Product Teams

What Does It Take to Be a Product Manager?

Published Aug 22, 2016

By taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of a product, a product manager forms a bridge between users, marketing, sales, designers, and engineers. The skills demanded reflect that diversity. The best product managers are skilled communicators and leaders who have the ability to understand user experience, user data, marketing and business strategy, and technical processes and challenges.

The many hats worn by product managers mean that you’ll find varied backgrounds among people working in the profession. People have found their way into product management via paths ranging from instructional design to linguistics. For those looking to enter the field, to advance, or to hire the best product manager, there are many opinions for the components of a product manager’s formal and informal preparation for the job. Here are some components worth evaluating.

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Technical Skills

There is general agreement that a degree of technical literacy is important for product managers. A product manager needs to be able to communicate with the engineering team, understand the possibilities and constraints, and grasp the work flows and timelines associated with various engineering tasks.

Many argue that these goals are best served by product managers with formal technical training—those who have computer science degrees or have worked as software engineers—and some even make this a requirement when hiring a product manager. Others argue that a technically literate product manager from a non-technical background may actually bring a better user perspective to the table and be more creative when asking questions about what is possible. If you’re an aspiring product manager without a technical background, though, you need to make a special effort to develop your technical literacy and get on the same page with your tech team.

Another angle on technical literacy is data literacy. Product managers need to be able to understand and interpret information about user behavior and patterns, which often requires basic knowledge of statistics, cleaning up data, and data storytelling.

Business and Marketing Expertise

To tailor a product for the market, a product manager needs to understand the market and what it takes to succeed in that specific market niche. For a specific type of product, that knowledge can come from a subject-specific background and experience in the field or experience in a marketing or sales position at the company.

Some current or aspiring product managers pursue MBAs, and large companies in particular, may see the MBA as an important qualification. However, other observers point out that the MBA can carry a stigma, as it has in the past been associated with business training too far removed from the real world. And start-ups in particular may sometimes prefer a technical background and product management experience to business-focused credentials.

If considering the MBA, think in terms of how to use the experience to build your product management resume. Find ways to focus your program on applied projects that demonstrate your abilities and product-management-specific courses. One writer recommends thinking in terms of skills, rather than degrees, and evaluating the MBA in terms of its potential to fill in gaps in your personal skill set.

Product Management Certification

Although most agree that experience trumps certification, getting a product management certification can help you get a foot in the door for some jobs, build your skill set, and improve your expertise in areas that might not be emphasized in your current job. Courses and certification can also provide networking opportunities. Drawbacks to certification include the cost and time involved, which can both be substantial. It’s also important to remember that a certification alone does not capture the broad range of abilities and knowledge required for many product management positions.

These are some of the certifications available:

  • AIPPM (Association of International Product Marketing and Management) administers the Certified Product Manager (CPM) and Certified Product Marketing Manager (CPMM) credentials, along with several others. Applicants must pass rigorous certification exams, which you can prepare for with self-study or by enrolling in courses provided by AIPPM.
  • Pragmatic Marketing administers the Pragmatic Marketing Certified (PMC) credential. The organization offers six courses based around their Pragmatic Marketing Framework, leading to six degrees of the PMC certification.

Because product management requires flexibility and interaction with a range of people and teams, there will always be an overwhelming need for the intangibles, or “soft skills,” such as intelligence and analytical ability, the perception of team dynamics, and instinct for user needs and innovative products. No one certification or degree can capture those. Wherever you are as a product manager, understand your own set of skills and knowledge and be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. You can then approach any new training or certification by evaluating how it fits into your unique career path. Watch the Evolution of the Role of the Product Manager to gain more insights about how this unique role has changed and why it’s so important to adapt.