What do companies really want from a product manager?
Breaking into product management can be a daunting task; it’s difficult to define exactly where to get started in product, and what skills you’ll need to hone to get there.
The role of product management is unique in that it doesn’t have strict and well-defined skill set. A PM at one company might require a very different background than a PM at another. Most famously, the product managers at Google are put through tough technical interviews to secure the job, while the PMs at Facebook typically aren’t, and don’t usually get hired for any technical knowhow.
So, I decided to analyze a large set of product manager job descriptions, hoping that it would help aspiring PMs identify some important talking points, as well as identify some areas that current PMs (myself included) can improve on.
The Bottom Line First:
- MBAs are required in only 1% of PM jobs descriptions. So the investment of 2 years and $150k might not be necessary.
- The average years of experience in product required to land one of the PM jobs is 3.2 years, but this varies depending on company location and size (Bay Area companies require less)
- Technical background or experience is a consistent trend, and many jobs are looking for PMs that can bring product insights and engineering focus together.
- If you’re interested in getting more PM-related analysis, please considering subscribing to my newsletter, PM Lunch, a weekly product email newsletter.
The Data Set: A Bunch of Different Job Posts
I collected PM job descriptions from 125 different companies using Glassdoor’s jobs listings section, which aggregates job posts from across the Internet. I also ensured to sample from SF, South Bay, NYC, and Seattle to see if there were any differences across locations (there were several big differences).
Most job descriptions are segmented into three parts. Responsibilities (what the role will do day-to-day), the requirements (education & background), and then some kind of explanation of the company or why the role is requisitioned (which I classified as a preamble).
I cataloged company name, location, Glassdoor rating, preamble, responsibilities, requirements, and years required. I added in company size and industry by using data from Crunchbase. Ultimately, this was mostly collected by hand, as job postings were not uniformly formatted, and a bit of human touch was needed to determine that “What you’ll be doing” and “you’ll become a master at” were both referring to the “responsibility” section.
Key Takeaway #1: The MBA Is Not Required for an Product Positions
In an article titled, “Where do Product Managers Come From,” author Alon Porat analyzed his LinkedIn connections, and found that 1 in 4 Product Managers hold an MBA, which leads us to think that an MBA is a pre-requisite or at least a strongly preferred qualification.
However, in the data set of PM job descriptions, keywords relating to a business or other masters degree appeared in only 16% of all job descriptions, and of those, 90% mentioned that the MBA was only a “plus,” meaning that product managers do not necessarily need a business school on their resume order to land a job in product. Only 2 job descriptions in the data set listed this as a requirement.
Key Takeaway #2: Years of Experience Required Varies Across Location and Company Size
Every company listed the years of previous product experience in their requirements section, and on average, 3.2 years experience in product was the average needed for applying to these roles.
This, in and of itself, speaks to the difficulty of breaking into product from the first place. If you didn’t get hired through university recruiting, or shifted disciplines from within an organization, it can be hard to get your foot in the door.
However, there was a difference in the average years of experience required for the job based on location of the company. Fims outside of the Bay area required significantly more years experience for PMs than companies in San Francisco or South Bay. Specifically, PM positions in NYC required 23% more years experience than the jobs offered in South Bay companies.
One might have argued that there is a different make up of industries in each of the location, which would affect the years required. However, when you compare requirement for companies within a single industry, the non-Bay companies still needed a larger amount of years of experience than Bay Area ones.
Why is this the case? The Silicon Valley culture of entrepreneurship may value results than experience, as VCs and early employees take a shot on new startups, so a lower requirement for PMs would make sense as well. Taking a risk on a promising candidate could potentially have a larger pay off down the road.
In the same vein, company size played a factor in years required for product positions. Smaller companies (less than 500 employees) required 2.98 years of experience for PMs, and large companies (5000 or more) required 3.67 years of experience. Startup companies likely value culture fit and results-oriented over experience.
The takeaway here for aspiring PMs is, that while there is a barrier to entry in product roles, there are types of companies that are more likely to accept promising candidates with less experience. The data suggests startups in the bay area have the least product-experience years required.
Key Takeaway #3: Important Keywords You Should Consider from the Job Descriptions
If your goal is to break into a PM job, you’ll want to consider what the important keywords are that the hiring managers are consistently putting into their job descriptions. When crafting your resume or spiffing up LinkedIn profile, crafting your experience to match the job posting is an excellent way to get through to the interview stage.
Here are the terms that appeared most frequently in the job posts:
Let’s piece together a narrative based on the common word choices.
On the requirements side, companies are looking a PM who has experience building technical products, who works across different functional teams, and can use data and analytics to plan and design new features.
Gleaming insight for the responsibilities portions, the PM will help drive the development of new features, defining the roadmap based on customer or business needs, while supporting marketing and engineering teams.
You’ll notice that there are several frequent keywords that focus on the technical skills a PM has. Also, 20% of the listings required or strongly preferred that the candidate have a BS in computer science or a related field.
In practice, while PMs don’t always need to be most technical person on the team, working with engineers is an absolute must. The job descriptions are heavy indicator that hiring managers want product people versed in at least some technical knowledge, in order to be able to bring product specifications to life. So if you might lack in that regard, make sure to demonstrate how you can clearly communicate plans to a team, and executing on it to the finish line.
If you’re at the stage that you know you want to attempt switching career paths to product management at a tech company, your best bet is to carefully examine some of the job postings at your target companies, and make sure that your resume and experience are messaged in the right format.
Product managers come from all sorts of different backgrounds, so while you might be able to excel at the role, it’s also key to make sure that it’s articulated the right way. Hiring managers want to know that you’ll be able to identify and prioritize the right features, communicate a detailed specification, and collaborate with engineers and designers along the way.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider recommending it (pressing the new waving hand icon below) so that others can find it.