What qualifications are needed to become a Product Manager?
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Product Management is one of the most in-demand roles in tech companies, right next to Software Engineering. There are a lot of misconceptions about what qualifications are needed to become a Product Manager. This is further exacerbated by Product Management “thought leaders” suggesting that a background in software engineering is essential (and unsurprisingly they have software engineering backgrounds), and sometimes you’ll find the opposite saying that Software Engineers don’t make good Product Managers (who unironically don’t have a software engineering background). And some will go as far as saying that you need an MBA to become a Product Manager because of the business focused nature of the role.
Product Management “thought leaders”, in my humble opinion, are the leading source of misinformation on Product Management.
In this article, I’m going to cover my perspective based on a decade of experience building product teams, having hired Product Managers from all walks of professional life.
If you want the TL;DR version and don’t want to read the whole article (which I actually encourage you to read because you’ll find value) – then I can confirm that you don’t need an MBA or a Software Engineering background to become a Product Manager. If you do have those, then it does give you a competitive edge. Now read on to understand the full picture.
What is a Product Manager?
Ask ten different product leaders this question, and you’ll get ten different answers. Simply put the role of a product manager is to guide the development and success of a product from conception to launch. If this sounds like a mammoth task, it's because it is. And there actually is no standard way in which companies do this, for instance Startup & Scale-up Product Managers play a substantially different role to Corporate Product Managers. This is also why there isn’t a standard path to becoming a Product Manager and ultimately it boils down to what each business requires from the role itself.
However the good news is there are plenty of transferable skills from other professions, read on to find out more and additionally I’ll also dispel why an MBA or a software engineering background is non-essential.
Why Should You Become a Product Manager?
Product Management is the ideal career choice for you, if you:
✅ Like solving problems
✅ Like tackling commercial challenges
✅ Are a “builder of things”
✅ Love innovation
✅ Are good at leading cross-functional teams
✅ Are competitive
✅ Are an advocate for change
a. Market Growth: The demand for product managers is on the rise. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of computer and information systems managers, a category that includes product managers, is projected to grow by 11% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.
b. Salaries: The financial incentive is attractive as well. According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for a product manager in the United States is over $100,000 per year with the potential to earn significantly more based on experience and location. In Australia (where I am), the average salary for a Product Manager in a scale-up business based out of Sydney is $160,000. Additionally, you can earn over this if you get stock options which can become very lucrative if you join a business at the “right time”.
So it is unsurprising that Product Management is attracting a lot of interest.
Traits of a Successful Product Manager
To excel as a product manager, certain traits (i.e. the things that are a part of your personality) are crucial:
a. Empathy: Understanding and connecting with your target audience is essential. How else will you understand their problems or determine if a solution is palatable?
b. Problem-Solving: You’ll face different problems each day, with varying degrees of complexity. Being an effective problem solver is essential!
c. Communication: Clear communication with cross-functional teams is key to ensure everyone is on the same page.
d. Adaptability: The tech landscape changes rapidly, so being adaptable and open to learning is a must.
e. Leadership: “Natural born” leaders thrive in Product Management. As much as we’d like to believe that leadership can be taught, in my experience it very much cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t. And this trait is non-negotiable – a Product Manager has to align so many stakeholders with opposing ideas that its impossible to do so without having this.
Transferable Skills from Other Professions
Many professionals from various backgrounds can transition into Product Management, bringing valuable transferable skills.
a. QA (Quality Assurance): QA professionals are well-equipped to ensure product quality, which is crucial in Product Management. According to Glassdoor, over 15% of Product Managers have a background in quality assurance.
b. Customer Service: Professionals from customer service bring a deep understanding of customer needs, which is one of the foundational elements of product management. A significant number of Product Managers started their careers in customer service, according to the Product Management Insider survey.
c. Sales: Sales experience provides strong communication and negotiation skills, and it's a common background for many successful Product Managers.
d. Engineering: Engineers often transition to product management roles successfully, combining their technical knowledge with essential soft skills. It’s also a natural career path as the best engineers get tired of being told what to do, and this shift allows them to be part of the decision making process.
