Executive Director’s Perspective on how to become a product manager

Greg Coticchia, Executive Director, Product Management ProgramI wasn’t supposed to end up here in my career. Seriously.

I am, as they say in academic circles, “from ‘industry.” I don’t have a Ph.D. I never aspired to be a researcher. And while I have taught for more than a decade at the graduate level, I was never part of the academic ecosystem. I was an outsider; I like to think I still am.

I have led or been a major contributor to two of the most successful software companies in the world. I have worked in 14 startups, founded four, and have held executive positions for better than two-thirds of my career. I have served as a CEO several times and have been involved or responsible for the launch of more than 100 products. In all of these roles I was a product manager or led product management.

Today, I’m very proud to be the executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s new Master’s in Product Management (MSPM) program.

As a result of my work experience, I know first-hand the strategic, tactical and operational challenges product managers face across the entire life cycle of products – from idea to end of life. I have been a part of product management and in a product manager role as it has matured in definition and visibility. That’s been very rewarding. What’s equally rewarding is seeing the visibility and impact that product managers have in the market today.

More than 25 years ago I wrote this definition: “Product managers are responsible for the overall, worldwide well-being of a product, from its initial conception (or acquisition evaluation), to initial roll-out, to the maximization of profits as the product matures. They directly manage a product’s strategic positioning in the marketplace, the creation of collateral materials, and the ongoing evaluation on how to best present the product to potential customers. Product managers also monitor the development, sales, customer support, international marketing, and customer training activities related to a product to ensure the coordination and consistency of the overall product plan and presentation in the marketplace. The product plan should allow for differing international positioning, where applicable, formulated by the international marketing organization, and its activities should be consistent with the policies, procedures, and overall corporate marketing strategy.”

Much has changed in product development – especially for software products – here’s a more up-to-date definition of product management from IT World, July 3, 2018:

“Product managers are responsible for understanding the market, audience and demand for a software, hardware or service. A product manager typically acts as the point person throughout a project’s life-cycle. It is a role that requires you to balance input, concerns and feedback from multiple departments, key stakeholders, business leaders, customers and clients. The product manager role also requires an understanding of technology and business, as product managers must understand which products are worth developing and how they’ll directly impact the business. Whether it’s an internal or external product, product managers are responsible for understanding everyone’s needs and expectations and then translating that across departments.”

Product management is a complex role that requires a balance of soft and hard skills to manage requirements and deliver quality products that align with business goals.

As you can imagine as a result of how this role has evolved, product managers are in demand, so now is the time to learn how to become a product manager.

Data shows that product managers are in the top 10 roles that are hardest to fill across the information technology sector. Businesses are struggling to fill the roles with product managers who have not only a technical background, but also the experience behind them. There is a scarcity of good product managers with the experience or skills needed to scale a product. As a result, recent reports indicate that product managers are now among the highest paid positions in the tech sector.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary range for a product manager is $74,000 to $150,000 per year, depending on location, seniority and experience. As you grow in your career, so will your salary. The average salary for an entry level or associate project manager is around $81,000. Senior product managers earn an average salary of $131,995 per year, while those at the director level report an average salary of $161,090 per year.

So why aren’t there more product managers?

One reason is the lack of solid opportunities for education.

You can become a product manager by getting a certification or taking an online course, and these are fine ways to proceed in your quest for knowledge about product management. But it’s clear that more formal training is required. And market demand certainly exists.

That’s why I am delighted to be at Carnegie Mellon University, running the world’s first and only graduate degree in product management. With world-leading schools in computer science and business, CMU uniquely fulfills the education that product managers require in both technology and business.

In Harvard Business Review’s December 2017 issue, in her article entitled “What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager,” Julia Austin states:

“Aspiring product managers should consider three primary factors when evaluating a role: core competenciesemotional intelligence (EQ), and company fit. The best product managers I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ, and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the design team, the best product managers create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.”

I couldn’t agree more. But like a lot of recent articles on product management, Julia leaves out much of the strategy components of what makes a great product manager. The core competencies aren’t about just doing great customer interviews and running sprints. Great product managers know and appreciate strategy. Without a strategic plan for your product, how will you solve the tactical-level details that pop up during product development?

In some ways the advent of agile/scrum has made the product manager role more tactical, which is unfortunate. But I do believe that will change in the future. It’s issues like these that modern product managers will face in their careers – in jobs that will continue to be essential, demanding and ever-changing.

It’s also these issues, at this inflection point in my career, that make me want to help students as they enter and graduate from our new MSPM program. Helping to create the next generation of product managers who will impact the products and offerings we use, and developing and coaching the talent who will create the next generation of technology-driven products truly excites me.

So, maybe I was supposed to end up here in my career.

Interested? Come join us. Apply before August 1 and start our one-year program in January!

I’ll see you in Pittsburgh,

Greg Coticchia

Executive Director

Master of Science in Product Management (MSPM)

Carnegie Mellon University