Should I Get a Product Management Certification?
lackefore you even start reading, I’ll give you the short answer: It depends.
This is a frequently-raised topic among product managers, and there are all sorts of opinions. In this post, I’d like to share a few perspectives that are useful for answering the question, some thoughts and observations about a few of the vendors I’m familiar with, and my personal advice for answering the question for yourself.
As we begin, let’s consider this like a product manager. Let’s start by evaluating the problems people are trying to solve when they consider training and certification as a solution.
Why Consider Certification?
As a practicing or aspiring product manager, there are a few reasons that certification in product management may be worth thinking about.
- Learning how to do the job. Regardless of what background you bring to Product, or what company or companies you work in, your personal experience will include limited perspectives. You can’t work in organizations that are strong in every area and responsibility of product management, because no such organizations exist. You can strengthen your awareness of what Product should be by learning from experts.
- Becoming more effective. Let’s say you’ve been a product manager for a few years and you get the scope of the role, but you don’t feel yourself making an impact. You might consider a training course and certification as a way to find out what the best product people do, and how to be good at the job.
- Competition with others and resume fodder. You may consider certification as a way of competing with others. If you’re going up against someone with similar background for an employment opportunity, the certification may put you ahead of your competition. If nothing else, it can show your dedication to your craft, and hopefully start your new job on the right foot.
- Business and Marketing Fundamentals for technical people. For those who come to Product from the technology side of the organization–development, Support, quality assurance–there’s often strength in the technology side, but not business. These business and marketing fundamentals are often taught as part of an MBA program, but sometimes those coming from the technology side may have either not obtained a graduate degree, or may have obtained a technical one. There is opportunity here t potentially close a gap.
- Showing competence within your own organization. Some people think having the certification helps to demonstrate their expertise in their craft. Because product management isn’t staffed as much as other teams, there is a higher percentage of the organization to “prove” oneself to than most of the other teams, and because of the significance of influence in the role, being able to show competence is certainly important.
What Benefits does PM Certification Provide?
Now that we’ve thought about the problems people try to hire product certifications for, let’s think about what benefits the training is actually able to provide:
- Business and Marketing Theory – One of the things I perosnally learned from product management certification was a good grounding in product marketing theory. Porter’s generic strategies, the types of markets, product launch fundamentals, BCG growth share matrix, and other models are taught in one of the programs I attended. While these are topics I could have researched on my own, chances are I would not have consumed them all at a similar point in time as part of a program of education. Nowhere did I learn modern business concepts like SaaS strategy, by the way — you’ll need to continue learning on your own.
- Confidence – One of the secondary benefits of knowing “how to do the job” and learning the scope of the role from an academic perspective is confidence. It’s difficult to be confident when you feel like you’re still finding your way. Going through a prescribed program that is intended to teach the art and science of product management can help the learner feel like the appropriate training and education has taken place, which can help with being confident in taking action in needed areas. This is especially important in Product where there aren’t many others in your line of work within your organization, so a number of judgment calls have to be made independently.
That’s the two primary areas I feel like I gained from going through product management certification programs. Interestingly, those two primary benefits are each associated more with a particular certification than another, as I’ll discuss below.
It’s difficult to put a price tag on the value of those two benefits. Confidence is the most correlated with day-to-day; whereas, when it comes to preparing business cases and arguing for investment strategies, the marketing theory does come in handy.
If you’ve experienced other benefits as a learner, please share in the comments below.
How do Product Managers Obtain Training?
Most practicing product managers will agree that on-the-job experience and mentorship are the two best sources of learning.
Reasons for this include that the role is still maturing, and the fact that every organization is different. The role requires relationship building and fitting into an existing power structure, which is clearly not something that can be codified in a book.
Beyond those, there are a number of other primary methods:
- Graduate school – Many product professionals come from the MBA or other graduate school paths. These provide a good grounding in the business side of product–P&L, marketing, etc.
- Courses that award Certifications – A number of vendors have assembled training curricula to educate product people, and certifications are offered afterwards.
- Certification Programs Without Courses – The other kind of certification is that driven by the candidate’s experience in the field, that is not offered at the end of a training course.
- On the Job – I list this because it’s the most effective and impactful. Going through product launches, sunsets, regular releases, roadmapping sessions, and negotiating with stakeholders is “trial by fire,” and it’s how you really learn product. Knowledge can help you prepare for those situations, but only to a point. You have to go through it to really understand it.
