Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

What are my career options after product management?

Posted on March 2, 2009 · 9 Comments

Question: What other roles can product managers fill besides managing product managers?

I’m in my 40s now and have reached the Product Management Director level, managing enterprise software product lines and a handful of product managers and user interface designers. I’ve been successful in bringing products to market and generating over $30MM in product revenues over the course of my career. In today’s woeful economic climate and a desire to balance work and family life and possibly downsize one’s lifestyle and career aspirations, what alternative career paths do you see in a post-product management path that doesn’t include aspiring to VP or CEO levels?

Answer from Marty Cagan of Silicon Valley Product Group: There is no question that leading a product management team is one of the most demanding and high-stress jobs in a company. In a very real sense, this role drives the future success of the company. It’s not unusual for people to spend some time at this level and decide that they miss having a life. Fortunately, the experience in this role turns out to be very useful for other, less stressful positions:

Principle Product Manager – This is a very senior product manager, but the key is that they are no longer responsible for managing people. You might be given a particularly challenging product, or often your job is to provide that holistic view of product and help the other product managers. But as an individual contributor your stress level will be much lower.

Interaction Designer – If you have talent and skills in interaction design, or if you have the aptitude and desire for some more education, this role of interaction designer is in extreme demand and can be very rewarding without the pressure associated with being ultimately responsible for the product. There are some good programs ranging from as short as two-days to help provide training to product manager types in this area.

Product Marketing – You can certainly leverage your product management experience by taking your knowledge and helping the sales or marketing organizations to spread the word. Without the pressure of ultimate responsibility, you can spend your time sharing what you know rather than being responsible for coming up with the actual products.

Online Marketing – This is really where marketing meets product, and this is a rapidly evolving field where you can often make a big impact for your company (especially in lowering the customer acquisition costs). Your knowledge of product and the people required to get changes implemented will prove a big help.

While there are many other positions in the company that would benefit from your knowledge, these four are all individual contributor spots that will most leverage your value.

9 other answers so far ↓

  • Qlubb-Andy // Mar 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    One of the great things about product management is that you touch nearly every place in the organization. Product managers need to have a very mixed bag of skills and yet, they often are really good (and/or enjoy) a few. Those skills can be put to work on a more specific role. For instance, I have one product manager who worked for me who ended up being an evangelist because he was extremely articulate and loved meeting people. Another went into engineering as a manager because he liked being technical. Still another went into consulting. Another twist — join a provider of solutions for product managers. Your experience as a product manager will help almost any role at a company that provides products or services to product managers.

  • David Locke // Mar 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    VP Dev, CTO, CMO, CEO, or PMM. Anything else is south, and once you go south, north is nevermore, unfortunately.

    There would be a lot to learn in any of those positions. One of them should have been your destination when you took your PM job.

    You might roll your own. Startup. Then, you could do as much, or as little as you could afford to buy.

    If none of that matters, move over to social Entrepreneuralism . There are plenty of needs now and in the forseeable future.

  • April Dunford // Mar 19, 2009 at 9:45 am

    While I agree with some of the points made in this post, I disagree with how “Product Marketing” has been characterized. I’ve been a product marketing executive for 15 years and not once have I ever considered it to be a “step down” from product management, nor would I ever council a burned-out product manager to move to product marketing because there is less “pressure”. The idea that product marketers spend all day merely “sharing what they know” and are not responsible for the success of a product is just plain wrong.
    Product marketers are responsible for and compensated based on the revenue driven by the product. They are directly responsible for making sales people more effective. In my roles I have also been responsible for the market strategy which means that I have been very much responsible for “actual products”. If your product marketing folks aren’t feeling intense stress around the end of the quarter, they’re doing it wrong.
    I agree that individual contributor roles will be less stressful than executive roles in general and if you are stepping off the ladder, that is probably your best option. A move from a product management exec role to a product marketing exec role on the other hand, would be jumping out of the frying pan straight into the fire.

