What is the Product Manager Career Path? [Ultimate Guide]
Members of the PMHQ Slack community regularly host awesome events for product managers to swap tips and learn from one another.
In San Francisco, Vinay Melwani (Product Manager at HouseCanary) has organized a monthly morning meetup called AM | PM. Attendees answer a thought-provoking question of the month in a round-robin fashion and reflect on each other’s responses.
One of the questions:
"What viable career paths exist for product managers?"
In this post, we'll cover the different paths that we explored during this session. If you want to see the product manager career path via video, then click below. Otherwise, skip ahead.
What is a Product Manager's Career Path?
A product manager's career path and job description are not the same for all product managers. The product management profession is still developing and therefore many product managers' jobs have not been clearly defined or agreed upon.
Common product manager job titles include:
- Product developer
- Product marketer
- Product planner
- Product lead engineer
- Marketing manager
- Director of product management
- Product analytics manager
- Product marketing lead
- Product owner, etc.
How do you know what product manager career path is right for you? The answer depends on your background. A career in product management requires a wide range of PM skills from business analysis to technology expertise.
Product Manager Career Paths
The following are the different career paths you can follow as a product manager.
1. Vice President of Product
Vinay commented that the traditional path of a product manager is to raise the ranks internally: from product manager to director of product, then to VP of product.
The VP of Product sets the product vision for her team, ensures that product strategy is aligned, and coordinates with other executives to accelerate growth. To be a successful VP of Product, one should demonstrate success in delivering a product, in enabling junior product managers to deliver products, and in crafting a long-term product vision and associated strategies that take industry trends into account.
2. Product Consultant / Speaker
Tyler Swartz, a senior product manager, highlighted that one path after being a successful product manager is to become a speaker or a consultant.
After a PM gains lots of relevant experience, she may find that she is more interested in enabling others to accelerate their growth, rather than focusing on the day-to-day operations of product development.
By being a product speaker, she can inspire and inform thousands of product managers. By being a product consultant, she can parachute into product organizations of varying maturities, and enable them to scale sustainably and smoothly.
The best way to expand your consultant reach is to join a massive community of product experts.
3. Venture Capitalist
Theo Gordon, Product Manager at Leanplum, called out that another viable exit path for a product manager is to become a venture capitalist.
Theo suggested that for a product manager to succeed in this pivot, she should first establish herself as a credible opinion-maker. After all, venture capitalists primarily function by influencing and solidifying opinions on how viable a market is, how attractive investment is, and how good of a beta product is.
As a group, we concluded that unless a product manager had already established herself as a Director of Product or higher, she would be unlikely to be immediately hired as a partner at a venture capital firm.
Therefore, if a product manager wanted to make such a switch, she would be advised to first rise the ranks internally while simultaneously building influence (e.g. through social media, blogs, or product events), then make the switch.
Rob McGrorty, previously Head of Product at Webgility, mentioned that product managers can also be successful entrepreneurs-in-residence.
Our readers may not have heard of this role before. An entrepreneur-in-residence is a role within a venture capital firm, and the role is responsible for identifying and eventually leading a new that the venture capital firm will then invest in.
For more information about entrepreneurs-in-residence, check out the following resources:
- What is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence? (Forbes)
- The Executive in Residence (EIR) Series (Adam Nash)
- So What The Heck Is An 'Entrepreneur In Residence' Anyway? (Business Insider)
- What Is an Entrepreneur in Residence and Why You Need One (CIO)
5. Internal Lateral Shifts
Vinay highlighted that product managers are also well-positioned to make internal lateral moves. For example, a product manager could move into corporate strategy, marketing, or business development.
Product managers regularly interface with a wide array of stakeholders. Since a product manager already has internal exposure, one could easily make the internal shift to an area that she personally finds to be more interesting.
6. Advisory Board Member
Theo made a great point that product managers can also be effective advisory board members. Many CEOs create an advisory board to provide them with cross-industry and cross-functional perspectives, while also positioning themselves for strong networking and partnership opportunities.
