Product Management Levels & Differences
Associate Product Manager (APM)
The lowest level on the product management ladder is the Associate PM. APMs are usually at a company to learn instead of execute, and often move straight to mid-level at the same company after 12-18 months of training.
What does an associate product manager do?
- Gathers and analyzes quantitative user data to inform product strategy and decisions.
- Helps define and prioritize product features and requirements.
- Conducts and synthesizes qualitative interviews to identify problems and validate assumptions.
- Coordinates with cross-functional teams (such as engineering, design, and marketing) to ensure roadmap developments are on schedule.
- Supports the primary product manager in managing resources and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs).
- Helps to fill in gaps and resolve any issues that arise during the product development process.
Main differences between associate and mid-level product managers
The differences between associate and mid-level+ product managers are probably the most clear-cut. Associate PMs are often part of Associate PM Programs and are learning product management skills on the job. Therefore APMs often are not responsible for a product the way higher levels may be. Their primary tasks involve supporting the product manager and team, and learning as much as possible before moving on in their rotation. Product management is often not an entry-level role, so these programs are great for kick-starting a career.
How to get a role as an associate product manager
Associate product manager roles are usually harder to come by since it requires a company to essentially train you for a year+. APMs are definitely more prominent at big tech companies with the resources to invest in the long term success of their product teams, and they often target recent college graduates.
If you're mid-career and looking to transition to product management, you could target APM roles at companies within the same industry as your current experience. For example, if you were a teacher, try applying for APM roles at education startups like Multiverse or eDX. Another example may be if you're in the food service, try targeting companies in the same space like Toast or Restaurant365. Your experience could be crucial for leading the company products with an empathetic user view.
That being said, there are ways to break in. We recommend keeping tabs on rotational associate product manager programs and furiously applying the instant they open. Learn more about Associate PM Programs here.
Mid-Level Product Manager
A mid-level product manager has more experience and responsibility than an associate product manager and often can complete their work with little-to-no supervision. They may be responsible for leading the development and management of a specific product or feature. The exact roles and responsibilities of a mid-level product manager may vary depending on the organization and the product, but general activities remain the same.
What does a mid-level product manager do?
- Defines and communicates the vision, strategy, and goals for their product to the product team and other stakeholders across the company.
- Leads the ideation, planning, and execution of their product's development process, including setting timelines, milestones, and budgets.
- Gathers and analyzes market and customer data to inform product priorities.
- Coordinates with cross-functional teams, such as engineering, design, and marketing, to ensure that the product checks all necessary boxes and has a smooth launch.
- Develops and maintains a product roadmap, and ensures the company team is aligned with their strategy and timelines.
- Conducts user research to gather feedback on their product and its features.
- Leads product meetings and presentations to share updates and progress with stakeholders.
- Manages budgets and resources pertaining to their product, and tracks key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure their product meets its goals.
- Fosters a healthy work environment for team members by unblocking any issues during the product development process so the team can work as efficiently as possible.
Main differences between mid-level and senior product managers
There is no one specific answer to this question, as the differences between a senior and mid-level product manager can vary depending on the company and the specific responsibilities of each position.
In general, however, the primary difference between a mid-level and senior is the complexity and maturity their of products. A mid-level product manager may be responsible for maintaining, optimizing or adding features to a specific product that was already in motion with live users. A senior product manager is often responsible for a 0-1 launch of a product, which includes more experience building from the ground up using in research, analytics and design. Senior product managers often work on larger or more complex products more moving pieces than a mid-level. Senior PMs may also be involved in setting the overall company strategy and may have more decision-making power for the organization in general. In contrast, a mid-level product manager may have less experience and may be responsible for more specific tasks or aspects of the product, working under the guidance of a senior or group product manager.
How to get a role as a mid-level product manager
The quickest way to get a role as a mid-level product manager is to have a role in one of their core occupations and start doing product management work. Express your desire to move into product with your manager, and try and be mentored by someone already practicing on the product management team. The core product operations are engineers, design, research, or analytics. If you're looking to enter the job market and want to eventually become a product manager, we recommend exploring these roles:
We also recommend using the same approach as recommended for Associate PM job hunting-- finding products within your field of experience to already be a subject matter expert (SME). This way is a little harder for mids, but worth a shot!
