GUIDE 2024

How to Become a Principal Product Manager Without Experience

Now more than ever, being a principal product manager is a job title that most product professionals aspire to attain.

Product management has established itself as one of the leading fields for career development today. According to Zippia, the average salary for a product manager is $118,441 as of February 2022. The same source goes on to mention that the top 10% of these professionals earn more than $159,000 a year.

Principal product managers are among the most senior roles in the product development process. Therefore, the expected salary increase inspires many product managers to climb up the corporate ladder and land this position.

For those hoping to land a role as a principal product manager, the following guide will help you along your journey in this fruitful career.

Step 1. Obtain Certification in Technical Product Management

While the path to principal product manager doesn’t have to include technical product management, getting certified in technical product management is a wise step.

The demand for technical product management is high.

Deloitte has shared that more and more businesses are embracing technology in their business processes and solutions. Gartner has also foreseen this transformative digitization, forecasting continued growth in the coming years for both software and devices.

Having technical skills and abilities is an asset to anyone seeking a principal product manager position.

For those who have a background in the computer sciences, you already have one of the most important skills. Additional areas include: 

  • Background or knowledge in Agile methodology
  • Business skills
  • Data analysis
  • Market research skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Product roadmap development
  • Solid communication skills
  • Strategic thinking

To get you started, check out our PMHQ Technical Product Manager Course. It will help you round out your knowledge of the technical side of product management.
Product Manager Certification

Step 2. Learn the Fundamentals of Product Management

While technical product management is a specialized niche, being a product manager involves much more.

Becoming a principal product manager may require you to have technical knowledge, but having the skill set of a product manager is a must. Granted, there is some crossover in skill sets.

The product manager role meets at the intersection of three disciplines:

  • Business
  • Technology
  • User experience (UX)

With those skills, you contribute to everything from product vision to product development. You will then have the ability to define the needs of the customer and at the same time communicate with cross-functional teams and stakeholders. You will also leverage your strategic thinking skills to create a product vision and its corresponding roadmap. 

Capacity Roadmap

Credits: Roadmunk

A survey done for the Product Management Insights Report states that 84% of the product managers polled say their key activity is setting product strategy.

Because product management entails all of these activities, the skills we’ve mentioned are fundamental in helping you land a role as a principal product manager.

Step 3. Study Industries Associated With Product Management

While product management is a field that impacts all industries, there are those that stand out more than others.

Paying attention to those key industries will go a long way in helping you to become a principal product manager.

If that’s you, here are three industries you should consider:

  1. Internet of Things

Today, the Internet of Things industry is booming. Now, there are refrigerators that order your groceries and inform you when items have reached their expiry date. There are also cooktops that allow you to connect using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

These are just a few examples of recent smart homes or IoT devices. But the sky is the limit, with more and more household items becoming connected.

Considering that this industry will continue to experience a significant boom, anyone hoping to pursue a career as a principal product manager should keep an eye on trends and tendencies in the IoT sector.

  1. Healthcare 

While healthcare has had its challenges in the last two years, it’s still an industry that continues to innovate. They’re currently spending billions of dollars on nanotechnology research.

Wearable health care devices are also on the rise. And thanks to the pandemic, the industry has identified other problems that need to be solved. Companies hire product managers like you to find an adequate solution for them. 

  1. FinTech

Payment solutions continue to evolve as consumer readiness pushes businesses to adopt new financial service options. The banking industry is looking at an unprecedented time of innovation.
Some of the current top trends in FinTech are: 

  • digital-only banking
  • payment innovations
  • the use of artificial intelligence

New products and innovations require product managers who can then transition into a position as a principal product manager.

Step 4. Gain Relevant Experience

There are multiple ways to gain relative work experience, and they all don’t need to happen on the job. This can be challenging for new graduates.

The following includes both formal and informal ways of gaining work experience.

  • Internships
  • Job shadowing
  • Volunteering
  • Freelancing

Internships will provide you with a professional learning experience. It’s a great opportunity for exploration and job development while offering practical work in your area of interest.

Student interns should expect to gain real work experience from mentors who will provide them with guidance and feedback. It also provides them with the chance to develop professional contacts that may be useful in the future.

