As a product manager, there’s one question that I get asked a lot: “Hey Josh, how do I go about entering the world of product management?” And I always tell them the same thing – while there are many ways, the most stable route for someone who’s just starting out is to become an associate product manager (or “APM” for short).
Naturally, they follow up with these questions:
- What is an associate product manager?
- What exactly are their professional responsibilities?
- How do I become one?
I’ve written about how to become a product manager in the past. This time, I’m going to discuss everything from the APM role’s point of view, and hopefully answer those three questions.
If you’re interested in a career in product management, but don’t know where to start, keep reading.
By the time you’re done reading this post, you’ll have a clear understanding of what it means to be an Associate Product Manager, as well as, how to become one.
Let’s get started.
What is an Associate Product Manager?
As the name suggests, the “associate product manager” position is an apprenticeship in product management.
Like product managers, they’re responsible for planning and guiding the success of new product development (and are often referred to as the “CEOs of product lines”).
While the specifics of the job description vary from company to company, an APM reports directly to a senior product manager, supports them with on-going projects, and of course, learns from them.
In some companies, APMs also get to manage product development teams and oversee their day-to-day tasks.
Additionally, they spend a lot of time doing rotational work and exploring how different departments operate.
How are APMs Different from Regular Product Managers?
There aren’t many differences between the APM and the product manager role, except for the depth of responsibilities.
That means an associate product manager does everything a regular product manager does – minus the stress of having complete accountability.
To be more specific, in many companies, associate product managers, despite having almost identical JDs as their supervisors, only get to work on developing new features for already-mature products (with input from their seniors).
Usually, it is the senior product managers who oversee the development of new products. The APMs support them with:
- Conducting market research and gathering product requirements
- Developing and implementing product strategies
- Laying down the roadmaps
- Arranging and overseeing scrum meetings to ensure product teams are on track
- Talking to customers to get feedback
- Engaging in product lifecycle management in different stages
In addition to the above, they have to support and assist their senior PMs with anything that brings them closer to achieving their product vision.
What are the Benefits of Becoming an Associate Product Manager?
You don’t necessarily have to be an associate product manager to become a PM.
However, if you’re relatively young and just graduated from college, there’s no better way to eventually become a product manager than to apply for an APM position.
Here are the two main benefits of becoming an associate product manager:
- A Clear Career Path – product marketing managers, as well as project managers, can make a transition towards product management. However, in comparison, an associate product manager has a much clearer path and a higher probability of succeeding.
- Practical Learning – APMs get the complete product management experience, helping them develop the necessary skills needed for the job.
Besides that, according to Glassdoor, the average base pay for APMs is $96,010 per year.
Associate product manager jobs didn’t exist until a decade or two ago. Before that, people had to actively seek out opportunities to gain relevant experience on their own.
Considering that, the modern workforce (especially fresh grads) should consider itself lucky.
What Does an Associate Product Manager Do?
As implied earlier, the job description of an associate product manager varies from company to company.
However, there are certain responsibilities and duties that almost every APM has to fulfill.
The following list summarizes pretty much everything an associate product manager does:
1. Develop New Features for Existing Products
Always remember that an associate product manager is a beginner-level position.
This means that, as an APM, you probably won’t get to work on a new product all by yourself.
Planning and overseeing the development of an entire product (from scratch) is still the primary responsibility of the senior PM.
Depending on the company, and as discussed earlier, the APM’s job is to support them with new projects – from gathering research to launching products (more on all of this later).
2. Conduct Market Research
All successful product managers know their markets inside-out.
For that, they need to conduct heavy market research.
As an associate product manager, you’ll be responsible for carrying out this crucial task.
By conducting market research, you’ll be able to:
- Learn about the needs of your potential customers and identify new product opportunities
- Develop edge cases for your product ideas
- Build specific product requirements for your engineering teams, based on the data you collect
- Build a clear vision and rally your product management teams
- Gather valuable feedback from your customers to further improve your products with modified and/or new features
Knowing how to successfully conduct market research, and how to use that data to set clear objectives, will go a long way in ensuring a successful career for an APM.
3. Help Craft Different Strategies for the New Product
In addition to coming up with new features and conducting market research, APMs also help their reporting PMs lay down the rest of the product strategies.
- Setting a product vision, goals, and high-level themes that are tied with the broader business objectives
- Creating a product roadmap, which is a visual summary of everything that you’ll need to do to effectively execute your core product strategy
- Determining an appropriate pricing strategy for your new solution
- Collaborating with the product marketing manager (if any) to create and execute an effective marketing strategy
- Coming up with the distribution channel strategies
Naturally, this also involves making sure that all relevant cross-functional teams are on track from time to time.
4. Create and Implement the Product Backlog
“Product backlog” is a fancy term for a to-do list.
A crucial tool in both product and project management, it lists and prioritizes everything that needs to be done to get closer to achieving the product vision.
Here are some examples of specific things that you can expect to find in a backlog:
- Coming up with the new product design
- Fixing bugs and improving the user experience
- Test-marketing the new product features
- Determining the appropriate channels to reach end-customers
From time to time, associate product managers will accompany the product and project managers in stand-up scrum meetings to review what has been done, what needs to be redone, and what’s next on the list.
How Do I Become an Associate Product Manager?
To increase your chances of landing an associate product manager job, you need to invest in the appropriate education, apply for the right programs, and most importantly, develop and polish the relevant skills.
Let’s break everything down.
The Education Required
While you don’t necessarily need formal higher-level education to become a successful PM, having a relevant bachelor’s degree can give you a competitive edge (and a solid foundation).
Besides, a college degree is still one of the prerequisites for being considered a “qualified applicant” by many companies in the United States.
Typically, a bachelor’s degree in business, computer science (if you want to become a technical product manager), or any other related field will do.
The Skills You Need to Become an APM
More than formal education, you need a certain skillset to become an associate product manager.
Here are the most crucial soft and hard skills:
- Leadership – to be more precise, a candidate should have the ability to delegate and prioritize tasks, as well as, rally teams. Considering the responsibilities discussed above, it goes without saying that APMs need to be natural leaders.
- Communication Skills – as an APM, you’ll have to consistently communicate with different teams to ensure that everyone remains on the same page, and that you’re achieving the objectives mentioned in your product strategy.
- Analytical Skills – as you’ll be heavily involved in market research, you should have a knack for crunching numbers, looking at trends, and making strategic decisions based on data.
- Problem-Solving Skills – if you think about it, a product manager’s responsibilities boil down to one thing: Solving problems. If you enjoy coming up with creative solutions for different problems, keep that same energy when you apply for an APM position.
Having technical expertise – such as coding and design skills – aren’t considered prerequisites, but can give you a significant competitive edge.
The Associate Product Manager Programs You Should Consider Applying for
While there are many full-time job opportunities, especially in San Francisco and New York, you should try your luck with the APM programs at the following companies:
Additionally, keep an eye out for open positions on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and other platforms.
Final Thoughts: Experience Matters the Most
You can only learn so much about product management in a classroom.
If you really want to succeed, get out there and start looking for fresh opportunities to build relevant experience.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to land an APM role right out of college. However, you can always opt for an internship to build the relevant experience, and then climb the ladder from there.