How to become a product manager

What did you want to be when you grew up? Chances are that you did not say product manager. Though product management has grown in popularity over the last decade, many folks did not have it presented as a career option. You may have only discovered the discipline after starting your first job and gaining real-world business experience.

However you stumbled upon the career aspirations, product management is deeply engaging and rewarding work — product managers are responsible for building something new that delights customers and drives business growth. Whether you are beginning your career in product management or want to transition into it, you have probably realized there is a steep learning curve. Sure, you can learn the basics through books or online courses — but this is not sufficient. Succeeding as a product manager requires the knowledge and skills that come from participating firsthand in the process of building and delivering a product to customers.

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Key areas of focus for product management

So how do you learn the skills necessary for your first product manager role? This guide will cover the PM skills, courses, and certifications that will give you the confidence to succeed as a product manager.

What skills do product managers need?

Product managers guide the entire product development process and help bring product plans to fruition. You lead the cross-functional product team and collaborate closely with groups across the organization, sharing your deep understanding of your customers and market.

Doing this work well demands a wide range of technical and creative skills, along with knowledge of business, technology, design, and marketing fundamentals. Of course your exact responsibilities will vary depending on the organization and team you belong to. But here are some hard and soft skills that are useful for all product managers:

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Most exceptional product managers also have an innate sense of curiosity — you are driven by a constant desire to keep learning and growing. This helps you deepen your understanding of what customers need and come up with innovative ways to solve their problems. If this resonates with you, then being a product manager might align well with your personality.

Succeeding in the role also requires knowing how to use product management software and tools. You need a toolkit to help you set product strategy, gather customer feedback, create wireframes and mockups, manage releases, collaborate with the team, and more. Since each company and team uses its own mix of product management tools, typically you learn how to use these tools on the job.

Keep in mind that on-the-job training makes up a large part of learning to be a product manager. As you gain new experiences on product teams at different organizations, you will learn and grow your skills over time. It can be overwhelming at first — but do not feel like you have to be an expert in all facets of the role when you are still early in your career.

Product management education

Product managers come from a variety of backgrounds — there is no single path, clearly defined track, or specific qualifications you need to enter the field.

If you have not yet started your career, you might be wondering if you can study product management in school and then look for a position in product. While you cannot (yet) earn an undergraduate degree or masters degree specifically in product management, some universities offer product management courses through their continuing studies programs. This type can give you a high-level introduction to relevant topics such as product development methodologies, product roadmaps, and product analytics. There are also a variety of bootcamps as well as free online courses that focus on product management.

It is also worth mentioning that some folks who want to transition into product management (and are already somewhat established in their careers) opt to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. This will give you broad exposure to business, statistics, and marketing, which can be useful.

Product management certifications

If you are interested in obtaining a product management certification, there are a few reputable options. For example, the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM) offers a Certified Product Manager credential. AIPMM provides additional certificate programs in innovation, brand management, product marketing, and digital product management as well.

You can also become certified in product management or Aha! Roadmaps through Aha! Academy, which offers interactive and immersive courses taught by product experts. The curriculum covers topics such as how to set product strategy, develop customer empathy, prioritize features, create visual roadmaps, and more.

Before enrolling in any course or working towards a certification, do your research into the instructors' backgrounds and credentials. Look for courses taught by product experts with meaningful experience building products at different types of companies.

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How to become a product manager

Many product managers start their career on a different team, such as customer support or product marketing, then transition into product management. If you are working in a different group and want to switch to product management, be vigilant. Look for opportunities in your current role to learn everything you can about the business, product, and customers. Express your interest in product building and identify mentors who might be willing to share their expertise or help you grow your skills.

Besides customer support and product marketing, other roles that overlap with product management include business analyst, consultant, software developer, and UX designer. By leveraging your existing skills and relevant knowledge, you will be better prepared to step into a product manager role.

And if you are recently out of school and just beginning your career, remember that most open product manager positions are not entry-level. You may want to search for associate product manager or product analyst roles or accept a job in an adjacent group. Then you can gain experience and learn more about what it will take to work towards becoming a product leader.

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Frequently asked questions about becoming a product manager

What industries do product managers work in?

While many people associate product management with software and technology companies, you will find product managers working at companies in all types of industries — from healthcare and finance to manufacturing and consumer products. Nearly any business that builds a product or sells a service can benefit from a smart product manager to oversee the process.

What is a technical product manager?

A technical product manager is a product manager with deep engineering or computer science expertise. They focus on product capabilities and collaborate with the engineering team to write user stories and requirements. Some companies split product management into two roles — a technical product manager and a more business-oriented product manager. But at the majority of organizations, one product manager is responsible for adopting both a business and technical perspective.

How long does it take to become a product manager?

There is no set amount of time it takes to become a product manager. Most folks enter product management after spending years or even decades in other areas of an organization. After all, product managers need deep knowledge of products, customers, and the market, as well as a variety of leadership and problem-solving skills. If you are eager to grow your skills and find your first role in product management, consider taking a product management course or earning a certification.

How stressful is the job of product manager?

The level of stress you will experience as a product manager is subjective — it depends on your existing knowledge, skills, personality, and how much support you receive in your career. While being a product manager is certainly a big responsibility, it is also highly rewarding to lead a team and build products that customers love. If you are feeling overwhelmed due to knowledge gaps, you can always refer to educational guides on product management to bolster your understanding and gain more confidence.

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