Product Managers are often called “Product CEOs” or “Mini GMs”, but they rarely have direct control over the inputs that lead to successful products. From R&D to marketing, sales, and logistics, PMs operate in ambiguity.
In volatile times like these, it’s no surprise that PM jobs are growing fast. HackerNoon reports PMs outpaced average job growth in the US by 5X in recent years!) Also unsurprisingly, education hasn’t kept up with growth. There’s no set skillset or formal certification for PMs like there is for Project Management (PMP).
The lack of a formal regulatory body doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get PM-certified. Lot’s of programs exist to help you upskill quickly, and with growing competition, certification (coupled with experience!) might give you the boost you’re looking for.
Getting PM-certified might be right for you if:
- You don’t have a traditional education that dovetails with a PM role (e.g. Bachelor’s in Marketing, an MBA, or a technical degree depending on which company you’re targeting.)
- You don’t have industry experience.
- You’re simply looking to fill in gaps in your knowledge.
Even if you answered no to all of these, taking a certified course may be worthwhile. No course is going to be a substitute for experience. If you have to choose between PM certification and say, an unpaid internship, the internship should have priority. Still, there’s a place for certification on your resume. PM methodology is important, and we always recommend staying up to date. But your time is valuable too. So how do you decide?
What Am I Getting Into?
PMs come in all shapes and sizes, but ultimately they’re responsible for managing the product through its lifecycle. From initial design and development through launch, upgrades, maturation, and eventually end-of-life, PMs are found wrangling other departments with competing priorities. The goal? To ship a great product.
PMs must be great “leaders by influence”, so high EQ is essential. But the best PMs have more than soft skills.
You’ll also need:
- UX design experience. What makes a great product? The debate is on-going, but they all deliver value to their users. Great PMs have an intimate understanding of their audience, and have a feel for what constitutes above-and-beyond UX.
- Data competence. Which metrics are the best health indicators for your product? Where is your audience dropping off? What’s the quickest way to collate user feedback? These are all questions you’ll need to answer, and you’ll want to be able to manipulate the raw data yourself. Otherwise you’ll never be fast enough.
- Technical expertise. You don’t need to be an engineer, but you’ll need to speak their language.
- Business Acumen. It’s your responsibility to build the product roadmap. You’ll predict trends and monitor competition. You’ll keep one eye on cost and another on key customers. Depending on where you end up, you might even have P&L responsibility. Business acumen will help you separate the important stuff from the noise.
Given these expectations, it may seem impossible to break into a PM as an outsider. It’s not easy. But PM certification can give you a great baseline to draw from while you put in the work. Which brings us to...
What You WON’T Get…
Real-world experience. A classroom is no substitute for the highs and lows of building, shipping, and adapting a real product to real people. If you’ve got your sights set on a PM job at a top-tier tech company, our advice is simple, yet difficult -- find ways to get experience.
You need to work on a product. Whether you’re analyzing your own website or app, or you choose your current employer’s product, try:
- Collecting user feedback. Do some preliminary data analysis, and rank insights on potential business impact. Put together an action plan as if you were the PM for this product. Then, take your work to decision makers and share.
- Working on your product sense. Analyze the apps you use frequently, and try out some competitors. Take note of everything from vague initial impressions to button placement and notification frequency. Then, come up with a few ideas for new features, and detail 1) why your idea is good, 2) how it would work, and 3) if it’s possible to build.
- Leading a diverse team. If you can do this at work, that’s great -- but any group will do. You’re looking for practice balancing and focusing a diverse set of stakeholders, so be creative.
- And ultimately... Shipping product to real users. It doesn’t need to be world-shattering, but you need to create something and put it out into the world. It’s scary, but that’s the job.
Product Management is an art as well as a science, and you can’t escape the need for experience, but you also need to learn the language. PM certification can give you a methodology to work from. And without an industry-standard program like PMP, you have the luxury of choosing a program that suits you.
Here are a few of the best to choose from.
Paid Programs ($$$)
Best for: Those who want something more hands-on/with more personalized instruction, and, those with more money than free time.
If you’re familiar with Lean and/or Agile frameworks, you’re probably familiar with Scaled Agile. Their Product Owner/Product Manager certification (POPM) is something of a two-for-one: you’ll learn basic product management skills as well as the latest principles for Lean enterprises.
Cost: Course cost varies depending on location, but expect to pay a few grand. Exam fee is $50 and Renewal fee is $100.
Duration: 2 Days (intensive)
Location: Many options available. Check the training calendar here.
Online Available?: No.
Curriculum Includes: A solid foundation in Lean/Agile principles including forecasting work, program increment planning, and execution strategies. The ability to tell a compelling product story.
Walk Away With: Course materials, certificate of completion, and a one-year membership to the SAFe Community Platform.
Perfect Fit For: A seasoned PM, or an aspiring PM who wants to get an edge over the competition by incorporating Lean/Agile methodology.
Founded in 2014, Product School boasts a community of 1 million+. With flexible certification programs built to suit your schedule, PS is one of the more accessible paid programs. Industry leaders from Microsoft, Google, and Airbnb (to name a few) will teach you the basics of product management. The only catch? The price tag.
Cost: Starts at $4,199. Payment plans available starting at $149 per month.
Duration: 3 levels of certification available. Levels 1 and 2 are 40 hours each, and level 3 is 20 hours. Both full and part time schedules are available.
Location: Remote. All courses are live, online.
