The Product Manager Career Path & How To Break Into the Field

March 29, 2024


Emily May

Are you considering lending your creativity and strategic skills to a career in product management? We don’t blame you; from empathizing with the needs of customers to developing an exciting product vision, product management can be a fulfilling trajectory for those who feel called to its dynamic influence.

In this article, we discuss the responsibilities of a product manager, the standard career progression, and how to break into the field. Whether you’re a recent graduate or ready to make a career switch, this quick read will prepare you to arrive and thrive in the industry.

What is a Product Manager?

Product managers orchestrate the development process at every phase of the product journey. They are the key link between various departments, such as engineering, design, marketing, and sales, and they ensure that products align with a company's evolving vision and business objectives. 

However, in product management, the customer is the most important stakeholder. Building successful products requires a customer-centric approach that addresses the user’s problems, needs, and preferences.

The Career Trajectory of a Product Manager

Every professional has a unique journey within their product manager career path. But, like any career path, there is a typical progression from entry-level roles to obtaining a senior product manager role. The rite of passage sharpens a product manager’s ability to guide product strategy, enhance the user experience, and drive portfolio growth. 

Junior or Associate Product Manager: As apprentices, junior and associate product managers learn the ins and outs of the product life cycle. In this entry-level role, individuals learn to understand customer needs, contribute to product roadmaps, and liaise with cross-functional teams to support product strategies. This position usually requires 0-2 years of experience and serves as a launch pad for professionals just beginning or switching careers. 

Product Manager: At the next phase of the journey, product managers take on more responsibility, managing one or multiple products. The skills learned as a junior or associate product manager aid in leading product teams and developing and refining product vision to deliver successful products. This position usually requires 2-5 years of experience.

Senior Product Manager: At this career stage, senior product managers will have acquired expertise in the product management discipline, including developing complex product strategies and leading successful product teams. The central function of this role is to steer the product management team toward strategic goals through data-driven decisions, typically requiring 5-8 years of experience in the industry.

Director of Product Management: A director of product management oversees an organization’s product portfolio and leads its respective product managers. In this senior role, the product director makes high-level strategic decisions, leads multiple product lines, and aligns product goals with business objectives. Hiring managers look for proven experience scaling product teams, a track record of successful product launches, and 8+ years of experience when filling this role. 

Vice President of Product Management: This executive strategic position oversees significant business and product decisions, shapes the overall product vision and company direction, and ensures alignment between product management practices and organizational goals. The VP of product management regularly mentors internal product leaders and has accrued 10+ years of experience in the field. 

Chief Product Officer (CPO): The highest-ranking role in the product management field is the title of chief product officer or CPO. A CPO utilizes their 15+ years of experience to champion long-term strategies, competitive product vision, business development and growth, and critical decision-making. 

As product managers advance in their careers and become experts in the development process, many move on to leading the strategic side of product initiatives. On average, product management salaries increase with seniority and experience. 

The Skill Set of a Product Manager

Product managers possess a combination of technical and soft skills that include:

  • Strategic thinking
  • A passion for the user experience
  • Product analytics
  • Communication skills
  • Empathy
  • An agile mindset
  • Leadership

The ability to effectively strategize and research the user experience supports the development of clear product visions and strategies.

Emotional intelligence plays an equally critical role in this field. Sharp communication and inspiring leadership skills enable product managers to collaborate with cross-functional teams and effectively guide them toward shared goals. Additionally, empathy allows product managers to understand their customers’ feedback and experiences to produce and maintain a customer-centric product.

Further, approaching product management with agility is not just an advantage; it’s a necessity. Successful product managers must adapt quickly to market changes, user feedback, and emerging technologies. 

A junior product manager may only check some boxes on this list, as a significant portion of learning will occur through on-the-job training.

How to Break into Product Management

Those interested in a product management career path should be ready to immerse themselves in learning, identify their transferable skills, and build a strategy to land their first role.

Education and Certification Prerequisites

Product management classes can be highly beneficial to one’s career.

While product management roles may not require a specific degree, according to Forbes, many students pursuing product careers obtain a bachelor’s degree in business administration, computer science, finance, or marketing. In addition, master's programs specific to product management are an option. Higher education provides specialized knowledge and experience for students seeking employment in the sector.

Conversely, earning a product management certification is a cost-effective way to obtain valuable credentials for those entering or actively working in the field. 

Relevant certification courses include:

Product Management (ICP-PDM): Learn about the product lifecycle and key metrics, how to design hypothesis tests and experiments, and collaborate with cross-functional teams throughout the entire product lifecycle.

Lean Portfolio Management (ICP-LPM): Learn about the ‘what and why’ of lean portfolio management, including how to fund, govern, and measure across portfolios, conduct continuous planning and delivery, and align execution to strategy.

Agile Product Ownership (ICP-APO): Learn the key skills and behaviors for agile product ownership, including working with customers and stakeholders, product planning and development, and assessing value delivered.

Obtaining certifications can teach the foundations or specialized knowledge of product management and assist current professionals in leveraging proven strategies within their product teams. 

Showcasing recent certification courses on a resume can serve as a differentiator, establishing relevant knowledge and commitment to the field. 

On-The-Job Learning

Combining certified learning with real-world experience is a great way to bridge the gap between theory and practice. As a growing product manager, working under experienced mentors and within product teams provides exposure to the realities and challenges of day-to-day responsibilities in the field. 

Maximize your on-the-job learning with these quick tips:

  • Seek mentorship and coaching from senior-level leaders
  • Volunteer to take on new challenges
  • Participate in problem-solving within the team
  • Seek and implement user feedback
  • Embrace a learning mindset

Actively seeking new learning opportunities in the workplace fosters professional development and keeps product managers ahead of industry trends.

Common Career Switches

If you’re making a career switch to product management, you’ll be in good company. Many individuals transition into the product space from a diverse range of professional backgrounds. 

These industries commonly include:

  • Business analysis
  • Software development 
  • Marketing
  • Consulting
  • Sales

What do all these industries have in common? They require top-tier communication and strategic thinking skills. For example, an experienced consultant will have working knowledge in analyzing customer needs, crafting strategies, and managing multiple projects. 

In a field that values innovation more than most, a wide range of expertise within a product team brings fresh perspectives and ideas to the table. 

How to Land Your First Product Management Role

Landing a first product management role can feel daunting, but it’s achievable with the right strategy. 

Craft a resume and portfolio highlighting transferable skills, relevant roles, and education. Showcase all product management-related classes, certifications, volunteer experiences, and side projects. 

Above all, human connection reigns supreme in networking. Engage with the product management community by attending industry events and meetups, online forums, and social media groups, and don’t forget to leverage your existing network.

Kicking off your career in product management requires only one ‘yes.’


Product managers have the opportunity to leave a lasting impact on a diverse range of products and the people who use them. As businesses focus on product-led growth to meet evolving user needs and technological advances, the product management industry continues to grow with job opportunities at every level.

If you found this article valuable, consider sharing it with your LinkedIn network to help others on their product management journeys.

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Product Management

About the author

Emily May | ICAgile, Marketing Specialist
Emily May is a Marketing Specialist at ICAgile, where she helps educate learners on their agile journey through content. With an eclectic background in communications supporting small business marketing efforts, she hopes to inspire readers to initiate more empathy, productivity, and creativity in the workplace for improved internal and external outcomes.