Product Management Certification

diploma

Should product managers get certifications? Ask a Good Product Manager asked us to answer.

Is There Value in a Product Management Certification?

In a recent question / article at Ask a Good Product Manager, an MBA student with a background in engineering and an interest in product management asked:

Among the certifications from organizations like Pragmatic Marketing, AIPMM, 280 Group and others, what are the aspects I should look for in deciding about product management certification?

Should I get product management certification?

For my complete answer, please check out the response on Jeff’s blog.  And if you’re new to it, sit back with a cup of joe, there’s a big pile of great questions and answers there.

I re-framed the question to match the title of the article – “Should I get product management certification?”

No and Yes and No

scarecrow gets certification [ Thanks Wendy for the photo]

In my response to the question at Jeff’s blog, I pretty much start and end with the “no” side of the argument.

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.

[…]

I’ll also add that I haven’t heard anyone I’ve ever worked with express that they “care about” certifications for product managers.

I mixed some “yes” into the middle:

Personally, I have the Pragmatic Marketing “practical product management” certification, which I believe is useful shorthand for “think strategically” and is a primer for discussion, but otherwise does not provide value. 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 add that someone who has attended Pragmatic Marketing’s training probably gets the benefit of the doubt.  I still “trust, but verify” their perspectives when interviewing a candidate or deciding to rely on someone to make a product great.

What, Then, Should You Do?

Is platitude format: Get good at product management.

What does that mean?

It means you need to learn how to manage your time and focus on strategic activities that add a ton of value.  It means you need to make sure you aren’t spending time doing other people’s work (because they won’t be doing yours).

Strategic activities?

A certification won’t help you develop those skills.  And to date, I don’t know of one that vouches for them either.

34 thoughts on “Product Management Certification

  1. Pingback: Nathan Arthur
  2. I would add “position your product in the market and maintain that positioning over time” to your list of strategic product management activities.

    I agree about the value of certifications.

  3. As a hiring manager, I needed a way to separate the wheat from the chaff in the pile of resumes I’d get. If the Pragmatic Marketing certification had existed then, and had been as common as it is now, I would have used it in this way.

    Granted, ‘trust then verify’ is the way to go. Back then, and still today, what I look for is -evidence- of results that affected a firm’s financial health. Phrases like “increased market share 27%” or “doubled revenue over a 15 month period” really catch my eye. Not just because they represent prior successes, but also because they show the candidate cares about measurement!

    Thanks for another great post.

    All the best,
    Jim
    Jim

  4. Jim (or is it Jim Jim? :)), thanks for the great comment!

    Filtering a stack of resumes is always tough, and will always be a problem. I don’t intuitively believe that presence of a certification is an effective predictor of quality.

    So if I used that as a filter, I would expect to get a lot of false-positives – people with the certification who would not be great product managers.

    More dangerously, I would expect to get a lot of false negatives – people who would be great product managers, but who don’t have certifications.

    I agree completely with your past and present filter – results oriented catch phrases within the work descriptions. Not only does it indicate success and a focus on measurement, but it also indicates to me the ability to communicate effectively.

    Further, I get excited when someone takes that same information and formats it in an easily scannable presentation. A great product manager would have the insight that I am likely to be filtering a big stack of resumes, and therefore will be quick-scanning them. When she presents her results-driven successes in a concise list, I am very likely to see them.

    Thanks again!

  5. I’ll also add, about scannable metrics –

    They present fantastic fodder for the conversation. When the candidate has “increased market share of 27%” on her resume, I can ask an open-ended question of “tell me about that.”

    She can choose to let me know if 27% was a failure or success(maybe the goal was 50%, maybe the ROI projections relied upon 20%). We can talk about the reasons for the goal, the methods of measurement, the strategic trade-offs that were made (what other goals were back-burnered to get market share, etc).

    Or the product manager might be a great requirements person, who can talk all day about the measurement, ramifications, associated requirements and development, etc.

    A fantastic starting point for a conversation, that will really help me know how a particular applicant’s skills would best benefit my team. It also opens the door for discussions around how effectively my team and vision will meet the candidate’s goals and needs.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Thanks a lot for your inputs on my question about certifications. Your blog is a great resource especially for somebody like me trying to start and build a career in product management, Thank you.

    Regards,
    Mahesh.

  7. Thanks Mahesh, very much. Welcome to Tyner Blain, I appreciate your comment very much, and hope you find a lot of stuff that is helpful!

    Feel free to comment on any of the articles, or shoot me an email if you think of a topic that is under-represented.

