What Is a Product Manager?

product manager working on tablet

Drobot Dean / Adobe Stock

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Ask 10 different people what a product manager does, and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. That’s because product managers often wear many different hats, use a wide array of skills, and are responsible for governing several different aspects of their businesses. Despite the confusion surrounding this role, product managers are often vital to the success of any business or organization. While the exact roles may differ according to the specific company and its needs, the position encompasses many talents, and people with a variety of strengths can thrive in it.

Are you interested in becoming a product manager or curious about what the role entails? Read on to find out everything you need to know about product management and how professionals become successful at it.

What Is a Product Manager?

A product manager (PM) is responsible for figuring out what products a company needs, devising or contributing to a strategy to create them, delivering them to consumers or stakeholders, and gauging the success of the product. 

Project management sits at the intersection of many industries and specialties, including business, technology, user experience (UX), marketing, and design. Depending on the company, industry, and products needed, a PM may lean more heavily on some skills and areas than others. For instance, at some companies, the technological component might be more prominent, while devising products that align with the business’s marketing strategy could be a PM’s main responsibility at another.

What Is the Role of a Product Manager?

The exact role of a PM will vary from company to company depending on the organization’s needs. In general, a PM owns the product from concept to execution to analysis the end results. Additionally, she communicates her ideas to stakeholders and her team, researches market trends, and takes into account the needs of the customer.

Many PMs use a roadmap—a summary of the need for the product and vision for how you will execute it. They will use the roadmap as a guide for communicating the idea and a plan for achieving it. You’ll need to do plenty of research, gathering data and evidence from market trends, your own customers, competitors, and in-house resources to inform the need for your product, what the product will entail, and come up for a plan for creating it. You and your team will actually be the ones creating it, so you’ll need to anticipate any issues and problems that may arise. 

After creating and implementing your plan, you’ll be responsible for evaluating the end result based on how well your vision (and the company’s) was executed and how customers responded. You’ll use this data to communicate with stakeholders and devise a plan for future products. 

How to Become a Product Manager

There’s no official roadmap to becoming a product manager. People come from a variety of backgrounds and bring many different skill sets to the role. That’s good news for people hoping to enter the product management field since you won’t need to obtain any official certifications or specific degrees to land your first PM job.

While there’s no specific path to becoming a PM, there are some steps you can take to bolster your resume, know how to communicate your strengths, and get your first job.

• Learn

Taking courses in the skills product managers often need can give your resume a boost, not to mention inform you once you’re in the job. Basic coding and user experience are two functions that are often part of a product manager’s job, so they’re good places to start. You could also take classes in soft skills like communication as well.

• Read

There are many informative books to help you learn the basics of product management. Check out these books to get you started:

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw

The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen

• Network

Networking is essential to both finding your first job and growing in your career, no matter what path you choose. Talk to as many people as you can about your goals because you never know who might know someone who knows someone. You can also check out Product Tank, which holds meetups for current and prospective product managers around the world.

Entry-Level Salary

As an entry-level PM, you can expect a salary upwards of $60,000. Of course, salaries vary widely depending on the industry in which you work, the location, and the business itself.

PayScale reports a median salary of $64,433 for entry-level associate product managers in the United States, with a range from $45,425 - $96,251. Meanwhile, Indeed reports an average salary of $67,997 for junior product managers, a less commonly used title for entry-level product managers.

Product Manager Skills Progression

The career progression for a PM generally follows this path:

• Associate Product Manager or Junior Product Manager

In an entry-level product management position, you should demonstrate a passion for user experience and creativity and have strong analytical, communication, and decision-making skills. In some cases, this position will require some technical knowledge, but this varies by the company hiring.

As with most entry-level positions, you should see your role as to learn from senior employees and gain the skills you’ll need to be successful throughout your career. As an associate or junior product manager, you can expect to learn about how products are developed, contribute to the design and planning stages, and help find ways to improve the products by analyzing data.