Senior Product Manager
A senior product manager has more experience and responsibility than an associate or mid-level product manager and completes their work with almost no direct supervision besides product leadership. Similar to the mid-level PM, the exact roles and responsibilities of a senior product manager may also vary, but their general daily activities are often very similar.
What does a senior product manager do?
- Sets the overall strategy and vision for a complex product.
- Oversees the development and execution of the entire product roadmap, often for long stretches of time.
- Works closely with other departments, including engineering, design, research, sales and marketing to ensure the successful development and launch of their product.
- Identifies and prioritizes new features and enhancements for the product.
- Gathers and analyzes customer feedback to validate and inform product decisions.
- Manages the product budget and ensures the product is delivered on time and within specifications.
- Stays up-to-date with industry trends and developments, and incorporates this knowledge into the product strategy as an SME in the field.
Main differences between senior and principal product managers
This one is also tricky, as the leveling can vary between organizations and industries. Usually the main distinction is experience levels and complexity of launched products-- Principal PMs usually have 8-10 years of experience, while Senior PMs will have around 4-6. Principal product managers have successfully launched and optimized several products, and may be responsible for multiple product roadmaps at a time. This is usually not the case with a senior. It's extremely difficult to transition into senior product management roles
How to get a role as a senior product manager
It's extremely difficult to transition into senior product management roles from a non-product management background. If this is your end goal, we recommend taking a step back and looking into mid-level PM opportunities!
Principal OR GROUP Product Manager
A Principal/Group Product Manager is the highest level a product manager can go and have the same responsibilities as an individual contributor or player/coach. Their role is extremely similar to a senior product manager, but they're often considered product leadership and responsible for overseeing multiple product roadmaps.
What does a principal product manager do?
- Defines and communicates the vision, strategy, and goals for the company product to the product team and other stakeholders across the company.
- Leads the ideation, planning, and execution of their company's product development process, including setting timelines, milestones, and budgets.
- Coordinates with cross-functional team leaders, such as engineering and design managers, sales leadership and marketing directors, to ensure that the product organization is meeting all requirements.
- Develops and maintains a product roadmap, sometimes for the entire company, and ensures the leaders are aligned with their strategy and timelines.
- Leads product meetings and presentations to share updates and progress with executive leadership.
- Fosters a healthy work environment for team members by unblocking any issues for other product managers.
- Group PMs often have people management responsibilities.
Difference between Principal Product Manager and Group Product Manager
This is quite simple! One is a management track-- which means they have direct reports of associate or mid-level product managers, and one is an individual contributor-- meaning they have no reports and only focus on product management strategy.
In other words, the high performing IC will have the title Principal Product Manager, while the player/coach manager will have the title Group Product Manager.
Best Specializations to Level Up Product Management Skills
Upskill & Certification: University of Virginia's Product Management Specialization
UVA Sponsors a specialization program through Coursera. This program focuses on high-level strategy work and executing on an effective product program. It's free to audit, but if you want the certificate (recommended), it's $79 a month to complete at your own pace. Read our full course review and curriculum synopsis here.
For the analytically-inclined: Google's Data Analytics
Google sponsors a data analytics certificate program through Coursera. This is one of the more coveted certificates in the industry for Google Analytics, and it's free to audit! We recommend focusing on GA4 to get ahead of the learning curve, as GA360/UA is being deprecated soon and others will be forced to upskill. Be proactice!
For the fans of research: University of Michigan's User Experience
Research is becoming more and more popular for product managers, and it's nice to have a background to help your UX team when things get busy. This class is sponsored by U of M, and has a great rating of 4.8 with 1.5k reviews. With a Coursera subscription (like the two above, may we add!), you can get a certificate OR audit for free! Read our full course review and curriculum synopsis here.
There you have it! There are 4 main levels of product managers, with a few key distinctions and YOE at each level. If you're looking to break in to product management, we recommend starting with an APM program or looking for mid-level roles in your same industry.
Check out our product management job guide for more recommendations, micro-certifications and more!