  8. Certifications devalue every career where one is offered. Soon enough qualified people without that keyword won’t be able to get passed the HR automation. And, people who can’t do the job will rush to get the certification, so you end up with a glut, and salaries fall. The hires will get younger, and the older, experience product managers will get laid off.

    Just say no to certifications. If you are already doing the job, you might think, “Not my problem,” but the day will come when it will be your problem.

    Look what happened with product manager certification.

    1. Thanks David (@DavidWLocke on Twitter). I think I agree with your sentiment, but I have at least one counter-example. As a former mechanical engineer, and former registered professional engineer, my experience was that the existance of a PE certification did not devalue mechanical engineering. Note that my wife would tell you I never stopped being a mech-E, I just stopped doing it for a profession.

      It may be because getting the PE was really damn hard – 2/3 of all people who try it fail the first time, it is two 4-hour exams separated by at least a year, you have to have at least 4 years of experience practicing as an engineer to be eligible to take it, and you have to have someone who is already a PE vouch for you before they let you take the exam.

      I don’t know how accurate it is, but I’ve heard many people describe the PE as an analog to the CPA for accountants and passing the bar for lawyers.

      I think maybe that draconian level of control of the certification makes it a better filter – still not sufficient, but does provide some data through a shared-understanding of shared-experiences.

  9. Employee vetting is 3 dimensional. You must look at skills, knowledge and experience.

    Certifications only cover the knowledge part, a necessary but insufficient condition for demonstrating employability. Not all bad, just be clear on what they do and don’t cover.

    Our STAR (Situation/Task, Action, Result) stories cover the experience part…initially … and our references cover their validation. Results should always have some meaningful metric (e.g. RUM — revenue, units, margin).

    To demonstrate skill though is tougher since there is rarely enough time in an interview process to do so. This is why referrals are SO important for job seekers since others can vouch for your skill with their reputation on the line (I define referrals as separate from references in this context as knowing the hiring manager). You can do a 100 day plan and a presentation, you can show your portfolio, but there is only so much time to take it all in. It just represents a sample and by default is limiting. My 2c. @harva

    1. Thanks Harvey (@harvA on Twitter). I couldn’t agree more on the references. I like how you point out the context of knowing the hiring manager. It’s all about trust.

      In your experience, are LinkedIn recommendations useful as a stopgap / proxy? I find that they are at least effective at setting the tone, and provide “early filtering” info.

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  11. I wrote almost four years ago that government-mandated certifications are enemies of innovation. Certifications are fine as long as there is a free market in them and a healthy set of alternatives. But it is dangerous when there is a single, rigid, unquestioned set of standards.

    And then there is the false confidence created by difficult and stringent certification requirements. It’s a bit like the idiotic product management job postings that require ten years of experience in the industry and a master’s degree. Yes, it certainly does narrow the field of candidates. But it likely screens out many of the best candidates.

  12. Scott, a PE is a license not a certificate. The difference is one of having issuing organizations backed by governmental regulation.

    The few professional organizations I’ve been in were voluntary organizations that had no regulatory power, and because they were 401-c organizations, educational, they were prohibited from lobbying for such a license. The engineering organizations manage, but their charters are more complex. All these voluntary organizations do is sell to us as a market–period. One of the ones I was in didn’t even define a curriculum. They let some other organization do it, and the defining organzation hijacked the profession. All a pragmatic certificate means is that the person had the money to buy it. Maybe they had to attend. Maybe they had to take a test that day, but whatever, and no matter how good it is there is no comparison between it and say a PE.

    The engineering organizations own the word “Engineer,” and there has been some effort, particularly in Texas to professionalize “Software Engineering,” which now, in Texas, requires the passage of the PE. That is very limiting to programmers of the non-PE variety, and not in their best interest either, because being a PE, also means clients can sue you, so you have to insure yourself.

    The PDMA NPD certificate requires a much longer commitment, but still the PDMA sells to me, and at the chapter level, not very well. This with my having been to board meetings of two local chapters over the last year. Sad.

  13. Roger, what those job posting forget is that after ten years, a product manager should be ready to step up to a higher level of creation.

    Certificates reduce pay. When pay falls, motivation follows. We do not have enough math and science grads, because the dot boom ended mid-career careers, and their kids saw it. Some of those kids didn’t get to go to college. And, once you understand that your education and experience is just a roller coaster, loyalty to a profession goes out the window. Hopefully, you’ve found a loyalty to your passion instead.

    Certifications are a crock. Product management is being commoditized as we speak. Soon, very soon, the product management will be an app, rather than a person.