Online Available? Yes.
Curriculum Includes: How to build end-to-end products and manage them throughout their entire lifecycle. Lessons come in the form of group work, real-world case studies, hands-on projects, and mentorship, giving you a realistic preview of what life as a PM is like.
Walk Away With: A foundational education allowing you to build digital products, lead cross-functional teams, and nail typical product management interviews.
Perfect Fit For: Anyone with cash to spend. You don’t need past PM experience to get a lot out of this course, but it’s not cheap.
For a more detailed breakdown of Product School, check out Jeff Lee’s review here.
Pragmatic Institute’s courses follow a slightly different track, as they teach Product Management and Marketing through an in-house framework which draws from PM best practices. Learning a framework might sound limiting, but it seems to work -- per their website, Experian Health improved their feature improvement process by >75% after taking PI training. PI also boasts a data science module as part of its course, which sets it apart.
Cost: $1195 per module, with a few rotating discounts for 2+ modules bought at once.
Duration: Choose an option that suits you. The 7 course class is held live, online, throughout the year.
Online Available?: Yes.
Curriculum Includes: 7 modules (Foundations, Focus, Build, Launch, Price, and The Business of Data Science) emphasizing skills and tools that will help you be both market and data-driven.
Walk Away With: A certificate of completion, tools and templates to use as needed, and access to a large alumni network.
Perfect Fit For: Those with experience and/or a lot of confidence, and anyone who likes to go “a la carte.” Only pay for the modules you want.
Education Only (Free)
Best for: Those on a budget, or with previous PM experience looking to fill in knowledge gaps. Self-directed learners with more time than money.
**Audit classes for free, but you’ll pay a fee if you need a certificate of completion.
With endorsements from Fidelity and The Boston Globe, Boston U’s Digital Product Management MicroMasters will teach you everything you need to know to become a successful digital PM. All course material is available for free -- but you won’t get the same level of one-on-one attention as a paid program, and you won’t walk away with a certificate.
Cost: Free to take all courses, but MicroMasters Certification costs $1995.
Duration: 5 courses at 6-8 weeks per course with an expectation of 4-8 hours work time per week, per course. Next class starts July 29th, 2020.
Online Available?: Yes.
Curriculum Includes: How to create product roadmaps, tools for gathering user information, agile methodology, product launch strategy, life cycle management, etc.
Walk Away With: A solid education, unless you shell out $1995 for the MicroMasters certification.
Best Fit For: Self-starters who want to learn.
Another Agile-focused PM program, University of Alberta’s emphasizes the technical side of product management. It’s a popular choice -- with 33,000+ already enrolled and 4.7/5 stars, you’ll be well-equipped to do it all, whether that means managing a team of developers or interacting with non-technical customers.
Cost: Free to audit courses, but costs $49/month to receive verified certification.
Duration: Roughly 6 months with a 3 hour/week workload. Next course begins June 24th, 2020.
Online Available?: Yes.
Curriculum Includes: Foundations of Agile methodology including Scrum and Extreme Programming, techniques to distill customer needs, planning tools, an overview of relevant metrics, and a capstone project.
Walk Away With: Knowledge, unless you pay for certification.
Best Fit For: Software-oriented PMs, and motivated learners.
Best Value ($)
Best for: Those willing to spend a little bit to get personalized instruction and in-depth education without breaking the bank. Also those specifically interested in tech (as these best-of-both-worlds programs focus on PM roles as they appear in tech companies.)
Exponent’s focus is on testing your PM skills and identifying weak areas, working on those weak spots, and acing product management interviews. The course includes over 20 hours of content as well as 1:1 mentorship from PMs at Google, Facebook, and Airbnb, plenty of practice questions, mock interviews, and a community of thousands to collaborate with. This is the best option to supplement a budget approach (hello, EdX!) with personalized guidance through the last steps in securing your dream PM job.
Cost: $79 per month or $199 per year
Duration: Up to you. The 20+ hours of course content are self-paced, but you’ll be matched with a mentor who will help fill in gaps in your knowledge base.
Online Available?: Yes
Curriculum Includes: Analytical (A/B testing, key metrics), Product Design (brainstorming, product vision, favorite product), Technical, Product strategy, estimation, and behavioral practice questions, a comprehensive glossary of most-often-used PM terms, 1:1 mock interview coaching with an industry insider, and more.
Walk Away With: A killer knowledge base, practice in real-world interview scenarios, personalized feedback, and the thousands-strong community on Slack.
Perfect Fit For: Those with the PM skill set who want to hone their interview abilities. Without an existing PM skill set, take a free course on EdX or Coursera (recommendations below) to fill in knowledge gaps. And stay tuned for Exponent’s soon-to-be-released PM Skills course!
Product Management is multi-disciplinary and it varies from company to company. If you’ve got a diverse background, a high EQ and great leadership and listening skills, you may be the perfect fit -- but the framework is essential.
Paid PM programs will give you the language you need, but you need to be doing real work in parallel. No certification is going to get you a job at a top-tier tech company without experience to back it up. Exponent offers cost-effective courses to help you with core PM skills and interviewing. And it’s all grounded in the real-world. You won’t get the same elsewhere, and you’ll save a bundle in the process.
Whether you decide to go for PM certification or not, once you’ve got the basics down and you’re ready to test yourself check out Exponent’s PM Interview course. And stay tuned for the upcoming PM Skills course -- more details to follow!