One of the best ways to break into the field of product management is to as an associate product manager (APM).
After all, the associate product manager role is set up as an apprenticeship that leads into a future product manager role.
When I first started in product management, I had no idea what associate product managers were, and how they fit into the broader career trajectory for PMs. Therefore, I’ve put together this guide to dive deep into the associate product manager role.
I’ll cover the following:
- What is an associate product manager, and what do they do?
- Why do organizations even have associate product managers?
- How does the associate product manager fit into the broader PM career trajectory?
- How much does an associate product manager make?
- How can you best position yourself to get this role?
- When can you expect to be promoted to a full Product Manager?
Let’s dive in!
What is an Associate Product Manager?
An associate product manager works with one or more product managers and enables them to do their work more effectively.
The associate product manager responsibilities include a lot of things that product managers do, such as:
- Collecting quantitative product data and metrics through market research
- Synthesizing customer research
- Gathering product requirements and aligning them with business goals
- Coordinating with stakeholders to achieve the product vision
- Developing new product features
- Working on developing product strategies
In some organizations, associate product managers do not directly work with any engineers for product development. In some, APMs join sprint rituals with the product manager that they are associated with.
And in other organizations, associate product managers will even have a dedicated product team that they work with directly.
In terms of product responsibility, associate product managers generally work on new features for a mature product - instead of working on the entire product itself.
As a more concrete example – when I was an associate product manager, I worked with an experienced product manager to drive our CRM product forward. I focused on a specific set of use cases for our CRM product, whereas my product manager focused on a different set of use cases. We shared a development team and jointly coordinated our product roadmap.
Here are a handful of other resources that dive into what associate product managers do:
- GOV.UK associate product manager career framework
- Workable job description template for associate product managers
- blog on what associate product managers do
- Brainmates blog on what associate product managers do
- question on what associate product managers do
With that out of the way, let's shed some light on why the associate product manager role even exists in the first place.
Why Does the Associate Product Manager Position Exist?
There are two main reasons why an organization would want to hire associate product managers:
- For starters, when an organization is mature enough, they’ll start focusing on how to capture talent early on. Since qualified product managers can be difficult to acquire, organizations use the associate product manager role to bring junior talent into the - then train them into the product manager that they need.
- In other cases, organizations may find that their existing PMs don’t have enough bandwidth, but that filling an additional product management role is overkill. In these instances, hiring an associate product manager makes sense from an output and a budgetary perspective.
Let’s be clear – not all organizations have associate product manager roles.
Some companies have a career track where product analysts become PMs instead.
Other companies, given their current stage of growth, simply don’t need an associate product manager.
How Does the Associate Product Manager Role Fit Into My Career?
Associate product managers work closely with other PMs. As you learn from a senior product manager directly, you’ll quickly pick up their skills and their frameworks.
After all, in product management, experience is the fastest way to learn.
Because the associate product manager position is more of a junior role, it is shielded from some of the pressure and stress that comes with being a product manager. Your product manager will be mentoring you, guiding you, and absorbing some of the pressures and demands that you might otherwise face as a full-fledged PM.
Generally speaking, associate product managers have the clearest track when it comes to becoming product managers.
However, that’s not to say other tracks don’t exist!
Still, it usually takes longer to become a product manager through these other paths than it does with the associate product manager position.
How Much Does an Associate Product Manager Make?
Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends,” similar to how product managers themselves are compensated.
Associate product manager salaries can vary dramatically based on physical location, industry, and the maturity of the company.
Speaking at a high-level, APMs tend to make more if they are based in the San Francisco Bay Area - though the high costs of living there may not be worth it. Also, generally speaking, mature companies tend to offer higher salaries and lower equity, whereas newer companies tend to offer lower salaries and higher equity.
The only guarantee is that associate product managers are compensated less than product managers are since they have less responsibilities, and don’t require as much experience as product managers.