Soft skills are actually what is critical in Product Management:
a. Leadership: Yes we’re repeating leadership here, but this leadership is different to the innate ability to lead. Whereas the trait is about charisma, charm, confidence and perseverance, this aspect of leadership is about being able to make clear decisions, being able to dispel ambiguity, thinking strategically and most importantly being emotionally intelligent.
b. Time Management: Efficiently managing time is vital in a role where multitasking is the norm. Time is actually the most scarce resource in any business, therefore being able to allocate time effectively to problem solving with cross-functional teams, which takes time away from other projects is vital. Overspending on trivial problems or underspending on complex problems leads to failure.
c. Customer Focus: Prioritising customer needs and feedback is crucial for Product Managers. That’s actually one of the biggest challenges of the role.
Contrary to popular belief, an MBA or a software engineering background is not a strict prerequisite to become a Product Manager. As I mentioned earlier, it's great if you have them but they aren’t needed if you can demonstrate that your experience has given you the skills and traits to solve problems commercially while delivering user value.
And ultimately that is what Product Management is about – delivering user value while driving incredible commercial outcomes for the business.
And here is why you don’t need an MBA or a software engineering background:
Diverse Skill Set Requirements: Product management is a multifaceted role that requires a diverse skill set. While an MBA might provide a strong foundation in business concepts and strategies, and a software engineering background might offer technical knowledge, Product Management goes way beyond these areas. It requires a unique blend of skills, including market research, design thinking, project management, and communication. Real world experience in these things will trump anything you learn in a school about them (and I say that as someone with an MBA and also a software engineering background!).
Focus on Soft Skills: Product Managers need strong soft skills, such as empathy, leadership, communication, and adaptability. These qualities are essential for understanding customer needs, guiding cross-functional teams, and making informed decisions. While MBA programs may touch on some soft skills, they often don't provide the in-depth development needed for a Product Management role.These are things you can only pick up on the job.
Real-World Experience Matters: Product Management is highly practical, and hands-on experience often outweighs formal education. Learning from real-world situations, interacting with customers, managing crises and collaborating with development teams are invaluable experiences that can't always be replicated in a classroom setting.
Interdisciplinary Nature of the Role: Product Managers need to work with various teams, including engineers, designers, marketers, and sales professionals. An interdisciplinary background can be an asset, but it doesn't have to come from an MBA or software engineering degree. A background in design, marketing, or even a non-technical field can also provide the necessary perspective and skills to collaborate effectively with these teams. What’s important is being able to understand the dynamics of a cross-functional team and the unique motivators of each team member so you can take them on the product-building journey.
Rapidly Changing Industry: The tech industry evolves at a breakneck pace. While an MBA or an engineering degree provides foundational knowledge, it might not keep up with the latest industry trends and technologies. Product Managers must be agile learners, constantly adapting to stay ahead.
Customer-Centric Focus: Understanding and prioritising customer needs is at the core of Product Management. This skill can be developed through experience in roles like customer service or sales, which provide a direct line to customers. These experiences can be equally valuable, if not more so, than traditional education.
Certifications and Short Courses: Product Management is a role where you can gain knowledge and skills through certifications and short courses. Certifications like Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and courses on platforms like Coursera and edX provide targeted training that equips aspiring product managers without the need for extensive formal education. Shameless plug: I’ve even launched a course on Startup & Scale-up Product Management that’ll probably give you more value than an MBA because it's packed full of real examples.
Diversity Benefits the Field: The field of product management benefits from diversity. Professionals from various backgrounds bring unique perspectives and approaches to problem-solving, fostering innovation and ensuring a wider range of voices is heard in product development.
The Path to Learning
The path to becoming a product manager is about continuous learning and development, not just formal qualifications. There's a wealth of material available online, from blogs to courses, to help you acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. Many professionals transition into product management through self-study and online courses, making it accessible to all.
Consider Comprehensive (and Short) Courses
When looking to further your product management career, consider comprehensive courses. Ensure they cover a wide range of topics and provide hands-on experience to prepare you for real-world challenges. Also consider short courses in connected disciplines such as UX and Marketing.
The only qualification needed for becoming a Product Manager is a constant thirst for improvement
Becoming a Product Manager is an achievable goal for individuals from diverse backgrounds, with promising market growth and attractive salaries. What truly matters is your passion for innovation, your ability to lead and communicate, and your willingness to learn. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, if a particular role requires an MBA or a software engineering background, keep looking there’s bound to be an equally exciting opportunity that doesn’t require those.
Agree or disagree with my thoughts, get in touch.