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A guide to the product management career path

Curious about the product management career trajectory? Learn how to break into and climb the ladder on the product management career path.

Last updated

15 Sep 2022

Reading time

7 min


Product manager career path

Product management is a rapidly growing field. A recent Product School survey shows that more companies are recognizing the value of product managers—over 43% of companies plan to hire product managers in 2022.

Product managers (PMs) work at the intersection of technology, business, and user experience (UX) to guide an organization’s product through the product lifecycle. They use their competencies to ensure that the final result aligns with the product vision and solves customers’ pain points.

If you’re considering a pivot to product management, you may be wondering what the product manager’s career path is like. This guide will help. We’ll consider the general career progression, typical trajectories, and how to build a successful product management career.

What is the career progression of a product manager?

Career progression and roles vary by the individual and company. One role may cover several responsibilities in a smaller company, and in larger corporations, there might be multiple persons working on different areas of product management. But there are some common stops on the product manager career path. 

Here’s the typical progression:

Associate/junior product manager → product manager → senior product manager → chief product officer/VP of product.

Let’s take a closer look at what these product roles entail:

1. Associate product manager

The associate product manager (APM) role is a common entry-level role for some companies. It is essentially a junior product manager job open to candidates with little to no product management experience. 

APMs assist product managers with customer and product research and strategy, and they support them in product launches and post-launch reviews. This role is a great way to get your foot in the door.

Companies like Google and Uber have associate product manager programs to train fresh college graduates interested in the field. These programs can include bootcamps and mentorships to prepare applicants for a product manager role at the respective organization.

2. Product manager

This is a mid-level role requiring more experience, whether in product management or working adjacent to the product management team. 

Product managers take charge of refining the company’s products to meet customer needs, communicating with other teams like sales and marketing to create an effective business strategy, and developing product positioning.

How to go from associate product manager to product manager

Often, advancing internally from associate product manager to product manager is a management decision. Associate product managers need to prove that they’ve gained knowledge from working with their product team and contributed to its growth. 

They should also demonstrate a strong understanding of the product and be able to make valuable contributions with regard to strategy, customer research, and overall teamwork.

3. Senior product manager

This senior product manager role may not be found in every company, but when it exists, it typically requires years of product management experience. 

Depending on the sphere of product management (technical, growth, platform, etc.), people in this role may need to have strong data analytics knowledge, product development experience, or product design skills.

The senior product manager defines and executes the company’s product strategy and owns the entire product lifecycle. Junior team members report to this individual.

4. Chief product officer

The chief product officer (CPO) is the head of product management. People in this leadership role manage the product managers and oversee the strategy surrounding every aspect of the product, from ideation to launch.

Strong leadership skills and brand knowledge are a must for CPOs as they manage teams and ensure that all products align with the brand’s mission and audience needs. CPOs also oversee product research and brainstorm new product ideas to benefit their audience.

Depending on organizational preferences, the chief product officer may also be called the director or VP of product. The chief product officer reports to the chief executive officer (CEO) and other stakeholders.

Typical trajectories and how to level up in the early stages of your career

Entering a new field is intimidating, but knowing your options will make you feel more equipped. If you’re looking to enter a product management role, these are your three most likely career trajectories:

  • Get a lateral transition: this refers to moving into a product management role from a different role within the same company—lateral transitions are easier for individuals who have been working closely with the product team, such as those in product marketing, customer support, or engineering 

  • Work at a startup: the lean nature of startup teams requires scrappiness, which means you may have a greater chance of experimenting with product management even if you have little to no experience or formal education

  • Build a product: this is a super hands-on trajectory that boosts your product design, development, and management skills while exercising your entrepreneurial spirit—if you can code or you use no-code tools, this is a great path if you have the time and resources 

If none of these options is viable for you, you may need to switch from a totally different role to product management in a new company. Most product managers pivot from roles in the following backgrounds:

  • User experience and user research 

  • Engineering (software development)

  • Product development (product design)

  • Marketing (product marketing or other marketing roles)

  • Project management

  • IT roles (technical support, IT analyst roles)

  • Sales

  • Business strategy

Improve your chances of getting into product management

Regardless of your background, if you’re trying to break into product management, there are a few key things you can do to make yourself a more appealing candidate:

  • Practice: build a product or find opportunities to support your company’s product team to grow as a product manager

Tips for a successful career in product management

Product managers are the glue that keeps multiple requests and ever shifting priorities on track by leading product strategies that achieve business objectives and meet customer needs. They also identify solutions that fit the market and guide a product team to deliver them. Here are five must-have skills to keep your career in product management on an upward trajectory: 

1. Cultivate customer empathy 

User experience is the key to expert product management. Successful product managers must be keenly interested in customers’ experiences with their products. Having empathy for customers makes it easier to research, forecast, and resolve product issues.

2. Master the art of prioritization

With many tasks and teams to juggle, product managers need to decide what merits the top spot on their daily to-do lists. Effective product managers set priorities based on data, industry trends, and customer feedback—not arbitrarily.

3. Improve your collaboration skills

Product managers work with an array of teams, from marketing to engineering to customer support. Those in senior roles also have to communicate their team’s strategy and progress to executives. To be successful, it is essential that product managers be strong team players with good communication skills.

4. Strengthen your technical skills

Many companies (Hotjar included) do not expect their product managers to write code or develop products—but those hiring technical product managers might. Regardless of whether you’re a strategic or technical product manager, understanding the technical process that takes a product from conceptualization to launch can be very useful.

5. Develop a strategic thinking mindset 

An important part of a product manager’s role is defining and accomplishing the product vision while reaching business goals. Incorporating market research, data analysis, and customer feedback into a clear plan of action requires the ability to think strategically.

Start your journey on the product management career path

Product management is an in-demand role with incredible growth potential, so interest in this position is understandable. However, with few universities offering product management degrees, it’s also a unique career path. 

Building soft skills such as teamwork, project management, and strategic thinking will prepare you. Also, incorporate plenty of learning and networking to help you get your foot in the door.

For those looking to transition laterally into the field, working with a company that supports career growth and transitions is crucial. At Hotjar, we support our people as they learn new skills and advance their careers.

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