University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Thinking about a Career in Product Management? Here’s the Path

product improvement path
March 09, 2022  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insight articles on product management. To learn more about what product management is (and what it’s not), read part one in the series. Part three looks at how product management fits within the work of the McMillion Innovation Studio

Product management is a fast-growing field with high-paying jobs and loads of opportunities, but it’s not always easy to break into this profession. There is a path, however, even for college students, so long as they have the right makeup and are willing to learn the skills it takes to do the job.

What is the job? We covered that in the first installment of this series, and it’s particularly worth reading if you believe product management is all about managing a product (because it’s not). In short, product managers (or leaders) manage the relationships between the various teams responsible for moving a new product or initiative from idea to market.  

It’s become a particularly relevant role over the last 20 years because teams and organizations have to pivot so frequently to address changes driven by technology, shifting customer demands, and other unpredictable market conditions. Someone – the product manager or leader – needs to keep a high-level view and make sure everyone is aligned and doing what’s ultimately best for the business and its customers. Product managers are in high demand and command salaries between $108,000 and $140,000 a year in the US.  

So, what does it take to qualify for these jobs and how do you get those qualifications? 

“There’s a skillset you can develop,” said Sarah Goforth, executive director of the UA’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, “but there’s also an inherent talent that people either have it or they don’t.” 

Product managers must communicate effectively across all areas of an organization. They have to speak the language of the engineers in research and development, the creatives in marketing, and the financial experts in accounting, not to mention all the executives in the C-suite. And they must then represent each of those business units to the others – all while representing the needs of the customers. 

“There’s a piece of that that’s just like either you have it or you don’t,” Goforth said. “But if you have it and you thrive on that role of being the glue that brings people together for a common good, then it is an awesome job.”  

Goforth said entrepreneurs often make great product managers and that a career in product management is great preparation for someone interested in eventually starting their own business.

“Entrepreneurs have had to figure everything out to get a business off the ground,” she said. “They’ve had to be in that role for their own company of balancing the business needs with the technology expenses. They’ve had to find a software developer and communicate with that person what needs to happen. So I always think entrepreneurs make good product managers. 

“But the opposite is also true. There’s a woman (Laura Malcolm) I invited to speak to my class, the founder of a company called Give InKind that I love, and she was a product manager. She talked to the class about how working as a product manager in a big company gave her all the skills to start a company of her own. She had to learn the economics of a new product. She had to learn how to be in touch with customers. She never had any training in being an entrepreneur or in business for that matter. She was a psychology major. But that product management job was the best possible preparation for starting a company. So, entrepreneurs and product managers often have the same personality, the same skillset.” 

There also are technical skills like knowing the basic business acumen involved with different units in the organization, understanding design methodologies such as agile, lean startup, and human-centered design, and working with technology tools such as Miro (a team collaboration software), Jira (a bug-tracking tool), and Asana or Airtable for product roadmaps. 

There are college-level and executive education courses that teach product management, but no degree is better than another for someone who wants to enter this field. What is essential is experience, which is why the Walton College is creating opportunities for students to practice product management so they can enter the field as soon as they graduate. 

The most obvious option is working on a team through the McMillon Innovation Studio. Those cross-disciplinary teams use human-centered design to develop innovative solutions. Teams that create commercially viable products can continue their work as a product team that takes the product to market. The team leaders get hands-on experience using Miro’s collaboration software, and they essentially play the same role as a corporate product manager. 

“This is why the studio, and any entrepreneurship program where students are working hands-on with ambiguous things as part of a team, is really good preparation,” Goforth said. “You’re working as part of a team where you’ve got the different functions, where there’s no clear answer, and where you have to create your own roadmap. You have to be very in touch with customers and what they need.” 

The Walton College also is developing a master’s degree in product innovation that will include a practicum that will give students hands-on experience dealing with ambiguous situations and working with different personalities and experts on a product or initiative. 

Jon Johnson, a professor in the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (SEVI), is developing the master’s curriculum with Goforth, but said students interested in product management can take a variety of academic paths. A minor in SEVI, he said, is a good complement to any other traditional major. 

“SEVI is so young, and our degrees are so new,” he said. “They’re literally just rolling out. Some have not rolled out yet. But going forward when it comes to product management, I think either a major or minor with an emphasis on corporate innovation would be the path here. The reason entrepreneurship is a relevant degree for product management in a corporate environment is it is by its nature interdisciplinary. You have to understand all of the different pieces.

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Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.