However, if you’re looking for more concrete numbers, you can check out Glassdoor’s salary calculator for associate product managers. Please note that they do not provide numbers around equity. Additionally, you can play around with the various filters available, such as, industry, size, experience level, and physical location.
How Can I Get Into This Role? [The Skills and Education Needed]
The preparation for this role is very similar to the preparation you’d need for a full product manager role.
The following are some of the skills and qualities that you’d need to demonstrate in order to land a job as an associate product manager - and succeed in your career:
- Communication Skills – since you'll be responsible for rallying, managing, and guiding entire product management teams, you need strong communication skills to keep everyone on the same page. This also involves interpersonal skills, which will help you a lot when you work cross-functionally.
- Analytical Skills – as an APM, one of your primary responsibilities will be to conduct market research. This will help you figure out new product ideas, features, and ways to improve the user experience of existing products. Naturally, this would involve analyzing trends and running tests - all of which require good analytical skills.
- Time Management Skills – all great PMs don't mind working with time constraints. Considering that, you should have a knack for meeting deadlines.
- Decision-Making Skills – an APM should know how to ship a product/handle product launches, as well as, how to prioritize conflicting needs and requests. Ultimately, they should be able to make difficult decisions quickly.
Furthermore, you’ll want to showcase previous experiences where you learned quickly from past failures. You’ll also want to highlight your ability to empathize with customers, engineers, and other stakeholders.
You can demonstrate these skills in many ways, whether it’s through resumes, cover letters, portfolios, or coffee chats.
Generally speaking, the associate product manager role is targeted at candidates coming right out of college (usually with bachelor's degrees in computer science, business, marketing, or any other relevant field), since APMs are compensated less than product managers.
It’s easier for an organization to hire an associate product manager who has no previous work experience, and thus, is a blank slate that can easily be “reprogrammed” according to the organization's vision, goals, and needs.
Some of the most well-known associate product manager programs are the following:
For more information, this resource from Product Management Insider provides direct links to 15+ associate product manager job applications at well-known companies.
Note that just because an associate product manager program is “famous” or “prestigious” doesn’t mean that it’s the best fit for you! These programs are generally quite difficult to get into due to their highly competitive application process.
Instead, by heading to a startup and demonstrating impact there, you may wind up learning a lot more and positioning yourself better.
Remember that the more structured a program is, the less likely you will be able to drive outsized impact that exceeds expectations.
How Long Until I Get Promoted?
Again, this is another “it depends” type of question.
It depends greatly on how the product organization is structured.
Some companies promote their associate product managers based on tenure, e.g. after 2 years or after 3 years.
Other companies promote based on outcomes. For example, I’ve seen some associate product managers be promoted once they successfully shipped their first full product and demonstrated long-term viability in the marketplace.
At other organizations, associate product managers are promoted when new product opportunities appear. This means that associate product managers might “sit on the bench” until the organization determines that there is a new need for a dedicated product manager.
Let’s use my own experience as an example.
I mentioned previously that I worked with an experienced product manager on our CRM product. He wound up being promoted to the executive team, which meant that we were now missing a product manager for the use cases that he was previously covering.
To fill this gap, my CEO promoted me into the role since I already had deep knowledge of the product, strong relationships with my stakeholders, and a clear understanding of my customers – all by being the associate product manager for that product.
For a deeper discussion on how promotions might work for associate product managers, check out this question.
At the end of the day, remember that you should keep two goals as your highest priorities as an associate product manager:
1) to learn, and
2) to deliver impact.
As long as you achieve both goals - you will naturally be given new opportunities!
The associate product manager position is a coveted, yet rare role. If you are able to secure the position, your chances of becoming a full-fledged product manager increase dramatically.
Still, roles are just roles.
Just because you have a particular title doesn’t mean you have the skill sets needed to succeed.
If you are able to convincingly show employers that you have what it takes to become an amazing product manager, they’ll be more than happy to recruit you - no matter what role you’re currently in.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around the associate product manager role? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!
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