How to Become a PM: The Ultimate Product Manager Career Path Guide

Many tech professionals follow a product manager career path because it blends responsibilities. Take a closer look at product management as a career from APM to Director of Product.

Many tech professionals follow a product manager career path because it blends responsibilities and exciting job duties.

Product managers are often called "mini-CEOs" because of the influence they have at a company. They manage complex products and work with team members in all departments.

While you may be familiar with or have worked alongside product managers before, you may not know what the typical PM career path looks like.

It's safe to say we know a lot about the product manager career path! After all, one of our co-founders, Stephen Cognetta, was a product manager at Google.

Let's take a closer look at the career path of a product manager.

Table of Contents

Your First Product Management Job

Typically, there are 2 ways folks find their way into product management: through an Associate Product Management (APM) program or by making a lateral move to product internally within their company.

APM programs provide college new grads and early-career professionals the chance to break into product management.

The original APM program was developed in the early 2000s by, then-Google product manager, Marissa Mayer.

At the time, Google needed some way to recruit the raw talent it couldn't obtain from industry hires.

Since then, other companies have adopted their own APM programs similar to Google's. Many thousands of applicants apply each year.

As you can imagine, APM roles are very competitive (arguably even more competitive than experienced product manager roles).

The more common way people break into product management is by moving laterally within their own company. After all, PM is in and of itself an interdisciplinary role.

Most of these people were in a role that worked very closely with product managers. Some of these roles include software engineering, product design, data analysts, sales, marketing, and customer support.

If you are making an internal transition to product management, try to work as closely with the PM as you possibly can and slowly take on responsibilities that a PM would normally perform.

You can add value by leveraging the expertise you have from your original role, whether that's technical knowledge, data analysis, or design intuition.

What does an Associate Product Manager Do?

Image Credit: Transistor by Елизавета Губа

Job Responsibilities and Duties

First and foremost, the most entry-level product manager position, besides interns, are associate product managers.

Generally speaking, APMs will work under other product managers in larger companies. Smaller organizations may not include APMs on their product teams at all.

Associate product managers are typically fresh out of university or early in their careers. They are tasked with handling smaller or more focused aspects of product development.

They assist other product managers on their team to gather customer feedback along with other relevant product data. This may include reviewing quantitative metrics, conducting customer surveys, and more.

Using this data, APMs can help influence the product development roadmap, if need be.

Associate product managers almost always work closely with mid-level product managers, which allows them to deeply learn about product management fundamentals and advance into a more senior PM position.

Average Associate Product Manager (APM) Salary:

APM salaries vary based on company and by location. The average salary for an APM is around $80,000/year.

However, APM salaries can be as high as $120,000/year or as low as $60,000/year.

Stock options and signing bonuses are also available for some APM positions, but this depends on the organization.

Getting Promoted from APM

The path from entry level to mid level is the most straightforward.

Associate product managers require guidance to deliver outcomes. As they are working side by side with more senior PMs, they learn how to prioritize and make product decisions.

Entry level PMs are especially proactive in their learning and react well to feedback on how they can better help the team work well together.

As they succeed and demonstrate that they can be trusted to make timely and data-driven decisions, entry level PMs will be given more and more scope to own.

After roughly two years of working in an entry level product position, they can expect to be promoted to a mid level product role.

What Does a Product Manager Do?

Transistor by Елизавета Губа

Job Responsibilities and Duties

Once promoted from an associated product manager, you will step into the mid-level position of product manager. As mentioned, product managers are also called mini-CEOs by some.

You may have to spend 1 -3 years working as an APM before being promoted to a full product manager.

Product managers are the first point of contact for anyone at the company if they need to know more about the product.

PMs typically work alongside many different roles and departments, especially engineering, design, sales, and marketing. They also work under technical program managers to deliver results on larger programs.

Product managers are tasked with providing these teams with data-driven insights and suggestions regarding a company's product(s).

Product managers must thoroughly understand the competitive space their products occupy, along with what their primary competitors are doing.

From there, PMs must develop product vision and strategy to help achieve the company's goals.

Average Product Manager Salary:

Product manager salaries can also differ dramatically depending upon the organization. The average product manager salary is around $112,000/year. This is a significant increase over the salary of most associate product manager roles.

Some product managers can command substantially larger salaries based on their seniority and location. Product managers in San Francisco, for example, will likely be paid upwards of $200,000+/year, especially at FAANG companies.  

Although, some product management positions pay as low as $80,000/year.

Getting Promoted from Product Manager

The path from a mid-level PM to that of a senior role is still straightforward, but will require more effort.

To get to a senior product management position, you need to have made an impact at the mid level position.

You must show that you can solve and execute on the problems you're assigned.

