Product managers are one of the most in-demand hires in business right now. As more and more companies rely on these coveted professionals to drive innovation and success, there’s never been a better time to break into the field.
If you’re thinking about a career in product management, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will cover absolutely everything you need to know to get started—even if you don’t have any prior experience.
By the end, you’ll know exactly what steps to take to get your product management career off the ground.
Here’s how we’ve structured our guide. If you’d like to skip ahead to a specific section, just use the clickable menu:
- What is product management?
- What does a product manager do?
- Where do product managers come from?
- What skills and qualifications do you need to become a product manager?
- How to become a product manager: 6 actionable steps
- An introduction to the best product management courses and certifications
- Breaking into product management: Key takeaways and next steps
Ready to learn how to become a product manager? Let’s go!
1. What is product management?
Before we consider how to get into product management, let’s begin with a brief definition.
Product management is the function in an organization that’s responsible for the overall success of the product. It’s the art and science of guiding a product through the entire product life cycle—from conception and planning to delivery, launch, and beyond.
Product management is all about defining a vision and strategy for the product, with the goal of meeting business objectives while making the end user happy. It’s a multidisciplinary field which draws on business acumen, technology, data, and user experience (UX).
That’s product management in a nutshell. You’ll find a more in-depth explanation of product management and the product life cycle in this introductory guide.
2. What does a product manager do?
Product managers are versatile, multi-skilled individuals who guide and oversee the entire product life cycle.
They gather, manage, and prioritize ideas for new products or features, considering both the user needs and the wider business goals. They define success metrics for the product, and build a roadmap to outline the product vision—together with a plan for how that vision will be.
With the roadmap in place, product managers coordinate all the moving parts of the product development process, keeping everybody aligned and working towards a common goal. They work closely with key stakeholders across the business, liaising with designers, engineers, marketers, and leadership to guide the product to success.
Ultimately, you can think of product managers as the CEO of the product. They are the in-house product expert—the number one go-to person for anything and everything relating to the product.
You can learn more about what a product manager actually does (including day-to-day tasks and responsibilities) in this guide.
3. Where do product managers come from?
If you’re looking to start a career in product management, you may have asked yourself: Where do product managers typically come from? Are there any professional backgrounds and careers that pave the way for a job in product management?
The reality is, good product managers come from everywhere. It’s a multidisciplinary field, relying on a broad variety of skills and expertise. There’s no universal professional pathway into product management—it’s about transferring the skills you already have and learning the ones you don’t.
And the good news? Almost any role will equip you with skills that are valuable and applicable to product management.
One major aspect of the product manager role is understanding and advocating for the end user’s needs. If you’ve worked in sales, customer service, retail, UX (or another design-related discipline)—any kind of customer-facing role you can think of—you’ll already have the user-centric mindset of a product manager.
Product management also requires business acumen, a knack for strategic thinking, and the ability to manage complex projects and processes. If you’ve worked in marketing, engineering, or business analytics (to name just a few), or gained experience in a project and/or people management role, you’ll already have honed some of these skills.
We could go on forever. The point is, successful product managers don’t come from any one specific background. They bring a variety of transferable soft skills, and perhaps some of the core hard skills, too, if they’ve already worked in a technical or design-focused role. Every product manager is unique in what they bring to the table—you don’t need to come from a particular field or discipline to be successful in the role.
With that in mind, let’s consider the most important product management skills and qualifications.
4. What skills and qualifications do you need to become a product manager?
To work in product management, you’ll need a broad and diverse skillset. It doesn’t matter what jobs you’ve done before or what you may have studied previously. As long as you focus on learning the right skills—and transferring the skills you already have—you can make it as a product manager.
The top skills you’ll need to get into product management
Product management sits at the intersection of business, user experience (UX), and technology. It therefore relies on a diverse mix of hard and soft skills—many of which can be transferred from other fields.
The most important skills needed for product management include:
- A general understanding of the product design and development process: This includes some technical expertise in terms of understanding how web developers work and the technology they’ll use to build your product, as well as an understanding of UX design principles and processes.
- Business acumen and strategic thinking: Product managers are responsible for leading the development of products which drive business growth. You’ll need to be well-versed in business metrics and KPIs, have a good understanding of the company’s wider goals, and be able to think strategically.
- A knack for problem-solving: Problem-solving is an essential part of the product manager’s role. In addition to solving user problems, product managers also problem-solve internally, finding ways to overcome constraints and optimize processes.
