/ Product Management

Career Path of a Product Manager

Product management is an ever increasingly popular role. Whether you're an aspiring or a current product manager, you certainly have wondered how your role will look 5 to 10 years down the line. In this article, we will explore how one's PM job responsibilities and compensation evolves as they climb the rungs of the PM career ladder.

Your First PM Job

There are typically 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.

Entry Level - Associate Product Manager

Responsibilities and Skills
Entry level product managers typically are responsible for smaller features within a larger product. They spend their time collecting customer feedback and product usage information. This could be either from looking at quantitative metrics, reading survey feedback, or interviewing users. Such insights help to validate the direction in which the product is going.

Entry level PMs will often work alongside a mid level PM to extract the right insights from the data and to learn about the strategy of the product. Such collaborative work will allow the entry level PM to understand how to contribute to the team's roadmap, gain alignment across the organization, and become well-versed in the problem space and strategy.

Salary and Compensation
The typical starting salary for an entry level PM differs based on location and company. With that said, the average compensation package consists of three components: base salary, stock, and a signing bonus.

I would expect a competitive San Francisco Bay Area entry level PM offer to be in the ballpark of $110k base salary, $100k restricted stock units (4 years), and $30k signing bonus. Again, this is merely a ballpark figure.

Getting to the Next Level
The path from entry level to mid level is the most straightforward. Entry level PMs 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.

Mid Level - Product Manager & Senior Product Manager

Responsibilities and Skills
In a mid level PM role, responsibilities for owning the product become much larger. Mid level PMs will launch more features and own broader roadmaps. Mid level product managers will also work across more teams in the company. The mid level position is one that requires deeper product knowledge and collaboration skills.

Mid level PMs will become the go-to person if someone in the company has a question about the product or needs help. They are well-informed and data-driven when making recommendations. They work closely with roles across the organization such as engineering, design, sales, and marketing. These adjacent roles respect the mid level PM for the insights and recommendations he/she brings to the table.

Mid level PMs are aware of what's happening in the space their product competes in. They know what competitors are doing and use market trends to inform product strategy. All of this helps them develop a point of view for their team's roadmap, which they heavily contribute to.

Salary and Compensation
The compensation range for a mid level PM differs based on seniority, location, and company. Many companies like Google will distinguish between mid level PMs with numbers (PM1, PM2) while other companies like Facebook simply call all product managers, PMs.

I expect a competitive San Francisco Bay Area mid level PM's total compensation package to be in the ballpark of $250k. This is merely an estimated figure based on data points for the first mid level PM role from levels.fyi. As one becomes more senior, they will observe that while the base salary and signing bonus remains relatively constant, a larger and larger chunk of the compensation comes from stock.

Getting to the Next Level
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, mid level PMs need to have made an impact at the mid level position. They are often assigned the problem and they are expected to determine and execute on the solution. 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 they have this potential.

As a senior PM, they will still be exercising a similar set of skills that they were using as a mid level PM. They can show potential for the next level by being decisive and creating clear paths to resolve issues within the team. While they have strong opinions, good mid level PMs actively seek contradictory data to better form their perspectives and opinions.

Product Leader - Group & Principal Product Managers

Responsibilities and Skills
Product leaders, known as group or principal product managers, act as the authoritative owner of their product. They have more direct interactions with company executives. They have a good eye for what is going on in the market and stay on top of new trends. Product managers at this level will be able to filter out which opportunities are important to tackle for the business, and which trends are trivial. They can also identify and anticipate risks.

A big part of being a product leader is gaining buy-in from company executives and also inspiring the team. This includes managing junior product managers. Through this management of people, PMs at this level guide the direction of the major features and functions of their larger product. They will be the source of truth when there is conflict, disagreement, or uncertainty in the team.

Salary and Compensation
The compensation range for a product leader differs based on seniority, location, and company. At this level, a large portion of the total compensation will likely come in the form of shares of stock.

A competitive San Francisco Bay Area product leader's total compensation package is expected to be in the ballpark of $250k to $500k. This is a ballpark figure based on data points for roles at this level from levels.fyi.

Getting to the Next Level
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 them 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. These 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, one's manager will present both the problem as well as a well-scoped solution to build. At the mid level, the 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 will 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, or 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.

Executive Level - Director & Vice President

Responsibilities and Skills
At the executive level (director or VP), time will be spent on managing multiple teams and product lines. Here, product managers move away from owning one product and focus more on making sure multiple teams are running effectively.

Executive level product managers work to build the team up through optimizing processes and regularly meeting with team members to stay up to date on what's happening. Individuals are deeply focused on their individual features or products, and executive level product managers are responsible for the broad success of the business as a whole.

Executives are also the face of the company at conferences and in the media. They decide and own strategic initiatives within the business. They are the liaison between the product team and C-level stakeholders. This is important for alignment and to obtain the right amount of budgeting for the team.

Executive level PMs face problems that they have not previously encountered. However, there will be common threads in these new problems (scaling, spam/fraud, SEO, etc). They have the frameworks to mentally identify the type of problem they're facing, work with PMs who are experts in that subject matter, and then help the team find the answer. As former head of growth at Instagram Bangaly Kaba says, executive level PMs should be able to have 30% of the context, identify what's wrong, and help the team course correct.

At the executive level, product leaders are more involved with communicating between people and teams, rather than getting into the weeds of matters. They communicate across to other executives and up to the C-suite and board members at a high level about what and why the products in their portfolio are building what they're building. Similarly, they communicate down to individual contributor product managers of all levels about the strategy, while building trust in the team.

Salary and Compensation
The compensation range for an executive level PM differs based on one's prior role, location, and company. At the executive level, differences in compensation swings more drastically than in lower level product roles.

A competitive San Francisco Bay Area executive level PM's annual total compensation package can vary from $500k to the $1M mark and beyond.

While one's base salary may not change much from a senior PM's, executives will get larger profit sharing incentives as well as more shares of the company stock. Another factor is one's prior role. If an executive is being poached from a competitor for example, it is not unlikely that they will be compensated very favorably for making that move.

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.

To prepare for your next PM interview, enroll in Exponent's product management course today.