• Product Manager

For the most part, you’ll need to have some experience either working as an associate or junior product manager or demonstrating strong skills related to the functions you’ll be required to perform. Individuals with master’s degrees in relevant areas, such as an MBA, may be able to start their product management careers as a PM.

As a PM, you’ll be responsible for working with a team—and possibly managing others, depending on the size and experience levels at your company—to develop and execute product strategy.

• Senior Product Manager

As you gain more experience in your role as a PM, you may advance to the more experienced role of senior product manager. Your responsibilities will likely be similar to those you had as a PM, but you may also have more direct management experience supervising more junior members of your team as well as handling products that are more critical to the organization and having a stronger hand in devising product strategy.

• Director of the Product or Product Management

At the director level, you should have plenty of senior-level product management experience. You will probably be the most senior member of your day-to-day team and report a top official at your company, such as a vice president.

In this role, you’ll be responsible for communicating your team’s efforts and results to upper management and defining the overall product strategy. You’ll also seek out new opportunities and ideas for developing and identifying new products. 

• Vice President of the Product or Product Management

In a VP role, you will be working less directly with the project management team and on the products themselves and more on ensuring that individual product goals and products themselves align with the mission and objectives of the overall organization and business strategy. You will also be responsible for communicating results to stakeholders and other executives in the company and aligning the product team’s strategy with the company strategy.

• Chief Product Officer

A CPO may have a unique role, or her duties may fall under the purview of a chief marketing officer (CMO). In any case, a CPO is the highest title and position for a career in product management. In this role, you’ll lead the product efforts and activities within your organization and work with other C-suite executives to achieve overall organizational success.

Product Manager Skills

Because product management incorporates many different areas, such as business, marketing, and technology, you’ll need a broad array of skills to land your first product management job and be successful in the role. Here are some of the most important ones:

• Communication

As a PM, you’ll be communicating your vision and ideas to members of your team, managers, and the customer. You’ll need to understand the needs of the customer in order to develop products that meet them. 

• Analytical

Thinking analytically will allow you to spot holes in your organization’s strategy and come up with ideas for fixing them. It will also help you see the big picture, use strengths and weaknesses to the advantage of the business and evaluate the success of a product, as well as develop ideas for how to do things differently in the future.

• Prioritization

You’ll need to make a lot of decisions as a PM. Your role is essentially that of a problem solver, making the important decisions to solve the needs of the customer and overall organization. You’ll have to juggle plenty of different demands, and being able to determine which ones need your attention first will help you thrive in your job.

• Leadership

Depending on where you are in your career and the size of your company, you may or may not be in charge of managing other members of your team. Either way, leadership is an essential component of any PM’s role. You’re a key participant in leading the strategy for not only your team but the overall organization as well. You’ll also be responsible for collaborating with other employees and teams to execute your idea and make it work.

• Technical

The level of technical skills you need as a PM will vary based on the specific needs of the organization, but you will likely need at least basic coding and user experience design skills. If you don’t have skills in these areas, it’s a good idea to take a class or two so you understand the basics.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager

While a product manager and project manager’s positions and functions may be confused (it doesn’t help that both are abbreviated to PM and the terms have just two different letters), the positions are usually distinct from one another. Depending on the organization or business, some of the functions of product managers and projects managers may overlap, but the leaders of each department should take measures to ensure that neither employee feels like her toes are being stepped on by the other.

In general, a product manager develops a vision for a product and strategy for executing it. Many product managers also work directly with customers. Meanwhile, a project manager works with the product team and other departments to manage the product delivery, dealing with factors such as budget, schedule, and making sure the project is going smoothly.

If both jobs exist within one organization, the product manager and project manager will probably work closely together on mapping out the project for individual products or aspects of products to ensure smooth delivery. They may also work together to evaluate data and gauge the success of different projects, as well as iron out kinks for the next time around.

Product Management: Is It for You?

Product management is a career that brings together many diverse talents and will allow you to innovate and create. It’s also a field that can give you a strong foundation to pursue other lines of work, should you decide to change course. Think it might be for you? Check out Fairygodboss’s product manager job listings!