Job shadowing means you follow a professional in your field of interest as they work. This can provide you with a better hands-on understanding of a particular career.

While each job shadowing experience will be different, you can expect to observe and perhaps even take part in some of the employees’ daily tasks. This is a great opportunity to learn critical skills while on the job.

Volunteer work is often available through many nonprofit organizations or even in your community. Many of the soft skills a principal product manager needs can be attained through this type of work. For example,

  • Leadership skills
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving

While many of these skills can be learned in day-to-day life, obtaining them in a volunteer position would count towards work experience.

However, you’re still looking for the work experience that will land you a job as a PPM. Consider doing freelance work around some of the core skills necessary for a product manager job.

Become a Principal Product Manager With no Experience

Getting hired as a principal product manager without any experience may seem impossible.

That said, if you don’t have any experience, chances are you will be hired as a product manager. From there, you can then transition to a position as a principal product manager. Getting hired still won’t be easy, but it isn’t impossible.

By now, you understand that the role of PM requires many different skills. You may not be an experienced product manager, but being able to prove that you have the right skill set may be sufficient.

For example, you may have managed a project instead of a product.

If you’re preparing a resume or portfolio and you don’t have experience, be sure to highlight the relevant skills and background knowledge you do have.

Prepare for a job as a Principal Product Manager

You’ve got the skills, now you need to do the job.

Depending on industries and specific organizations, the duties of a PPM will vary. However, here are their basic day-to-day responsibilities.

1. Develop and Communicate Product Strategies

It’s the PPM who strategizes the roadmap from the original product vision to launch. This will include determining whether a product is even viable for development and production.
McKinsey Strategic 3 Horizon Model
The McKinsey Strategic 3 Horizon Model is an example of a framework that some product managers use to develop a product strategy.

Regardless of the framework you choose, your process will involve the following:

  • Setting goals. These are goals, or goal posts, that the team needs to accomplish along the way. 
  • Defining product vision. The product vision or product vision statement is a guide and reminder of the end goal the development and product teams are working towards.

2. Collaborate and Communicate With Stakeholders

it’s the principal product manager’s responsibility to ensure stakeholders are aligned with the product strategy.

This requires them to work with product leaders, product development managers, and product marketing managers. Together, this group devises a plan of action that aligns with the product roadmap.

This calls for close collaboration and strong communication skills.
Communication Strategy
Many product managers use the communication framework featured above to determine a communication strategy to target their customers. You can take advantage of the framework to develop your own strategy to communicate not only with your product users but also within your team.

3. Analyze Data

The PPM must ensure the product lifecycle aligns with company goals. 
Data Analytics Model
Four analytic skills they’ll often use are:

  • Creating customer metrics to help make decisions about the product they’re developing.
  • Asking investigative questions so they can gain better insight into their product.
  • Making data-informed decisions. These are decisions that are based on more than hard data. Final decisions will be based on data, plus personal experience, intuition, and context.
  • Explaining or communicating their analysis to team members, management, and stakeholders.

4. Prioritization and ROI

Along with the product team, it’s up to the PPM to make decisions regarding funding based on the product’s quality rating.

The PPM also needs to stay aware of product opportunities that could lead to increased revenue. Or it may be necessary to prioritize or abandon product features based on their potential ROI. 
Prioritization Framework
The principal product manager doesn’t exist in a vacuum—nor does their product. They understand the need to keep a finger on the pulse of current industry trends. This puts them in a position to keep stakeholders informed if necessary.

To a large extent, the success of an organization will be based on the quality of its products. It’s essential that PPMs understand their role in producing successful products.

5. Develop Marketing Strategies

Part of the job description of a principal product manager will be to develop marketing strategies. This will involve understanding who your target audience is and how you plan to market to them.

Become a Principal Product Manager: Key Takeaways

Those who’ve already become principal product managers agree that the hard work done to land the job is worth it.

The job calls for someone with exceptional leadership skills, above-average communication skills, and some degree of experience working on business projects.

Be sure to gain experience as a product manager before transitioning into this type of role.
Compliment your experience by taking a course in product management to ensure that you have the skills and knowledge to succeed in this position.

Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter is the co-founder of Product HQ, founder of Technical Writer HQ, and founder and head of product of Squibler. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.