At the next level, senior PMs are responsible for both finding the problem and coming up with the solution. It is important to show that you have this potential.

As a senior PM, you will still be exercising a similar set of skills that you were using as a mid level PM.

You can show potential for the next level by being decisive and creating clear paths to resolve issues within the team.

While you may have strong opinions, good mid level PMs actively seek contradictory data to better form their perspectives and opinions.

What Does a Senior Product Manager Do?

Transistor by Marina Fedoseenko

Job Responsibilities and Duties

After a few successful years (typically 3 -5) of working as a product manager, you can move up to the Senior Product Manager role.

The responsibility of a Senior Product Manager is similar to that of the mid-level PM role. However, Senior PMs will usually have some PMs or APMs working under them.

Together, they collaborate to drive development goals and actualize the product vision. Nevertheless, Senior PMs may bear more of the burden in developing the broader product roadmap.

Senior PMs are responsible for communicating with upper management. They will represent the PMs working under them in high-level meetings.

Because the role naturally involves a greater level of authority, Senior PMs need a deeper degree of product and marketing understanding than their mid-level counterparts.

If you're in the process of becoming a senior PM, we recommend brushing up on your product management reading!

These top books on product management were written by fellow senior product managers making tough decisions.

Average Senior Product Manager Salary:

After working for many years, most Senior Product Managers will command large salaries. The average senior product manager salary is is around $146,000/year.

Senior Product Managers at FAANG companies can be paid $250,000+/year and will almost always be offered stock options packages between $40,000 - $200,000/year. However, the specifics of the stock offerings depend on the company.

Senior Product Managers are rarely paid less than $110,000/year.


What Does a Product Leader Do?

Image Credit: Transistor by Елизавета Губа

Job Responsibilities and Duties

A step above Senior Product Managers at some companies are the Product Leaders (although they may not necessarily go by that name). Many organizations, instead, refer to these individuals as Group Product Managers or Principal Product Managers.

If you've been promoted to this role, you have been in product management for several years now. However, the unique aspect of the product leader role is the choice to move into management or to remain an individual contributor.

Some may decide to jump into a managerial role as a Group Product Manager. Whereas others may want to remain an IC as a Principal Product Manager.

Either way, product leaders are the definitive owners of their particular products. Many other PMs either look up to them or directly report to product leaders in their day-to-day responsibilities.

Product Leaders frequently communicate with higher-level executives from several different departments, not just product.

They will also wield significant influence on the direction of the development, strategy, and vision of the products they are developing. It is up to them to prioritize those opportunities that should be pursued and those that shouldn't.

Average Group Product Manager or Principal Product Manager Salary

While product leaders (group product managers or principal product managers) are above Senior PMs on the product manager career path, they may not be compensated dramatically differently.

The average salary for a group product manager or principal product manager is around $170,000/year. Some principal product managers could be paid as low as $130,000/year or as high as $260,000+/year.

Like other PM positions, Product Leaders could be offered even more generous stock option packages from around $80,000 to $200,000+/year.

Getting Promoted from Product Leader

The product leader position is one that requires deeper leadership, accountability, and strategy skills. Many product managers may spend the rest of their careers in either a senior, group, or principal product manager capacity.

Making the jump to the next level is the toughest. Being good at contributing at the individual level has gotten you promoted this far. But getting to the next step will require a whole other set of skills: people skills.

Reforge outlines in "Crossing the Canyon: Product Manager to Product Leader" that the skills that got product managers to the product leader role will not get them to the executive level.

PMs must transition from being good at their job as an individual contributor, to influencing people to be good at doing their jobs.

In early PM roles, your manager will present both the problem as well as a well-scoped solution to build.

At the mid level, your manager will present the problem, but the solution will not be clear, as that is for the mid level PM to figure out.

As mid level PMs grow into senior PMs, they find sub-problems to the problems handed to them, or problems their manager isn't seeing. They would then be expected to communicate that problem and solution to help the business.

Being promoted to an executive is also much more difficult than previous promotions, as this requires availability in both role and funding.

This means either the business is doing very well so an executive position opens up. Perhaps an executive leaves so the team needs someone to step up and fill that role.

To put your best foot forward to get to the next level, discover new opportunities in research, bring them to the team, prioritize, and make recommendations.

Go to the executive team and propose that the team needs additional resources allocated to solve the problem on-hand.

Start to transition from being good at your job, to training others to being good at theirs. Finally, move from relying on the personal scope you are given, to creating more scope for the organization in a meaningful manner.

At this level, the product manager career path is dependent on the organization and how you choose to stand out.

What Does a Director of Product Do?

Image Credit: Transistor by Alexandra Manokhina

Job Responsibilities and Duties

If a product leader decided on the managerial track, their next rung in the ladder would be a Director of Product (or Director of Product Management at some companies).