- Books and Blogs – A number of books covering the topic have been published in the last ten years, during which the profession has started to take shape. More recently, more authors appear to be publishing eBooks than ever before, and some have started newsletters. A couple of worthy newsletters are The PM Handbook and Pivot. Check out Matt Anderson’s list of 37 product management blogs to consider (and this list on Medium). Great way to pick up knowledge! (ALSO: Don’t miss Paul Cothenet’s great compilation called “I Love Product Management“!)
- Meetups, Conferences and Unconferences – Given my history with ProductCamp Austin and ProductCamp Atlanta, this blog post would be woefully incomplete without mentioning that local in-person groups like ProductCamp are a great way to learn from experts and meet others in the same line of work.
I got a technology-oriented Master’s degree, the Master of Science, so I did not have as strong a background in the business and marketing side of Product. Had I known I’d end up in Product, or done so intentionally, I might’ve made a different choice.
But as this post is about certification programs, let’s get down to brass tacks.
What Are the Major (US-based) Product Management Certification Programs Like?
I’ve had the fortune to take both the Pragmatic Marketing Practical Product Mangement course and gain the corresponding PMC certification; and I also sat for the AIPMM Certified Product Manager and Certified Product Marketing Manager certifications, both in 2011.
They are very different from each other.
At its core, Practical Product Management taught the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, the most well-known of the frameworks that attempt to describe the entirety of the responsibilities of product management discipline.
The course covered the more important components in more depth for time constraint reasons. I’m not sure how the curriculum has evolved since I took the course, but it was a good overview for an entry level PM. And many companies recognize those who are Pragmatic Marketing Certified (PMC).
Of the more memorable and useful concepts are that of “marketecture,” mapping your offering to the problem statements you are addressing in the market, and the quintessential Pragmatic saying: “Your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant.”
Pragmatic makes a number of resources available to alumni after completing the course; this includes a number of templates useful for communicating learnings from a client call, to product positioning, to market segmentation, gap analysis, launch plans, persona profiles, and other practical day-to-day and strategic deliverables of the product professional. I found these interesting, but only put a few to use subsequently.
Final note: The training offerings have changed significantly since I went through the program.
The Certified Product Manager / Certified Product Marketing Manager were more challenging for me. These certifications required more familiarity with MBA-level academic material like the BCG matrix and other frameworks useful in evaluating business opportunities. It addressed in some way the gap I felt from not getting an MBA.
I prepared for the exams using the self-study courses from the 280 Group. The recorded material was clearly explained, and prepared me well as I passed both certifications on the first try!
Because of the extensive study required, I walked away with more of a feeling of accomplishment from achieving the CPM/CPMM than I did from the PMC. I still feel like both were beneficial. However, later I recognized that a lot of the frameworks and models taught in the CPM and CPMM training is there when it needs to be referred to, but as they’re not daily-use tools, it’s only so helpful in making a product manager more effective.
Like the Pragmatic offering, I received a number of supplemental materials as part of the 280 Group training; also, similarly, I only refer to these on rare occasions when I’m trying to figure out how people capture or communicate a specific kind of information. Good to have, but not critical, as I can often find something similar to what’s in the resource kit using Google as at that point, I know what I’m looking for.
In contrast with product-focused training vendors, Proficient focuses on product portfolio management.
In my training experiences with other vendors, some portfolio concepts were covered, but the majority of the content focused on the life cycle of a single product or offering.
It’s not about building great products for your users. It’s about helping your target-customer organizations meet their goals from the top all the way down to the activities in the trenches. Higher value business solutions and great products are the result!
In person, John emphasizes addressing the B2B buyer’s business needs (from top-down and bottom-up) with solutions that may span multiple products. John advocates this approach to deliver value to the customer and create value for the vendor.
The Proficientz certification and training is definitely worth consideration, particularly among more established companies with more than one product offering.
What Other Training Sources Are there?
General Assembly and Other Courses
The Product Development and Management Association offers the New Product Development Professional certification. PDMA, in my experience, tends to attract a wider range of professionals than the ones I mentioned above and has a little more of a presence in consumer product goods (CPG) companies. That said, PDMA was started in the 1970s, and there’s a good bit of overlap in their offerings with those above.
In recent years, the number of offerings has grown as interest in product has grown.
Blackblot is an international company that operates in the USA and Europe, with partners in other regions. They provide training and certification programs that are based on the PMTK® product management methodology.
To confuse matters a little more, harking back to the confusion between the Product Management profession and the Product Owner role, the Scrum Alliance offers a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) certification that maps to some (but not all) of what a product manager does, and a lot of detail around the “Product Owner” subset of the product management function.