Advisory board members typically receive equity in return for their contributions to the organization. Quite a few board members sit on multiple advisory boards simultaneously, as the time commitment is relatively low for any single position.
7. Serial Product Organizational Scaler
Theo also highlighted that some product managers happen to be extraordinarily talented at scaling product organizations. Some might specialize from growing a small product organization to a one; others might specialize in growing a product organization to a large one. Regardless, as a scale, these kinds of product managers will find that they are no longer passionate about the role, and will find opportunities elsewhere to scale.
As a serial product organization scaler, one should identify what size of product orgs she has the most interest in scaling, determine when she should leave, and identify organizations that she would like to move to next.
8. General Manager
Vinay identified that many product managers wind up driving entirely new products or business models, and may mature into becoming general managers.
A general manager leads an entire business line. That is, they are not focused just on the product, but also on monetization, operational processes, marketing, budgeting, etc. To be a successful general manager, product managers need to learn to let go of the details of day-to-day product development, and focus even more intensely on using influence and data to shift the priorities of the and the business line.
9. Product Developer
Product developers may stay product managers for their entire career, leading a product line and gradually expanding their product management skills to include new skillsets. Alternatively, product developers can develop into product leaders - those who create entire product lines or businesses.
Some of their responsibilities include:
Product and product line planning
Product demand forecasting
Product roadmap development
Product line profitability analysis.
A Product Developer is an internal product manager role at a large company or multinational corporation that focuses on product development within specific product lines.
10. Product Marketer
The product marketer is responsible for the product launch. product positioning and product marketing plans. This is a very important role to ensure the product line stays on track with consumer trends and will continue to be profitable over time.
A product marketer may also work within product development - setting up product launches, working alongside product developers in developing messaging around new product releases.
11. Product Planner
A product planner will work with product marketers to look at product release plans and product positioning. This can mean working alongside product developers in determining which features will be included in a new product release. It also means developing the product launch plan, including creating presentations about new product releases for other departments like sales or marketing.
12. Product Lead Engineer
A product lead engineer looks after product roadmaps within a product development team. Working alongside product managers, product lead engineers look at the technical feasibility of product features and helps to prioritize product releases. They also work with product developers in defining which features will be included in new product releases.
13. Product Marketing Manager
A product marketing manager is responsible for product marketing planning and product launch. They develop a product's messaging strategy, including creating product positioning statements, product descriptions, and product collateral like brochures or product explainer videos. Product marketers also work on new product launches by managing the distribution of press releases to journalists and bloggers within the target market segment.
14. Director of Product Management
A director of product management is responsible for defining product strategy, managing the product portfolio within a specific product area, and ensuring individual product lines are meeting the organization's objectives.
15. Product Analytics Manager
As product analytics managers, product analysts collect and analyze product usage data from the development team and product owners to determine which new features should be built into product releases. They also perform competitive analyses on product performance, sales data, customer support calls, and other sources of market intelligence. This information is used to develop more effective product strategies in the future.
16. Product director
product directors are product management executives who have fully grown into product management and no longer focus on product analysis. They oversee product managers, product analysts, product marketers, and product teams to ensure that products are being built as effectively as possible.
17. Product Owner
A product owner is a product manager's direct contact with the client or customer base. The product owner is the product manager's customer representative and ensures that product managers keep the client base informed about product plans, product updates, and product releases.
18. Product Evangelist
When a product has been released to the market, it is the product evangelist's job to ensure that clients and customers have learned about the product release through marketing activities and product launches.
Product managers have many paths to success, and not all of them have to be related to product!
To ensure your long-term happiness and success, be sure to identifying which career end point you want to aim towards. Then, laying the foundation to make a successful transition.
You can also check out our Product Manager certification courses to advance in your career.
About Our Contributors
Vinay Melwani is a Product Manager at HouseCanary.
Rob McGrorty was previously Head of Product at Webgility.
Tyler Swartz is a Senior Product Manager.
Theo Gordon is a Product Manager at Leanplum.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around product manager career paths? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!