Chapter 19 Getting to the Next Level in Product Management Product Management


  • Thinking ahead about what your career goals are and how to reach them
  • Building important industry expertise

Over a long career , product managers can work on many different products in vastly
different fields. One product manager we know started in computer hardware and is now
vice president of product management at a health insurance company . The great news is that the process for remaining employable and up-to-date in skills and your domain
knowledge is the same for any product manager . In fact, over time and with practice, you can make the transition from one industry to another relatively painlessly if you have to or want to. This chapter shows you how to set appropriate product management career goals and achieve the best career results possible.

Mapping Your Career Path: Setting
Goals and Target Dates

It used to be that companies would create career paths and development plans for their
employees. These days, very few companies do this, so you as a product manager need to take the initiative and be responsible for your own career advancement. By setting goals with target dates, and creating a specific plan for where you want to go and how you want to get there, you increase your odds of success dramatically .

Establishing goals

The first step in setting your career goals is to determine where you want to go. Do you
want to become a CEO, general manager , or vice president? Or do you want to become a great product manager and spend your career working with innovative teams building
great products? Are you interested in managing people and helping your employees
become great at what they do? Or do you prefer being an individual contributor?
There is no right or wrong answer here. It really comes down to what motivates you, what you enjoy , and what you’re good at. Many product managers thrive without ever moving up into management and becoming corporate executives. And you can find many examples of people who started as product managers and became CEOs, such as former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; Scott Cook, founder and former CEO of Intuit; and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer .
Product management is a great training ground for moving up because it requires you to
learn, interact with, and understand all parts of the business. Figure 19-1 gives you the
stepping stones of the base level of product manager to CEO.

FIGURE 19-1: Career path from product manager to CEO.

When you set your goals, make sure that they’re ambitious yet achievable. If you’re a
brand-new product manager , you won’t be a vice president of product management in one or two years unless you work for a very small company . In a larger company , you may be able to achieve that transition within five to seven years. Your goals have to inspire you and at the same time be completely believable and achievable.

The SMART goal approach is one that many people find effective. It helps you get
clear about how you’ll achieve your goals. SMART stands for the following:

  • S pecific
  • M easurable
  • A chievable
  • R ealistic
  • T ime-bound

Here’s an example of a SMART goal: Within one year (time-bound), I will attend a product management training class (measurable) that addresses every step of the product life cycle (specific) to increase my skill level as a junior product manager . I am prepared to attend the class regardless of whether the company pays for it (achievable and realistic).

Building a career plan

When you’ve set your goals, you’re ready to build the plan for how you’re going to get
there. Figure 19-2 shows the components of a typical career plan for a product manager

FIGURE 19-2: Elements of a product management career plan.

Here is a breakdown of the career plan components:

  • Finding mentors and coaches:

Choose three people who have accomplished what you
hope to achieve and ask them whether they’ll mentor you. A mentor is someone who is
more experienced and can help guide someone else. By choosing mentors that have
achieved what you are hoping to achieve you can show them your plan and get their
advice about how best to proceed. Professional coaches can also be very helpful. They’re able to give you an external, unbiased perspective on your situation. They evaluate your plans and keep you accountable to your actions. Coaches are a great way to keep you on track to accomplish your goals. Once you have chosen a mentor or a coach, select specific goals that you want to work on and ask them to help you break down what it takes to achieve the goal. Plan specific meetings approximately every two weeks to meet with your mentor or coach.

  • Getting training:

Start by checking out training to become a more effective product
manager , excelling at the position you’re currently in. According to a 2015 study by the
280 Group, less than 2 percent of product managers ever receive training, so going
through foundational training that teaches you all the skills across the entire product life
cycle gives you a huge advantage over other product managers. Then add some
advanced training courses (such as leadership skills) and more specialized courses (such as Agile and people skills), and you’ll have even more of a leg up on your fellow product managers. These skills differentiate you from others and allow your resume to stand out from the rest. A bonus: You become more effective at work, and your job is more enjoyable.