Depending on the size of the company, this could be one of the highest executive product roles in an organization. However, at larger companies, there could be several Directors reporting to a Vice-President.

While you undoubtedly worked in product management for many years, at this point, you will take a step back from hands-on product work as a Director.

A director-level role in product management is primarily a big-picture strategy and leadership role.

Needless to say, Directors of PM will be directing product management as a whole in their organization. They are ultimately responsible for all the product managers that work under them, even if they are not the direct reports for many of them.

It is up to these Directors to develop more efficient product management processes, maintain and enhance the performance of PM teams, and, above all, deliver the best products possible.

As a product management executive, Directors of Product must report to some of the highest-level or C-Suite executives regarding product goals and development.

Average Director of Product Salary:

Directors of Product are compensated similarly to Product Leaders or Principal Product Managers. The national average salary for Directors of Product is around $175,000/year.

Some PM Directors can be paid as low as $130,000/year or as high as $300,000/year.

While the salaries of PM Directors and Product Leaders are similar, PM Directors receive significantly more generous stock option packages, especially at FAANG companies. Stock option packages for PM Directors are typically around $250,000/year to $500,000/year.


What Does a Vice-President of Product Do?

Image Credit: Transistor by Елизавета Губа

Job Responsibilities and Duties

If a company employs multiple Directors of Product Management, they may report to a Vice-President of Product Management.

These VPs are even less involved in the day-to-day product development that product managers regularly conduct.

In many cases, the Vice-President of Product can also be the highest level product executive in an organization. In these cases, VPs of Product will report directly to the CEO of the company on product goals and strategy.

Nevertheless, as is the case for Directors, the biggest tech companies (especially FAANG) will employ several VPs of Product, all of which may have a dedicated product line.

Vice-Presidents of Product are responsible for managing and developing a company's entire product set.

An individual will rarely become a VP of Product with less than 10 or more years of previous product and managerial experience.

Average VP of Product Salary:

Vice-President of Product Management is one of the topmost roles in the product manager career path. As such, they are typically one of the most highly compensated product managers.

The national average salary for VPs of Product is $207,000+/year.

However, the salary range for VPs can be as low as $150,000/year to $300,000+/year.

Like PM Directors, Vice-Presidents of Product Management may receive substantial stock option packages ranging from $350,000+/year up to $600,000/year.


What Does a Chief Product Officer Do?

Image Credit: Transistor by Alexandra Manokhina

Job Responsibilities and Duties

Not every company with product management teams will have a Chief Product Officer. However, the top companies typically will include CPOs in their C-Suite.

Chief Product Officers are to Product what Chief Technology Officers are to technology in their organizations.

In many cases, CPOs will work alongside other members of the C-Suite and report to the CEO. They are tasked with overseeing and managing all product-related activity at their company.

Chief Product Officers will usually have several VPs or Directors of Product working under and reporting to them. Together, these executives are responsible for driving the big picture vision and development goals of the company's product strategy.

A company will only have one Chief Product Officer, and the professional experience necessary for this role is substantial. You may need to work in the field for 15 - 20 years to build the required resume to be considered for such a role.

Average Chief Product Officer Salary:

Chief Product Officer is as high as the PM career ladder goes. As a member of the C-Suite, CPOs can command enormous salaries.

The national average salary for a Chief Product Officer is around $210,000/year.

Chief Product Managers may receive similar salaries to VPs or PM Directors. They may be paid as low as $150,000/year to $350,000+/year.

The majority of a Chief Product Officer's compensation will be in the form of equity. How much equity they receive depends on the company, whether the company is raising seed funding, and whether the CPO position is considered a co-founder.

Nevertheless, CPOs could receive stock option packages between $400,000 all the way up to $1,000,000.

Closing Thoughts

Driving one's career in the right trajectory requires both a successful track record in shipping features and products and having good relationships with those in the levels above you. If your work is impactful and visible, you will be noticed.

Early on in your career, focus on picking up new skills. This can be technical, analytical, or UX knowledge.

Use that to make an impact on your day to day job. Later on in your career, focus on soft skills: leadership, communication, conflict management. Be able to lead without authority, communicate effectively, and be the liaison between your team and those not directly in your circle.

Finally, initiate career conversations with your manager at least once a year. Unless you say something, your manager will likely assume you are content with where you are.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Product Manager Career Path

Product Manager Interview Prep

Looking to jump into becoming a product manager or looking to move up the product manager career path? Be sure to check out all our product management interview prep here at Exponent:

💬 Review more commonly asked sample PM interview questions.

📖 Read through our company-specific Product Manager interview guides

👯‍♂️ Practice your behavioral and leadership skills with our mock interview practice tool.

👨‍🎓 Take our complete Product Management interview course.

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