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A Product Management Career Map Developed by GA’s Product Management Standards Board

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Businesses have shifted from traditional ways of operating to truly becoming customer-centric digital organizations — and the global pandemic has accelerated this inevitable shift. Product managers, who sit at the nexus of customer needs, business strategy, and technology, play a critical part in building their companies’ digital fluency so organizations can evolve and transform their products to meet market and customer demands. 

That said, product management is often ill-defined as a function, especially in traditional companies, and business leaders and managers have a responsibility to precisely understand product management skills and careers to help these nascent leaders succeed and unlock their full potential. 

By developing and integrating product managers as strategic thinkers who help evolve organizations into being customer-centric, leaders and managers can tap into many benefits:

  1. Improved leadership pipeline and succession planning: Product managers are responsible for many things, but skills development strategies to level-up their subject matter expertise into leadership roles are not often clear. By connecting product management skills to a long-term and articulated career path, you can improve your leadership pipeline and increase career satisfaction for your product managers.
  2. Clear hiring objectives: Evaluating candidates against a documented set of skills can decrease bias and help recruiters make vital distinctions between hiring project managers, product managers, and product owners. 
  3. Increased product management talent pipeline: Creating consistency around what early-career professionals understand a product manager to be and what they must learn creates access to product management careers for people who don’t already have product managers in their networks.

We formed the Product Management Standards Board with a wide-ranging set of product management leaders across the consumer goods, technology, finance, and education sectors. We’ll channel our collective experience into increasing clarity of and access to product management skills and careers so that the next generation of product management talent can maximize their impact in organizations and the world.

We’ve crafted a career framework as a valuable tool for:

  • Product leaders who want to build capable, well-balanced teams.
  • Aspiring product managers who want to understand what skills they need to enter the field and help lead organizations.
  • Mid-career professionals who wish to understand their career options.
  • HR leaders who want to build transparent, consistent career pathways.

What Defines an Excellent Product Manager?

We drafted a career map that captures our collective thinking about what makes a product manager and the career paths and associated skills required for an employee to one day become a product leader.

Let’s break down each section of the framework and see how they’re used to guide
career progression. 

Associate Product Manager 

To begin a career in product management, individuals often move into associate product management roles from within or outside an organization with some existing understanding of the business, product, and/or customer base. While we firmly believe anyone can become a product manager starting at the associate level, we commonly see analysts, software engineers, designers, project managers, or product marketers moving into this role. In this stage of career development, product managers learn to use data to make decisions, influence without authority, and understand the balancing act of prioritization.

Product Manager

Product managers learn a mix of skills based on their particular product, area of responsibility, and expertise. Product managers in charge of a new product or feature may heavily focus on research and development. In contrast, product managers responsible for improving the quality and efficacy of an existing product or feature may focus more on data analysis to understand what drives an improved experience.

Squad leadership is critical to ensuring all people understand the goal they are working towards and what success will look like. Product managers at a large organization have the opportunity to either specialize in a single domain or can work with their managers to rotate ownership over product areas to develop a breadth of experience and skills.

Product managers at a startup will likely get to experience all of these skills in rapid rotation as their teams iterate quickly to identify product-market-fit and the right set of features for their product.

Senior Product Manager

The senior product manager level is where product managers start differentiating between becoming “craftmasters” in the individual contributor path or people managers on the leadership path. While craftmasters still need to provide inspiring team leadership to those working on the product, they often become particularly versed in a product domain, like product growth and analytics.

In contrast, a people manager in this role largely focuses on team management skills. Either way, this role is a critical step in someone’s career as it allows them an opportunity to practice developing and sharing a vision for a product with their team and working with more moving parts to guide people towards that vision. Understanding and prioritizing these moving parts become a key skill to develop at this level.

Additionally, the responsibilities to make decisions related to product growth also increase here. This level is a product manager’s opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of how business, market, and product intersect to inform the direction of the product and distinctly articulate how they expect that product to impact the company’s financials.

Director of Product

At this career point, directors of product are making a critical transition from manager to leader. They have to bring the threads of the product strategy and the product roadmap together and take ownership and responsibility for their decisions and impact. The Director of Product also starts to gain ownership of the cost side of their decisions – at some companies, this can extend as far as P&L ownership for project and product costs. They move into managing a portfolio of products and connecting the dots between how they work collectively for users and guide teams to work through complex problems to develop goals on a longer, future-driven timeline. 

VP or Head of Product 

Once an individual reaches this leadership level, they have mastered the key functional skills of product. They are now the pivotal connection point between the rest of the company’s leadership plans and the product team. They have to get beyond “product speak” and help connect the dots between technology, customers, and business goals with other leaders and employees across the business. There is a fair amount of time spent aligning resources and plans with other leaders to drive the strategy forward. As product leaders, they are also driving innovative thinking and are responsible for either the entirety of the product or a significant portfolio in terms of the company’s financials. 

A Few Notes

We’ve had many rich discussions while building out the career map and teased out some nuances listed below that may come to mind as you work your way through this framework.

What about a product owner?

While product owners play a critical function, we do not see this as being a distinct job title for someone. If you’re curious about the distinction and who might play a product ownership function in your teams, read Product Dave on Medium

What about the difference between startups and large organizations and everything in-between?

Product leaders at a large organization should consider rotating their product managers between a few different areas before moving them into more senior roles to build a range of skills sustainably. Product managers at a startup will likely get to experience all of these skills in rapid succession as their teams iterate quickly to identify product-market-fit and the right set of features for their product.

Does the framework change for “craftmaster” vs. “leadership” paths?