  • Building your network:

Creating a solid network gives you a basis for showcasing your
skills to varied professionals to help with earning promotions and changing careers or
companies. The better your network is, the more job security you have. Join a local
product management group to extend your network. For example, in Silicon V alley , you
can check out .

  • Becoming active online:

Having an online presence and participating in online activities are important for staying current in product management and keeping your name in front of colleagues. A good place to start is by creating a LinkedIn profile (if you don’t already have one) at . You can check out LinkedIn For Dummies by
Joel Elad (Wiley) for help with creating a profile. After your LinkedIn profile is in good
shape, start to connect with as many people as you can, beginning with the other product managers and executives at your company . Then every time you’re at an event or are networking, invite the people you meet to connect.
Become part of product management groups on LinkedIn, such as the 280 Group:
Product Management & Product Marketing group, which has over 35,000 members and
hosts great discussions. These are great places to learn best practices and ask others
about how to solve difficult challenges that arise. Join the Association of International
Product Marketing and Management (AIPMM) at and participate in its
monthly webinars.

  • Volunteering as a way to get your name out there:

You have many opportunities to volunteer in the product management community . One way is by attending product management associations’ events and offering to help out. As your product management experience grows, consider sharing your knowledge at association events. Product management events are great for making connections, beefing up your resume, and increasing your resume differentiation.

  • Earning a certification:

Becoming a Certified Product Manager , Agile Certified Product
Management and Product Owner , and/or a Certified Product Marketing Manager through AIPMM is another way to show that you’ve mastered product management skills and knowledge. Such certifications stand out on your resume and LinkedIn profile. Note: If you choose to get certified, make sure that the company who administers the exam is independent and different from the company that trains you in the material. Companies that train and administer their own certifications often have very easy exams and 100 percent pass rates, so the certifications aren’t worth as much as those from an
independent testing organization like AIPMM.

Writing one-, three-, and five-year action plans

You can take your career plan and turn it into an action plan. By writing it down, you can
mark specific steps and make yourself accountable. Break your plan down into three
milestone points one, three, and five years out. Here’s an example of such a plan:

  • By the end of year one, I will accomplish the following:

Find one mentor or coach, with whom I review my plan and meet at least once a
month to check in on my progress.
Attend a foundational product management training course to ensure I have the
basic skills to manage any product at any phase in the product life cycle.
Confirm my LinkedIn profile is up-to-date, has high-quality information about my
product management skills and experience, and features a great picture. Make at
least two LinkedIn connections per month with people who are in my industry .
Find a local product management association or product camp and attend the
sessions to become familiar with it.
Join a product management LinkedIn group and actively participate, asking and
answering questions and reading discussions that will be helpful in doing my job.

  • By the end of year three, I will accomplish the following:

Have three mentors and one coach that I am working closely with at least once a
Attend additional advanced courses to increase my skills in areas that are relevant
to my career advancement, such as people skills, working more effectively with
Agile development teams, or leadership.
Continue to build my LinkedIn network to include at least 100 quality connections
and keep my profile up-to-date.
Volunteer at my local product management association or product camp.
Join several more LinkedIn product management groups, answer questions in
discussions, and start discussions of my own.

  • By the end of year five, I will accomplish the following:

Continue working with my mentors and coaches and start to mentor others.
Earn at least one advanced product management certification credential from a
highly-respected organization.
Build my LinkedIn network to at least 200 meaningful connections that I can rely on
if/when I want to find my next job.
V olunteer for a highly visible position at my local product management association
or product camp and/or join the board of directors.

Remembering the favors

An important success factor in moving forward in your career is to genuinely care about
others and to help them out without hesitation. People who are willing to go that extra mile for someone else find that the reward always comes back tenfold. For example, if someone you know is looking for a job and you connect him with an opportunity he lands, chances are he’ll go out of his way for you in the future if you need help.

