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

How to Become a PM: The Ultimate Product Manager Career Path Guide
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Hey there! Want to land a job as a product manager? We’ve got you covered.

Our product manager interview course can help you nail any interview question. Written with the help of 20+ Google, Meta, and startup product managers.

Many tech professionals choose the product manager career path because it offers responsibilities and job duties that are both exciting and rewarding.

Product managers have a great deal of influence on their company. They manage complex products and collaborate with team members from all departments.

You may be familiar with what product managers do or have previously worked with them. But do you know what the typical PM career path looks like?

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We certainly have lots of insights into the PM career path! Our co-founder Stephen Cognetta was a product manager at Google.

Your First Product Management Job

People usually get into product management in one of two ways:

  • through an Associate Product Management (APM) program
  • or by moving laterally to product management within their own company.

APM programs give recent college graduates and people early in their careers a chance to get into product management.

Marissa Mayer, a Google product manager, made the first APM program in the early 2000s. At the time, Google needed a way to find raw talent that it couldn't get from hiring people from the industry.

Since then, other businesses have started using APM programs like Google's.

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Each year, thousands of people apply to open APM roles. There is a lot of competition for APM roles (arguably even more competitive than experienced product manager roles).

Most people get into product management by moving from one part of their company to another. After all, PM is an interdisciplinary role in and of itself.

Most of these people worked closely with product managers in their jobs. Some jobs are software engineering, designing products, being a data analyst, selling, marketing, and helping customers.

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Want to make an internal transition to product management? Check out our guide to transitioning to product from any other role. 

If you want to move into product management on the inside, try to work as closely as possible with the PM and slowly take on the tasks that a PM would normally do.

You can add value by using the skills you learned in your previous job, such as:

  • technical knowledge,
  • data analysis,
  • or an intuitive sense of how things should work.

Level 1: Associate Product Manager (APM)

What does an Associate Product Manager Do?

Besides interns, entry-level product managers are called Associate Product Managers (APMs).

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APMs work with other product managers in larger companies. Smaller organizations may not have APMs on their teams.

APMs are often fresh out of university or new to their career.

They take care of things like:

  • smaller aspects of product development,
  • gathering customer feedback,
  • organizing data.

This includes reviewing quantitative metrics, conducting customer surveys, and more.

APMs may be able to influence the product development roadmap using this data. Working closely with mid-level product managers allows them to learn the fundamentals of product management and move up to higher positions later.

Average Associate Product Manager (APM) Salary:

APM salaries vary based on company and 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.

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

Getting Promoted from APM

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

As an APM, you'll work side by side with more senior Product Managers and learn how to prioritize and make product decisions.

To become a full-fledged PM, you'll need to be proactive in your learning and be open to feedback on how you can help the team work better together.

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Demonstrate that you can be trusted to make timely and data-driven decisions, and you'll be given more scope to own. 

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

APMs make about $80,000 annually, while Product Directors bring in closer to $200,000.

Level 2: Product Manager

What Does a Product Manager Do?

If you're looking to become a Product Manager, expect to spend 1-3 years as an Associate Product Manager first.

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Product Managers serve as the first point of contact within a company if anyone needs to know more about the product.

PMs work with different roles and departments:

  • engineering,
  • design,
  • sales,
  • and marketing.

You may even work with Technical Program Managers to deliver results on larger projects.

PMs provide teams data-driven insights and suggestions regarding a company's products.

PMs must understand their competitive space, including their main competitors, to develop a compelling product vision and strategy that achieves the company's goals.

Some even call them β€œmini-CEOs”!

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Check out our guide to the Top Product Manager Interview Questions. These questions and answers can help you nail your interviews and climb the PM ladder.

Average Product Manager Salary:

Product manager salaries can also differ dramatically depending on the organization.

The average product manager's salary is around $112,000/year. Although, some product management positions pay as low as $80,000/year.

This is a significant increase in the salary of most associate product manager roles.

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

Getting Promoted from Product Manager

If you're aiming for a senior Product Manager role, it will take more effort than initial mid-level roles.

To rise to this level, you need to have made an impact at your organization and show that you can solve and execute tasks assigned to you.

