and most have their own version of a final exam or final project. For example, Pragmatic Marketing offers six different courses, each with a certificate associated with the training.
Are Levels of Product Manager Certification Consistent Across Programs?
A common question from professionals considering Product Management Certification is whether the different certifications are consistent across the different bodies. Several of the organizations offer multiple levels of certification targeted to a specific dimension of product management. Although many of the courses teach similar materials, due to the varied nature of the requirements and course formats, the levels of certification for those that offer certification are not consistent across the different bodies and courses. Choosing to become certified or simply obtaining a certificate from coursework is based upon the needs, career path, and opinion of the professional.
Smartsheet: An Essential Tool for Product Managers
Smartsheet is a spreadsheet-inspired task and product management tool with powerful collaboration and communication features that are ideal for product managers. It is a useful tool for prioritizing features, tracking enhancement requests, and managing product launches.
Track assigned tasks, due dates, and status updates through spreadsheet, Gantt, Card, and Calendar views. Invite team members and external stakeholders to the plan sheet for seamless coordination and collaboration. Attach files and working documents, and add notes and status details to keep everything related in a central location. Organize requirements, track bugs, and drive prioritization while collaborating with your launch team. With templates like a requirements checklist or product feedback survey web form, you can ensure a flawless development process. Use Smartsheet’s powerful collaboration tools to manage discussions, reminders, and attachments, and make changes in real time.
Our newest view, Card View, provides teams with a highly-visual way to work, communicate, and collaborate in Smartsheet. Card View enables you to focus attention with rich cards, give perspective with flexible views, and prioritize and adjust work more visually. Display information on cards including custom fields, images, and color coding to better focus your team’s attention. Categorize cards into lanes to organize your work more visually.
Intuitively change lanes, filter cards, and track tasks to see workflow from multiple perspectives. Act on tasks and change status of work by dragging and dropping cards through lanes to immediately share decisions with the entire team. Use symbols to provide a quick visual of task status. Start with a pre-built template for your project type, or import existing projects directly from Trello. And, save hours when preparing project status information for management teams.
See how easy it can be to manage your products, collaborate with team members, and meet your deadlines.