  • links for 2009-03-20 • Bare Identity // Mar 20, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    […] What are my career options after product management?: Ask A Good Product Manager: Your product manag… There is no question that leading a product management team is one of the most demanding and high-stress jobs in a company. In a very real sense, this role drives the future success of the company. It’s not unusual for people to spend some time at this level and decide that they miss having a life. Fortunately, the experience in this role turns out to be very useful for other, less stressful positions: (tags: productmanagement career options) […]

  • Jim Holland // Mar 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    First, why would anyone “want to leave product management?” If you have to, I’ve seen Product Management professionals (you define or pick a title) in senior management capacities such as CEO, COO, General Manager. I really like when a CEO says, “I want you to run it all.” That’s it, give me Product Management and Marketing. I’ll be the SVP!

  • Sean Sullivan // Jul 3, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    I will try to answer the original question..

    While I personally have some very different career objectives than you, after _only_ 10 years in product management, I might have two helpful ideas.

    1) Product Manager does not equal product manager. First, if you like what you do but just aren’t looking for the next big stressful opportunity there are PM jobs out there that are less stressful and don’t require managing people. Not necessarily a step down but often this means less income if that is ok for you. Personally, even in this economy, I have found that if I were (which I am not) willing to accept less income there are lots of interesting opps that may be fulfilling for me on different levels. Educational, philanthropic, and government related products/companies in particular. Typically smaller orgs with less demanding personal expectations leading to better non-work life (as far as I can tell).

    2) If you have developed a specific type of subject matter expertise for a given business process, function, or topic – many firms have a role of Subject Matter Expert (SME). This may go by many titles, but generally you are less directly responsible for product strategy and delivery but must have valuable expertise to bring to the table. This can be both a permanent in-house job or you can act as an external consultant if you want more personal time control. (By the way, depending on your expertise, you might make more in this role.)

    Hope these ideas are useful.

  • Derek Britton // Sep 18, 2009 at 6:40 am

    I recently transitioned out of Product Management into a technical consultancy role and found myself asking how this were possible, so I thought I’d throw a few notes in here.

    a) if you are an established and active Product Manager then you are immersing yourself in market needs at the macro level (holistic architectural considerations) as well as the individual client level (site visits, listening to specific needs, hearing about unique usage and technical situations). Effectively you are osmosing a vast array of unique insights into the market, customer behaviour, and future need.

    2) Equally as a rounded Product Manager, you also understand all too well the commercial realities of not only “your” product but the products of your company peers (i.e. your organization’s “solutions”), but also the competition, adjacent spaces and complimentary technology, services and industries, as well as providers within that ecosystem. Because of this, again you are a de-facto expert in that industry.

    3) Because of all of this, your communication, planning and commercial skills are typically very strong, and often better than that of rank-and-file technical staff.

    Those three facets make you an ideal “consultant” to help the commercial people explain to the customer people how good your technical people can be to help solve their problems. i.e. you can bridge that gap of konwledge between the various actors in that scenario and bring clients, solutions and you (the supplier) together on the same page. Being the trusted advisor to a client is a utopian dream for many organizations, but old PM’s can act as just that because of their experience, and bring a lot of value to the sales operation as a direct result.

  • Mara Krieps // Sep 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

    One option that you might consider is to transition into a different industry. Same role, slower pace.

    A colleague in a situation similar to yours transitioned out of tech, ended up in a VP Marketing role, and now he actually has time to coach his kids’ soccer teams.

    Mara Krieps, Pivotal Product Management
    More PM tips in the “Pivot Point” newsletter archives

  • Steven Haines - Author, The Product Manager's Desk Reference // Dec 6, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Having loved the profession of Product Management for so many years, it’s interesting to hear about someone who wants to switch to something else.
    That said, that’s me. This is about “you.” The “you” could be anyone at any point in their career.

    Questions to consider:
    1) What did you like the best about the role?
    2) What might you have done differently?
    3) What, if anything, turned you off?
    4) What skills or characteristics would you bring to another role?
    5) What would you love to do?

    You may want to do some informational interviewing with key executives in different firms and in different industries. You may learn more about your own interests.

    Consider trying to come up with some new career goals. These goals may guide you toward the types of work activities in which you could become involved.

    Good luck to all those who find themselves at this type of crossroad.

    Steven Haines