As the profession evolves, universities are starting to pay more attention to product management. UC Berkley now offers a 5-day Product Management Program to provide focused content from their MBA program aimed at product professionals.
If you want to go through all of the programs listed here, I’ll see you in 2 or 3 years!
Books and Training by Product Bloggers and Authors
When it comes to books, there are a number that have been written directly about product management, and a number on the related disciplines that help product managers succeed. This is part of the problem with trying to pack everything into a single “course” — there’s too much.
Steven Haines, Marty Cagan, and Linda Gorchels have some of the oldest and deepest “pure product management” books out there. But you can’t rule out books about startups, about marketing, about online marketing, innovation, and/or a number of related topics.
I’ve shared a list of my most treasured product management books on my resources page. Here are some of those titles:
- Crossing the Chasm – Geoffrey Moore
- Inspired – Marty Cagan
- The Lean Startup – Eric Reis
- The Inmates Are Running the Asylum – Alan Cooper
- Blue Ocean Strategy – W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne
- Good To Great – Jim Collins
- The Art of Product Management – Rich Mironov
- Innovator’s Dilemma – Clayton Christensen
More recently, several product leaders have been following Cagan’s lead in compiling their product management related blog content into books. Jock Busuttil, Shardul Mehta, and Steven Johnson among others, have gone this route recently, and many are sure to follow.
Speaking of following, at the very least, check out some of the prominent product bloggers out there–those I listed above and more!
ProductCamp was founded as an “unconference” using the Barcamp model, in part because there weren’t conferences supporting the product management profession. Since that point in 2008 / 2009, ProductCamps have been among the most successful of the BarCamp spinoffs, and real “grown-up” conferences have sprouted up to support the profession. What will happen to ProductCamp long term?
Mind The Product was the first “real” conference offered for product professionals. MTP started in 2012 in London, and has held events each of the past years; this year, they held a second event in San Francisco. The quality of speakers is impressive, with experts such as Marty Cagan himself taking the stage in London in 2012 and this year in San Francisco; Nir Eyal, Des Traynor and Alex Osterwalder last year in London; and Ryan Singer and Mina Radhakrishnan (among others) joining Cagan this year in San Francisco. Many of the presentations are available on video. I look forward to seeing this one continue to grow, and attending sometime soon.
StartupProduct is a conference aimed at product leadership within startups, which is a subset of the overall product discipline but one worthy of its own group. Their “Summit” included such names as Rich Mironov, Josh Elman, Ken Norton, Dan Olsen and Teresa Torres. It’s another welcome way for product professionals to learn from the most accomplished among us.
There are several podcasts aimed at product management professionals. These active casts deliver interviews and insights into the field that can help deliver the voice of current practitioners on a regular basis:
What Value does PM Certification Provide a Candidate?
Let’s get back to the topic of Product Management Certifications.
To answer the question of how much value hiring managers assign to certifications, let’s think about what certification does for a product manager.
No doubt, in the early phase of a product career, the role can be overwhelming. Going through a course from a vendor provides context, and can provide the network a budding product manager needs to bounce ideas off as their internal work situation becomes more complex.
But getting certified is not a complete answer. Years ago, Jeff Lash asked “Should I get Product Management Certification?” The guidance here–in the form of a response by Scott Sehlhorst–still resonates (emphasis added):
When I’m interviewing a product manager candidate, I don’t care if he or she has any certifications. I care a little bit about what they know (what skills do they have), and a lot about what they will be able to learn. Personally, I have the Pragmatic Marketing “practical product management” certification…Their practical product management training is to this day the best single training class I’ve attended in any topic.
I would place significant value on a product manager having the perspective that Pragmatic espouses, and being able to demonstrate their ability to apply it. Having the associated piece of paper is secondary. I’ll also add that I haven’t heard anyone I’ve ever worked with express that they “care about” certifications for product managers.
For people moving into product, ability to learn and think are two of the most valuable traits that can be shown. Ambition and curiosity can be demonstrated by involvement in projects and activities, by the questions one asks in an interview, and many other ways.
Career path and education are of interest to a hiring manager, as they speak to whether the candidate has the necessary curiosity to succeed, and to the reasons they got into (or want to get into) a product role.
Certifications, in my experience, are an asterisk. They suggest a possible drive to be better at one’s craft, but that conclusion can only be driven by looking at the other attributes as well. It could also be resume filler, if other signals aren’t present.
Ultimately, I view certification as a “nice to have,” but not critical. It’s not a “must have.”
In the parlance of product management, what problem are you looking at certification to help solve? And is certification the best way to solve it?
Image source: EKG Technician Salary