Today’s product managers come from many different backgrounds. As a profession so deeply rooted into the entire business, experiences from sales and marketing, customer support, engineering and more can all propel people into a product management function. But what about the next generation? Are we looking forward to a troop of product managers by trade?
Although still a young field with much to be defined, the emergence of formal training does point to the better establishment of product management as a discipline in its own right. Arguably, the surge in a product management education market has been able to happen because businesses are keenly looking for answers when defining what product management is and how it should be done.
Courses are being offered by a range of organizations, from startups such as General Assembly to more classic bodies such as the University of Stanford, and even to specific businesses created just for product management training.
Who are the people behind this future generation of product managers? Largely they’re the ones who have taken several years to learn the ropes themselves, and are looking to pass on that knowledge to help optimize and refine the capabilities of the next generation. Of course there are always opportunists to look out for, so pay close attention to the bios of instructors and lecturers, but generally speaking elders (and not so elders) are looking to share.
And what does a product management education cover? From course to course, quite a lot! Here are three key areas in which courses and training are offering a more formal introduction to the skills today’s product managers have had to learn the long way.
Practical product management
Hands-on experience assisting another product manager with the day-to-day work involved around managing a backlog or getting a release out, or being gradually given responsibility for certain features within a release is an invaluable way to learn the trials and tribulations of what can go wrong when delivering new product. But practical aspects of product management courses are focusing on tools to help prepare new product managers navigate these processes too. As models and methods become more established, from roadmapping techniques to delivery checklists, they are working their way into a more formalized approach to how to manage products.
Handling product strategy
It’s undeniable that those who have the most prior experience not only handling product strategy but working with executive teams against KPIs on business strategy are going to be the most comfortable and arguably the best placed to deliver a valuable product vision. But an education based on scientific method and business essentials can well-equip product managers to execute a successful product strategy. Tools and tactics for gathering market data and analyzing it, for example, will help to breed a generation of product managers with a foremost focus on business value and market strategy.
Leadership and diplomacy
Product Managers might not always be official leaders in the same sense as the classic executive team, but leadership skills are a hugely important part of this role. Again, the confidence required to exert these qualities tends to come from experience of success in taking a product to market and working with diverse business functions in order to get there. But we all need to start somewhere to get there. Many product management courses have elements that focus specifically on communications and diplomacy skills, similar to more traditional management training.
Either looking ahead to that future generation, or to the future of many of our own careers, it seems that product management will fall in line with other business functions when it comes to personal development. Rather than an alternative to experience, training and education can be seen as an an additional layer on top for existing product managers, or a grounding foundation for new ones. As training becomes more formalised I imagine that a healthy balance between experience and education will be a killer combination for any product management hopeful. And for those of us already in the industry, we can look ahead to a process of continued debate on our philosophies and optimization of our methods with the support of a more academic approach alongside good old fashioned experience.
What do you think of the product management education currently on offer to current and future product managers alike, and what direction do you see it taking in the future?
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