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Product Manager Career Ladder

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.

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