- The ability to analyze and interpret data: Research, data, and analytics all play a crucial role in the product management process. Product managers must be skilled at collecting and analyzing data to understand their users and make decisions about the product.
- Excellent interpersonal skills: The best product managers are excellent communicators, collaborators, and storytellers. They liaise with multiple stakeholders on a daily basis, effectively facilitate cross-team collaboration, present their ideas confidently, and communicate with empathy. Every inch of the role relies on great communication; product managers cannot get by without this skill.
You can learn more in our round-up of the 11 most important product manager skills.
Do you need a degree to work in product management?
You don’t need a degree to become a product manager, and there’s no gold-standard qualification that employers look for.
But, if you’re starting from scratch, it’s worth considering a product management certification. This will not only help you learn the necessary skills in a structured, guided way; it’ll also prepare you for the hiring process and enable you to enter the job market with confidence and credibility. We’ll explore the best options for product management courses and certifications later on.
Now we know what product management is and what it takes to become a successful product manager, let’s lay out the concrete steps you can follow to break into this exciting field.
5. How to become a product manager: 6 actionable steps
1. Build up your background knowledge
If you want to break into product management, start by building up your background knowledge. Use blogs, books, and podcasts to explore key terminology and concepts, such as the product life cycle, the product development process, fundamental product management principles, and product roadmaps.
By immersing yourself in the topic, you’ll begin to build a deeper understanding of what product management is all about—laying the foundation for more structured, formal learning. At the same time, you’ll really start to ascertain if product management is a path you definitely want to follow.
For your initial exploration of product management, we can recommend:
- What is Product Management? A Complete Introductory Guide
- Product Management for Dummies, a book by Brian Lawley and Pamela Schure
- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a book by Nir Eyal
- This is Product Management, a podcast hosted by Mike Fishbein
2. Start developing your product management skillset
You’ve immersed yourself in the topic of product management, and you’re even more excited to start a career in the field. Excellent! Now it’s time to take it up a notch by developing your skillset.
First, take stock of your existing competencies in relation to the most important skills of a product manager (outlined earlier on in this guide, and in our product management skills round-up). Mark down the skills you’ve already got, and make a note of your gaps—the skills you’ll need to focus on learning.
With your skills gaps identified, take proactive steps to fill them. If you’re working, look for opportunities to develop these skills in your current job. This is especially useful for soft skills like communication and problem-solving, which you can apply and practice in almost any context.
Depending on where you work, you may also find opportunities to gain product-specific knowledge. If you can, ask to shadow a UX designer, web developer, or even a product manager within your organization—or to at least pick their brains for half an hour over coffee or on a Zoom call.
In addition to honing essential soft skills and picking up some product-specific knowledge, start to formalize your learning with a course. There are plenty of free courses available online, allowing you to dip your toe in and brush up on the basics before committing to a more comprehensive program.
Here are some free courses to get you started:
- Product Management Fundamentals offered by the University of Maryland via edX (takes about 4 weeks to complete, at a pace of 2-3 hours per week)
- Brand and Product Management offered by ie Business School via Coursera (takes approx. 14 hours to complete)
- An Introduction to Product Management offered by CareerFoundry (takes about 1 week to complete)
3. Get certified as a product manager
So far, you’ve done lots of independent reading and research, and perhaps dipped your toe in with a free course. You’ve built up a solid foundation of background knowledge, which is an excellent start. Now, if you’re serious about becoming a product manager, you’ll need to move from theory to practice.
Employers don’t just want to see that you know about the field. They need to feel confident that you’ve got the hands-on skills for the job. So how do you acquire those?
The most effective route into the field for new product managers is through a formal certification. There are many benefits of learning product management this way, namely:
- A structured learning path, ensuring you come away with all the most essential concepts and skills
- A focus on project-based learning and acquiring hands-on skills (not just theory)
- The opportunity to build a professional product management portfolio
- Support and guidance from experts in the field
- Career coaching and a focus on successfully applying for product management jobs
- A professional certification from a credible, recognized institution
Of course, not all product management courses are created equal—there are many options on the market that won’t provide all those benefits we just listed. So, when choosing a certification program, make sure it offers everything you’ll need to actually get hired in the field. Put your product manager hat on: identify the end user’s (i.e. your) main needs, conduct extensive research, and prioritize the best options for your schedule and budget.
Choosing the right product management course is absolutely critical to your success, so we’ve included a round-up of some of the best courses available towards the end of this guide.