We have focused this framework more on the leadership path, but there is a continued path as an individual contributor, especially within larger organizations. Senior product managers, principals, and distinguished product management roles often see product managers tackle increasingly complex problems and mentor their colleagues on critical product skills while remaining in the “craftmaster” path.

Where do tangential functions fit in?

Some roles work closely with product managers to enable the full execution of products, but they are excluded on this map as they are adjacent to a product manager career path. A few of these functions include pricing analysts, product marketers, and product operations. 

What happens after VP of Product?

The next step after VP of Product is very dependent on the organization. Some VPs of Product already report to the CEO or a business unit owner, in which case, those roles would be the next step. In other organizations, a Chief Product Officer role exists and becomes the next step. Data from Emsi shows that there has been a 140% increase in CPO postings from Nov 2019 to Nov 2020; a clear reflection of organizations’ increasing awareness of the value of the role of product leadership in aligning customer needs, technology, and business strategy, and the increasing number of opportunities for advancement to the executive suite in this field.

Next Steps: Putting Words Into Action

We formed the Product Management Standards Board to increase clarity of and
access to skills and careers so the next generation of product management talent can maximize their global impact in organizations. Our career framework is a first step toward achieving this goal, but it’s only effective if followed by action.

To put this theory into action, we have started using this framework within our
organizations to:

  • Explain career progression and roles across our teams to guide development conversations and linking individual activities to strategic objectives on our product teams.
  • Guide high-potential employees on how to maximize their leadership skills.
  • Evaluate job candidates based on their skills match with the function for which they are applying, rather than exclusively what schools they’ve gone to or previous roles they’ve held. 

If you could benefit from these same actions, we encourage you to join us in using the framework for similar purposes in your organizations. Our industry needs to use a common language around product management, and that language extends beyond our board.

This is a living document, and we’ll be seeking feedback from partners in our executive teams, industry associations, and peers around the world. We’re also asking you. If you have feedback on how this could be useful for you, please let us know at cheers@ga.co.

By coalescing on what it takes to succeed in product management careers, we can begin to solve some of the pertinent talent challenges facing the profession and better prepare the next generation of leaders. We look forward to working to standardize product management career paths together.

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In the US alone, there are over 28 million small businesses. Of those, an estimated 22 million consist of a single operating member—solopreneurs as I like to call them.

Many of these small business owners started their businesses as nothing more than the intersection of passion and skills that combined to create a business idea with the ability to earn extra money and scale into something truly sustainable.

As someone who’s successfully launched four profitable side businesses over the past four years, I’ve learned a lot about how to turn your skills into a healthy side income. From building physical products to selling my consultative services, and building my own suite of digital products, I’ve been able to generate thousands in extra income each month.

If you’re ready to build a foundation for one day becoming gainfully self-employed, here are my top eight ways to get started with a profitable side business today.

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If you work in the technology industry, or live in a tech hub such as Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, or New York —it’s likely that you or someone you know is in the process of conceptualizing or even launching his or her own startup venture.

A startup venture is often misunderstood for simply a small new business. The truth is, there is a significant difference between a startup and a small business.

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Related Story: The Secret to Being Happy, Healthy, and More Productive at Work

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We’ve all dealt with fear and anxiety surrounding our work. Whether you’ve just finished the job search and landed a new job or are simply dealing with additional responsibilities of your current role, you may be experiencing feelings of ineptitude. Fear not! There are lots of ways to deal when you don’t know how to do your job and you’re feeling out of your league.

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The motivations to learn evolve as you become older, and for an adult educator, teaching can be even more difficult without a basic understanding of adult learning theory or Andragogy.

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How to Build a Brilliant Visual Product Roadmap

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As Product Managers, building product roadmaps is a crucial part of our job. Yet most of us still use outdated tools for product roadmapping — Excel, PowerPoint, wikis, etc. — to try and keep multiple teams on track toward the same goals. It’s painful. The good news is that there’s a better way.

We understand that building a strategic product roadmap is not easy and that your business colleagues always want to know what’s coming next. It’s time to lead your product with conviction. Take a radical new approach to roadmapping because your company needs it and you deserve to build the future and enjoy what you do.

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Four Traits That Every Great Product Manager Shares

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This variety of project manager traits is what attracts so many to the field, and makes their work endlessly interesting and challenging. But it takes a certain type of personality to thrive in this capacity. If you’re considering a foray into this field, take a look at some of the qualities that project managers share to see if they resonate with you.

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How to Write the Best Problem Statement for Your Startup

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The Lean Startup Methodology changed the way we go about starting businesses. Instead of creating a business plan worthy of a Harvard Business School case study, we go out into the market space that we know and find a real problem. Then, we validate the pain point and see how the market is dealing with, compensating for, or otherwise working around that specific problem. Next, we determine if the market participants are willing to pay for a solution to the problem. If they see value, then we solve the problem.

Of course, it’s never that simple, but that’s the basic process in a nutshell. Atlanta entrepreneur David Cummings recently wrote that this process, from discovering the problem to getting to product market fit, generally takes about two years. Finding a problem is usually fairly clear. Validating the problem takes longer. Finding customers who are willing to pay takes a little longer, and building a product that fits the market takes a long time and usually includes several pivots or small deviations from the original product idea.

At the core of everything involved in creating a startup is the customer pain point. But many times, the best product for solving that problem doesn’t win. Why? Because the makers of that solution are really good at solving said problem, but not good at all at explaining what exactly the problem is or what its root cause consists of. In other words, the entrepreneur who can communicate better usually wins. That is why it is so vitally important to be able to explain the problem you are solving to anyone so that they understand it completely. But how do you do that?

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