At the next level, Senior PMs need to:

  • demonstrate their potential by finding the problem,
  • coming up with solutions,
  • and being decisive when resolving issues within the team.

Even if your opinion is strong, good mid-level PMs take the time to seek additional data that may contradict their views to form their perspectives and opinions.

Level 3: Senior Product Manager

What Does a Senior Product Manager Do?

After 3 - 5 years of working as a Product Manager, you can move to a Senior PM role.

It carries similar responsibility to the mid-level PM role but with PMs or APMs working under you.

Your job is to help your team develop goals and actualize the product vision. You may also bear more of the burden in developing the broader product roadmap.

Senior PMs must communicate with upper management and represent their teams at high-level meetings.

Along with this increased authority comes a greater need for understanding products and markets than mid-level roles require.

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To become successful, brush up on product management books by experienced senior PMs making difficult decisions.

Average Senior Product Manager Salary:

After working for many years, most Senior Product Managers will command large salaries.

The average senior product manager's salary is around $146,000/year.

Senior Product Managers at FAANG+ companies can be paid $250,000+/year. They also usually get 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.

It can take at least 5 years to advance to a product leadership position.

Level 4: Product Leaders

What Does a Product Leader Do?

Product Leaders are a step up from Senior Product Managers in many companies.

They might also be called Group Product Managers or Principal Product Managers.

Group Product Managers vs. Principal Product Managers
Group Product Managers and Principal Product Managers are both lucrative PM careers, but which is right for you?

If you've been promoted to this position, you’ve likely been in product management for some time.

The unique thing about the role of a product leader is that you can choose to:

  • go into management
  • or stay in your current role as an individual contributor.

Some may decide to manage as a Group Product Manager, while others prefer to stay solo as a Principal Product Manager.

Product Leaders are responsible for the direction of their product.

Other PMs will look up to them and report to them on the daily tasks related to the development, strategy, and vision of the products. They have an essential job, as they must decide which opportunities should be pursued and which should not.

Additionally, they must communicate with higher-level executives across departments - not just product-related ones.

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 requires things like:

  • deeper leadership,
  • accountability,
  • and strategy skills.

Many product managers may spend the rest of their careers in senior, group, or principal product manager capacity.

Making the jump to the next level is the toughest. Being good at individual contributions 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 individual contributors to influencing people to be good at doing their jobs.

In early PM roles, your manager will present the problem and 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 roles and funding.

This means 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.

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Tips for Promotion: 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.

Start to transition from being good at your job to training others to be 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's career path is dependent on the organization and how you choose to stand out.

Level 5: Director of Product

What Does a Director of Product Do?

If you're a product leader, the next step may be becoming a Director of Product or Product Management Director.

This can range from one of the highest executive roles in an organization at smaller companies to having several Directors reporting to a Vice-President at larger companies.

You will move away from hands-on product work as a Director and take on more big-picture tasks.

The PM Director oversees the organization's product management and ensures it runs efficiently with the best product outcomes.

They report to C-Suite executives about their 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.

Level 6: Vice-President of Product

What Does a VP of Product Do?

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 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. VPs of Product will report directly to the CEO on product goals and strategy.

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Big Tech PMs: As is the case for Directors, the biggest tech companies (especially MAANG+) 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.

It's rare for VPs of Product to have less than 10 or more years of product management 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.

Level 7: Chief Product Officer

What Does a Chief Product Officer Do?

Companies with product management teams may not always have a Chief Product Officer (CPO).

However, larger companies tend to include CPOs as part of their C-Suite. The role of the CPO is similar to that of a Chief Technology Officer when it comes to product.

They report to the CEO and are in charge of overseeing all product activities at their company.

The CPO will have several VPs or Directors who they manage and help set the big-picture vision for the company's product strategy. Becoming a CPO requires experience in the field for up to 20 years and building an impressive resume.

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:

πŸ’¬ Review more commonly asked sample PM interview questions.

πŸ“– Read through our company-specific Product Manager interview guides

πŸ‘―β€β™‚οΈ Practice your behavioral and leadership skills with our mock interview practice tool.

πŸ‘¨β€πŸŽ“ Take our complete Product Management interview course.

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