4. Build your product management portfolio
In addition to learning the necessary product management skills, you also need to demonstrate these skills to potential employers. You can do this with your very own product management portfolio—a website which showcases projects where you’ve taken on the role of product manager (or at least applied and demonstrated the product manager mindset).
To build your product management portfolio, you’ll need to turn your projects into case studies and host them on your own website. A portfolio is also an excellent opportunity to share a little bit about who you are, your previous experience, and why you’re a great product manager.
As already mentioned, the best product management courses will include practical projects which you can put straight into your portfolio. And the best of the best courses will show you how to build your portfolio, too.
To get an idea of what your product management portfolio could look like, here are some examples:
- Mark Progano’s product management portfolio (Mark is a former web engineer turned product manager)
- Rian van der Merwe’s portfolio (Rian is a product manager with a background in UX)
- Taylor McCaslin’s product management portfolio (Taylor is a product manager specializing in SaaS products)
5. Network in the field
Networking is especially important for new and aspiring product managers. It can open the door to new opportunities, and be a great source of mentorship, advice, and industry insight.
The prospect of networking can feel intimidating—especially if you’re brand new to the field and don’t have a natural “in”. But there are many ways to get started, and not all of them involve crowded rooms and awkward conversations.
Network in a way that feels comfortable and authentic for you. If you have product management colleagues you can connect with at work, reach out to them and ask for a quick coffee or video chat. Join online communities, attend local or virtual meet-ups and events, and connect with fellow aspiring product managers on your course.
Start early and small, and you’ll organically build a solid product management network. Here are some ways to get started:
- Join Slack communities such as Mind The Product, The Product Folks, and Product Buds
- Search meetup.com for product management events and socials
6. Apply for your first product management job (or go for an internal transfer)
You’ve learned the most important skills, you’ve got your professional certification and your portfolio, and you’ve started to build a network in the field. The next step is to land your first job in product management.
Ideally, your chosen product management course will include career coaching and guidance on how to apply and interview for relevant jobs. Either way, you’ll need to tailor your resumé to product management roles—highlighting the most relevant skills and drawing a connection between your previous experience and the jobs you’re applying for. This is especially important if you’re coming from an unrelated field; your resumé and cover letter must make it clear that, although you’re new to the field, you’re able to bring relevant transferable skills.
With your application package honed and ready, you can apply for product management jobs. Check out the following job boards for suitable roles:
Alternatively, you might go for a transfer in your current organization. If there’s an existing product management department, speak to your manager (and others from the product team) to discuss potential opportunities for an internal role change. This is a great way to get started in product management as you’ve already proven yourself in the company and are familiar with the product.
Whether you’re applying for a brand new role or trying to secure a transfer, remember to highlight and demonstrate those core product management skills. It’s essential to market yourself as a product manager and show that, despite not having any experience in the field, you have what it takes to be successful in the role. Good luck!
6. What are the best product management courses and certifications?
If you’re brand new to product management, a course or certification program is an excellent route into the field. With so many options to choose from (and lots of variation in terms of quality), it’s important to do your research before investing.
To help you narrow it down, we’ve rounded up some of the best product management courses on the market for newcomers and career-changers.
The Product Manager Certification taught by The Product School is geared towards those looking to kick-start a career in the field without any prior experience.
- Duration: 8 weeks part-time or 5 days full-time
- Cost: $4,499
- Format: Online with live, instructor-led lessons
General Assembly offers an online Product Management Course which focuses on real-world relevance and project-based learning.
- Duration: 10 weeks part-time or 1 week intensive
- Cost: $3,950
- Format: Online
The BrainStation Product Management Certification Course promises to accelerate your product management career by teaching cutting-edge skills in product strategy, iterative product development, and agile and lean practices.
- Duration: The course takes place over 5 Saturdays from 10.30am-5.30pm EDT
- Cost: $2,900
- Format: Online
7. Breaking into product management: Key takeaways and next steps
There’s no doubt about it: Product management is a varied, fast-paced, and highly rewarding career path. If you love problem-solving, strategizing, and working collaboratively across different teams, you’ll find yourself right at home in the field. And, as we’ve seen, being a successful product manager relies on a broad and diverse skillset (as well as lots of tools you have maybe used already), so there’s lots you can transfer from your previous experience.
So, are you ready to start your career in product management? Excellent! You know exactly what to do, and you can always refer back to this guide to help you stay on track.
If you’re looking to discover more about the world of product management, check out these articles: