Product management is one of the fastest-growing areas in business, and we’re seeing an explosion of roles and job titles within the field.
If you’re looking to steer your own career towards product management, you might be wondering: What is the typical product manager career path?
Well, wonder no more. In this guide, we’ll map out the trajectory your career might follow if you work in product management, exploring some of the most common roles and job titles along the way—from associate product manager all the way through to chief product officer.
We’ll also share some advice for getting started in product management and carving out your own exciting, rewarding career path.
Just use the clickable menu to navigate as you please:
- What does a product manager do?
- What professional backgrounds do product managers typically come from?
- What is the typical product manager career path?
- A closer look at different job titles along the product manager career path
- How to get started in product management
Ready? Let’s begin with a quick overview of what the product manager role actually entails.
1. What does a product manager do?
Product managers are responsible for guiding a product or service throughout the product life cycle. The product life cycle covers the discovery and development of the product, its introduction to the market, and its subsequent growth, maturity, and decline.
The product manager’s role is a strategic one. They figure out what needs to be built and why, weighing up end user needs and business goals. From there, they define the overarching vision for the product and determine how the success of the product will be measured.
Then, as the product goes through development, testing, and market launch, the product manager collaborates with different departments to ensure the product strategy is being fulfilled. It’s a highly collaborative role; the product manager is essentially the go-to person for all things concerning the product.
Ultimately, the product manager is responsible for carrying out the product management process and ensuring that the product is successful in meeting the needs of the target audience and driving growth for the business.
You can learn more about what a product manager does in our guide.
2. What professional backgrounds do product managers typically come from?
Product management is an extremely varied, multifaceted discipline, and it requires a diverse skillset. As such, there is no single route into the field—nor do product managers come from one specific professional background.
The role of the product manager touches on and draws from multiple disciplines: engineering and software development, business strategy, marketing, project management, and user experience (UX) design—to name just a few! Product managers can come from any of these fields (and more).
As you can see, it’s not so much a matter of your professional background, but rather, how you transfer your existing skills and apply them to product management.
It’s also important to note that the product manager role relies heavily on soft skills. The most successful product managers are excellent communicators and collaborators, critical thinkers, problem-solvers, researchers, and storytellers.
These skills aren’t unique to product management, or any one field. You can learn them in all different roles and industries—even those that are seemingly unrelated.
In short: Product managers come from a variety of professional backgrounds and fields of study. Every product manager is unique in the skills they bring to the role, and no two product manager career paths are the same.
We’ll look at how to get started with product management (no matter your professional background) in section five. Now, though, let’s consider the path your product management career might follow once you’ve broken into the field.
3. What is the typical product manager career path?
If we were to lay out a linear product manager career path, it would look something like this:
- Associate product manager
- Junior product manager
- Product manager
- Senior product manager
- Director of product
- VP of product
- Chief product officer (CPO)
But, when it comes to the product manager career path, there is no one-size-fits-all. Your career progression will depend not only on your skills and experience, but also on the organization you work for.
Large companies might have an entire product management department with a clear hierarchy of junior and senior product managers. In that case, you could expect to move up the product management ladder in a fairly linear fashion. Other companies might have just one product manager whose role evolves organically over time.
So, as we explore the various job titles along the product manager career path, bear in mind that your own career might not follow this exact track.
4. A closer look at different job titles along the product manager career path
In this section, we’ll look at the different job titles along the product manager career path, from associate product manager all the way through to chief product officer.
Associate product manager
If you’re brand new to product management, you might start off as an associate product manager. This is an entry-level role which doesn’t require any previous product experience.
The associate product manager role is typically associated with apprenticeship programs, like the Associate Product Manager (APM) Program offered by Google. Candidates applying for the Google APM program are asked to demonstrate a desire to grow their technical, design thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.
Associate product manager job ads generally focus on soft skills, requiring excellent communication skills, strong analytical skills, good attention to detail, and the ability to handle multiple tasks and prioritize accordingly. Some associate product manager roles also look for experience in fields like design, development, project management, human resources, or recruitment.
According to Indeed, the average salary for an associate product manager in the United States is about $71,000.
Junior product manager
The junior product manager role is interpreted by some as a less training-heavy entry-level role than that of the associate product manager. However, there’s not always a clear distinction between associate and junior product managers, and the two job titles are often used interchangeably. As is usually the case, the exact definition of each role varies from company to company.
Junior product manager is essentially another entry-level job title, with job ads typically looking for candidates with between 0 and 2 years’ experience—either in a product-related role, or in fields like digital marketing, project management, or data analytics.
Junior product managers should possess strong problem-solving and analytical skills, exceptional communication skills, and the ability to manage and execute multiple projects and competing priorities.
Some nice-to-haves for junior product managers include prior experience in an agile/scrum environment (as well as knowledge of relevant tools, such as Jira), familiarity with UX principles and best practices, and proficiency in analytics tools (e.g. Google Analytics).
