Student, Apprentice, Mentor, Journeyman: The Product Manager Growth Path

The path to becoming a successful product manager can be a confusing and difficult one. It’s not enough to just to passively watch a few videos, do a few homework assignments, and call it done. How do you progress? How do you grow towards mastery? How do you become confident?

This essay will help you get clarity.

To become a successful product manager, you need to follow a growth path.

A growth path will help you figure out exactly where you are, where you can go, and what you need to do to get to the next level.

There are 4 stages in this growth path: student, apprentice, mentor, journeyman.

STUDENT

You are a student if you are new to product management and want to learn the fundamentals. At this stage, you may not know the language (product management vs project management vs program management), ideas (Lean), and processes (Agile vs Scrum vs Waterfall). You may not know when, where, and how to use the tools (pivotal tracker, workflowy, axure). You may feel confused and lost.

You need mental structure so stuff in product management world makes sense.

At this stage, you grow by learning product management theory.

You learn through structured lectures from experts. These lectures will help you learn the language, ideas, and processes. These lectures will help you learn product management theory.

At productcharles.com, we’ve created a comprehensive online course called the Complete Product Management Course. The course has over 90 lectures. It is a condensed knowledge transfer of 10+ years of award-winning product management experience. When you enroll in the course, you become a student.

Learning product management theory is important because it will give you a solid foundation that you can practice on.

After you’ve learned the theory, you are ready to become an apprentice.

APPRENTICE

You are an apprentice if you’ve learned the theory and want to apply what you’ve learned.

A student who knows theory but have not applied it will still struggle on the job or at an interview. If you were given a product task (brainstorm product ideas, analyze competitors, size the market), it may take you a long time to come up with the solution. The solution may also lack clarity and depth. This results in lack of confidence and feeling ineffective.

At this stage, you grow by practicing vision and execution skills.

You practice these skills through diverse exercises in a safe, supportive space. The space should make you feel comfortable so you can make mistakes without fear. The practice should include feedback so you know you’re using the skills correctly (or incorrectly).

Practice will help you sharpen your skills and gain confidence.

At productcharles.com, we’ve created a space where apprentices can practice through structured exercises.

We call this space Product Manager Nation.

In Product Manager Nation, we actively practice through live sessions called Product Practice sessions.

Product Practice

Product Practice Session on Sizing the Market

In these Product Practice sessions, you’ll join other students and practice skills such as brainstorming ideas, mock interviews, analyzing competitors, sizing the market.

Each exercise is modeled after a real task that you will get on the job or in an interview.  

Once you join Product Manager Nation and participate in practice session, you become an apprentice.

In Product Manager Nation, you may attend as many Product Practice sessions as you’d like and practice as many times as you’d like.

Repetition leads to efficiency, accuracy, and confidence.

Once you’ve mastered a skill, you can apply to become a mentor for that skill.

MENTOR

You are a mentor if you’ve mastered a product vision or execution skill and want to acquire leadership skills. In a PM job or interview, you’ll often be invited to speak in front of groups of people, lead them through an agenda, or offer your feedback in a persuasive way.

People without leadership skills struggle in these situations because they haven’t mastered the “soft skills.” You may say the wrong thing at the wrong time, the meeting might go in an unexpected way and you couldn’t successfully improvise, you may get asked questions that you don’t know the answers to and don’t know how to respond. You lack confidence and credibility.

At this stage, you grow by practicing leadership skills.  

You practice through organizing and leading sessions in a safe, supportive space. The space should have many people that you can lead. These people should provide you with feedback to let you know you’re on the right track.

In Product Manager Nation, you can practice leadership skills by leading Product Practice sessions. You’ll schedule sessions, prepare sessions, lead sessions, and offer feedback.

You may lead as many Product Practice sessions as you’d like and practice as many times as you’d like.

After you’ve led multiple sessions in each skill and feel comfortable leading others, you become a product management journeyman.

JOURNEYMAN

You are a journeyman if you’ve mastered all vision, execution, and leadership skills and want to tie it all together by working on full product projects. In a PM job, you’ll be invited to “own” a product. When applying to a PM job, the recruiter will look for experiences where you’ve “owned” a full product.

People at this stage fail because they don’t have the end-to-end product experience. Even though you can finish a single product task, you struggle when you try to work independently on projects that involve multiple tasks. You’re may feel unsure if you’re spending the right amount of time on the right taks and you may be confused on what the next task is. You may also have a hard time adopting other product management processes in a company.

At this stage, you grow by working on product projects.

You’re now ready to attend Start-Up Weekends, hackathons, and take on volunteer product projects. Since you now know fundamental PM theory, have practiced PM skills, and have practiced leading, you’ll add real value. Your team will look to you as a leader and defer to your expertise.

Working on product projects will help internalize the PM skills and infuse it into instinct. It will help you see the big picture and adapt to different teams. You’ll become more effective, confident, and adaptable.

After you work on multiple product projects, you’ll have a product porfolio that you can use to land your dream jobs and excel on the job.

Becoming a successful product manager takes effort. With consistent, intentional practice of your vision, execution, and leadership skills, you’ll become an irreplaceable product manager.

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