Mastering Your Market and New

In addition to becoming great at product management skills, it is also important to
increase your knowledge of your market and any technologies that your products will rely on. These need to be part of your goals and career plan. For example, are you going to pursue a growing market and make your mark in terms of your career in that particular market? If so, you’ll want one of your goals to be to learn more about that market than anyone else.

Becoming the market and customer expert

Mastering the foundational and advanced skills of product management is critical to beingna successful product manager . But that’s only half the equation. T o build your credibility and become a product leader , you also have to become the de facto expert in your market, and you’ve to have enough technical knowledge to be credible.
Here are some tasks you can work into your routine to increase your expert status in terms of your market and customers:

  • Visit customers often and make sure you summarize and share your findings.

Nothing builds your credibility more with your team than taking a trip to see customers
and sharing what you’ve found. Over time, team members and executives in your
company will view you as the voice of the customer , and your ability to influence what
they’re creating will increase.

  • Determine which, if any , analyst firms (such as Gartner , Forrester , or IDC) cover your particular market.

Scour their available research for free articles and data and
consider having your company sign up for the firms’ services. Also subscribe to their
newsletters and follow their blogs. Many times analysts can provide you with data and
insights that have valuable additional perspective. As the market expert in your company , being aware of prominent analysts and using them in your work to strengthen your
arguments and bolster your product decisions increases your credibility significantly .

  • Set up Google alerts with terms specific to your market as well as your competitor’s names and products.

Google will scour the web every day and send you an email notification anytime something new comes up so you’re among the first to know . When your team or executive points something out, you have the advantage of already
being aware of it.

  • Leverage any internal resources and groups that you may have.

Some companies have competitive analysis and market research departments. Become familiar with what they have to offer , and use their expertise and help.

  • Gather and track any quantitative data you can find about your product and your competitors.

Information about market share, spending, costs, hiring, marketing
activities, and so on can prove very valuable when you’re planning out your own strategy . Having this knowledge positions you as the market expert with your team and your
company executives.

  • Prepare and share a market update either once a quarter or every six months.

Some companies will require you to create and present this report to management, but
doing it proactively even when you aren’t required to positions you as the true market
expert in the minds of your executives and your team. Make sure you share this
information; visit staff meetings to present about your market and informally share the
results with a wide range of people who are involved with your product.

Increasing your technical expertise

For some product management jobs, you don’t need to have technical expertise. If you’re working on a nontechnical consumer product, a service that requires no technology development, or other products and services that have no technology component, you maybe able to do the job without establishing a base level of technical competence. You should, however , be known as the subject matter expert in the area that your product serves.

However , if you’re working on a software or hardware product, you need to have
enough technical competence for your team members to respect you. They’ll be
making highly technical decisions that directly affect the feature set and experience
for your customers. Not having any technical credibility significantly reduces your
ability to influence what decisions the team makes.

However , if you’re working on a software or hardware product, you need to have
enough technical competence for your team members to respect you. They’ll be
making highly technical decisions that directly affect the feature set and experience
for your customers. Not having any technical credibility significantly reduces your
ability to influence what decisions the team makes.

No, you don’t need to have an engineering degree or know how to write software. But you have to understand enough about the underlying technology , standards, jargon, and
acronyms being used to be able to talk intelligently with your engineers.
You can get up to speed in these areas in many ways. You can take courses at a local
college or junior college or look for free online courses from organizations like Coursera.
You can read books on the most important technologies for your product. One great idea is to ask your engineers to explain the basics of how the technology works. Engineers like being experts and are often more than happy to help you, but take good notes. They won’t want to do it on a weekly basis.

Keep on the lookout for new technologies and trends. Any time your engineers or
others bring up something, be curious and go learn as much as you can about it. Most
of the time, engineers are very aware of which future technologies are going to be
game-changers, so stay aware of what they’re talking about and following. The
engineers love new technology and will want to use it as soon as possible, perhaps
earlier than the market needs or wants. You need to be ready to have any new
technology discussion with them sooner rather than later .

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