As with the associate product manager role, applicants for junior product manager positions will mostly need to demonstrate the right soft skills together with some foundational knowledge of product management.
Next up is the role of product manager. While associate and junior product managers might support with certain aspects of the product management process, a product manager can independently execute the product management process in its entirety.
Product managers take responsibility for a whole product, making strategic decisions and confidently overseeing the development of the product throughout its life cycle. They collaborate with developers, designers, marketers, and business stakeholders, acting as the point of contact for their product.
They are proficient in industry-standard product management tools, and possess all of those key soft skills we mentioned previously: communication, problem-solving, analytical skills, and strategic thinking. You can learn more about the most important skills for a product manager to have in our guide.
Product managers typically have at least 3 years of experience—but not necessarily in product management directly. If, for example, you’ve been working in marketing, project management, or an adjacent field for three years and then complete some kind of product management training, you could qualify for a product manager role (without needing to start at the associate or junior level).
Learn more about how much product managers can earn in our product manager salary guide.
Senior product manager
The next step up from product manager is senior product manager. ‘Senior’ means different things to different companies, so the exact scope of the senior product manager’s role can vary greatly.
The senior product manager title may be earned after gaining several years’ experience in a product manager role and proving to have done so successfully.
Generally speaking, senior product managers remain hands-on with the product management process, just like product managers. In addition, senior product managers may also be responsible for managing and mentoring junior team members.
To qualify for senior product manager roles, you’ll generally need at least 5 years’ experience. You’ll also need to demonstrate your contribution to innovation and growth initiatives, a strong user-centric and data-driven approach, and the ability to successfully drive product strategy and big-picture thinking.
The average salary for a senior product manager in the United States is just shy of $125,000 per year.
Director of product
With the jump to director of product, the nature of the role changes quite significantly. Where product managers and senior product managers are still very hands-on with the day-to-day product management process, product directors are more focused on managing and leading other product managers.
As a director of product, you’ll be responsible for improving and optimizing processes, fostering better relationships between the different teams involved in the product, and for ensuring alignment and securing buy-in across the organization.
In addition to leading the performance and success of the product team, product directors may also focus heavily on understanding the market in which the product is competing, and drilling down into complex data.
Product directors are usually required to have at least 7 years’ experience in the product management field, as well as experience leading and managing people.
The average salary for a director of product in the United States is around $157,000 per year.
VP of product
In companies that have a large product portfolio and/or lots of layers to their organizational hierarchy, there may also be a VP of product.
Although it varies from company to company, the VP of product is typically on the same level as roles like CTO (chief technology officer) and VP of marketing, and so usually reports to the CEO.
The VP of product is responsible for managing the budget for the entire product arm of the company, for ensuring that all product decisions align with big-picture business goals, and for creating an effective product-led culture—that is, ensuring that all teams are motivated to work towards the common goal of delivering as much value as possible to the end users.
To qualify for a VP of product role, you’ll need to demonstrate a strong understanding of product principles and processes (including both technical and design aspects), as well as a thorough understanding of data and a proven track record for making data-driven decisions. Experience building, leading, and scaling product teams is also desirable.
Those with the VP of product job title usually have at least 10 years’ experience under their belt, and earn an average yearly salary of $188,000.
Chief product officer (CPO)
Now we come to the final step in our product management career ladder: the role of chief product officer, or CPO.
You can think of the CPO as an extension of the VP of product role. In some cases, the titles are even used interchangeably as there’s not a huge difference between the two.
Ultimately, the CPO operates at the C-level, managing an entire portfolio of products from a strategic perspective. They are responsible for ensuring that the right hires are made for the product team, that budget is invested for optimal benefit, and for making sure that the overall product strategy is in line with that of the business.
In companies where there’s both a VP of product and a CPO, you can usually distinguish between the roles as follows: the VP of product is responsible for leading the product management team and overseeing the execution of the product strategy, while the CPO is more focused on the product vision at the highest level, making sure it’s aligned with long-term business goals.
Chief product officers usually have at least 10 years’ experience in product management, and earn an average yearly salary of $255,000.
5. Getting started with your own product manager career path
By now, you hopefully have an idea of where a career in product management could take you. As already mentioned, your own career path won’t necessarily follow the same linear trajectory we’ve just laid out. It all depends on where you’re starting from and the kind of organization you end up working in.
So how can you get started in product management?
Essentially, you need to build out your product management skillset—which includes learning the product management process, getting familiar with product management tools, and honing those all-important soft skills. From there, you’ll need a product management portfolio to demonstrate these skills to employers.
To help you get started, we’ve put together a complete step-by-step guide, setting out six actionable steps you can follow to become a product manager. Check it out here: How to Become a Product Manager.
As you carve out your product manager career path, remember that all product managers are unique. There is no right or wrong route into the field, and you’ll probably find that you’ve got lots of valuable soft skills and seemingly unrelated experience that you can transfer to product management.
Want to know if product management is the right career for you? Try it out for free with a short introductory course for beginners.
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