Need someone to lead product or development at your software company? I lead product and engineering teams and I'm looking for my next opportunity. Check out my resume and get in touch.

Product Manager Career Ladder

Freshness Warning
This blog post is over 1 year old. It's possible that the information you read below isn't current and the links no longer work.

I was asked today what the various levels of product management are for someone who wants to move up the ladder. Here’s the way I see them. The responsibilities listed here are rough approximations for how it works at larger companies.Smaller companies will usually have only two or three levels, and the skills and responsibilities of each will bleed over between the different levels I describe here.

Similarly, the smaller the organization, the more likely you’ll see title inflation (or sometimes deflation). An example of this is when the only product manager is given a director title, despite acting more like an individual contributor.

The typical roles in a larger company are...

  • Associate product manager
  • Product manager
  • Senior product manager
  • Product Director
  • VP of Product
  • Chief Product Officer

Associate product manager

This is a junior position. Entry level, no experience needed, often right out of school. It’s not common at companies yet, but is really a training ground for new product managers. Pair with a senior, make them almost an assistant. This can be seen as an apprenticeship, and by following the Senior around and helping with tasks, they’ll learn how to be a product manager.

Product manager

Responsible for a feature or set of features, ensures that their products fit into the overall strategy for the larger product or product groups. Responsible for execution of their product. Tends to skew operationally, managing the project, handling metrics, sometimes focusing on P&L of their feature, if the feature has direct revenue ties.

Reports their metrics and status to the team for the overall product.

Senior product manager

Same as a product manager, but has more scope. Perhaps a larger set of features within the product. Or an entire product. Or a more complex feature. This is generally the end of the individual contributor line before moving into management. Tends to think a lot more strategically, but still needs to have good operational skills. New products, strategic shifts, and other projects full of unknowns go to the Senior Product Managers. Good ones are usually entrepreneurial, and are used to working with very little supervision or guidance.

Will often be responsible for managing the combined metrics and status of the various parts of the product, as reported by the product managers, although that’s sometimes a Director role.

Product Director

Manages the product managers. Owns the roadmap for a whole product or a significant chunk of the product. Possibly a small product portfolio of inter-related products. Focuses on a roadmap about one year out, and ensures that all the product managers are aligning their products and features with this roadmap.

Mentors and grows the product managers under them, and is responsible for creating and feeding an Associate program, if the company has one. Develops the processes and techniques used by the product organization.

VP of Product

Responsible for the strategy, vision, and long term success of an entire product line. Focuses on a roadmap and vision stretching multiple years ahead and possibly the entire lifecycle. Ties the company goals to the product vision. Aligns the product organization with the other departments. How do product processes meld with how product development works? What’s the strategy for taking the product to market? What sales channels will the products use? In most companies, this is where you top out in the Product career ladder.

Chief product officer (CPO)

Usually only found at larger companies or those with lots of product lines. And rarely at those, even. Like the Associate on the other end of this scale, this is a fairly new concept in companies and few companies have them. Connects the entire product portfolio to the company goals and plans. Manages the financial impact of product decisions, and how those decisions connect back to the company as a whole. Has financial, technical, and product skills.

Recently Written

Domain expertise in Product Management (Nov 16)
When you're hiring software product managers, hire for product management skills. Looking for domain experts will reduce the pool of people you can hire and might just be worse for your product.
Strategy Means Saying No (Oct 27)
An oft-overlooked aspect of strategy is to define what you are not doing. There are lots of adjacent problems you can attack. Strategy means defining which ones you will ignore.
Understanding vision, strategy, and execution (Oct 24)
Vision is what you're trying to do. Strategy is broad strokes on how you'll get there. Execution is the tasks you complete to complete the strategy.
How to advance your Product Market Fit KPI (Oct 21)
Finding the gaps in your product that will unlock the next round of growth.
Developer Relations as Developer Success (Oct 19)
Outreach, marketing, and developer evangelism are a part of Developer Relations. But the companies that are most successful with developers spend most of their time on something else.
Developer Experience Principle 6: Easy to Maintain (Oct 17)
Keeping your product Easy to Maintain will improve the lives of your team and your customers. It will help keep your docs up to date. Your SDKs and APIs will be released in sync. Your tooling and overall experience will shine.
Developer Experience Principle 5: Easy to Trust (Oct 9)
A developer building part of their business on your product needs to believe that you're going to do the right thing for them and their customers.
Developer Experience Principle 4: Easy to Get Help (Oct 8)
The faster you can unblock a stuck developer, the better their experience will be.

Older...

What I'm Reading

Contact

Adam Kalsey

+1 916 600 2497

Resume

Public Key

© 1999-2020 Adam Kalsey.