  14. Harvey, I’ve been through one interview that went off in the weeds, but after reading your comment, I get this picture of doing the product manager’s job during the interview. The interviewee, product manager, is selling a product, gathering requirements from the customer, …. Very analogous. Thanks.

    1. David (@DavidWLocke on Twitter), thanks!

      On PE as a license – fair enough. On certifaction, I believe it has value in providing a short-hand for conversation. If someone has a certification with which I am familiar, we share some commonality in concepts and language – allowing me to quickly try and develop trust that they have the skills, and our communication is simplified.

      At the end of the day, it is about trust, and no certification has that explicitly – but it does make a good first impression, and may make it easier (conversationally) for me to gain trust when I don’t already have it.

      Also – great point about 10-years-and-what’s-next? Reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon – “You’re too important to promote.”

  15. Roger’s right about the limitations of trying to specify a job spec and handing it to HR to execute. Something gets lost in the translation and it becomes all about screening rather than inclusion. Certifications and education are only an indication of knowledge and goal achievement capability. Experience also is in the eye of the beholder (is my 10 years better than yours if I only repeated the same 5 year experience twice, whereas you repeated the same 2 year experience 5 times?) What if we were so rigid in qualifying leads and prospects? Is it a good thing? Certifications represent an attempt to “professionalize” a discipline by establishing some standardization. The problem with that as all good Prod. Mgrs. know is that it leads to commoditization, not uniqueness. Most hiring managers want someone who has the functional expertise first, industry knowledge second and then the distinctive competency mojo third. But it’s that latter that makes a company. MBA types call this “precious resources”, but at the end of the day they are specific people in your organization. If you can amp their capabilities and match them to the market problems you’ve identified, the other stuff (cert/edu/industry) doesn’t really matter…someone/anyone else can always do them. I’m not minimizing the proverbial blocking/tackling/execution, but I am saying that current PM certifications may capture a bit about market problem definition (what do they want, what might they want) and positioning (what do we have vs. what’s out there), but do not really address resource nurturing (what could we have). Those without certifications, but with stories/reputations/cronies going into similar or even completely new industries tackling the latter are the most valuable. Tribes and cronyism work well in this specific case.

    1. Harvey (@harvA on Twitter)- thanks!

      Great point about tribes. Trust has always been the most effective attribute when hiring someone, in my opinion. Much easier to rely on existing trust networks than to try and develop trust during a 30 minute phone screen – or even a two-day onsite grilling.

  16. “Soon, very soon, the product management will be an app, rather than a person.”

    Building on what David said (and admittedly sorta off topic), I see these whispers about crowdsourcing type solutions (i.e. idea management) replacing product management. The premise is the crowd will tell us what they want and prioritize. Unfortunately the two forces working against us and for them is that in some industries this model can work and the other force is that in some organizations leadership doesn’t understand product management principles. So the evangelism continues!

    Stewart

    1. Stewart – (@stewartrogers on Twitter – thanks!

      Is this where I get to insert the obligatory (and well worn) “faster horses” quote? In the article I wrote comparing Buyer Personas and User Personas, part of the undertone is that you have to think about what buyers want (based on their model of what they think is needed) and on what users need.

      Crowd sourcing may be able to help with the former, but without synthesis, it will fail to identify user needs. People just don’t express their needs (directly). When we had a 9 year old in the house, she “needed” a pony. No automation (until after AI reaches the singularity, and maybe not then) will be able to do that. Until machine translation can handle idioms, I’m not even worried that this is somewhere on the horizon.

      Hopefully I’m not just being the product management equivalent of John Henry here.

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  19. There’s a job posting right now for a product line director in my area and industry. They want 15 years of domain experience. Roger L. Cauvin tweeted yesterday on the oversubscription of hiring managers to the notion of “been there, done that” in a given industry (from a blog post from 2005). These ideas aren’t new. One might argue that the hiring company might want to get someone outside their industry since the entire industry is struggling right now. Interesting comment on PDMA, David. I sense same problem locally also. Finally, I do not follow the line of argument that certifications themselves reduce pay. Yes they do commoditize a given job category and if that’s all you have, perhaps….but I’m assuming the certificate is only your “2 of Clubs” and your “Ace of Spades” is your accomplishments, your “Ace of Hearts” is your relationships. Maybe Scott would say the certification is a “2 of Hearts” in that it starts the trust building process if you have no relationship thus far. Depends on if who your playing cards with recognizes it, that is, that they have hearts as their strong suit, to continue the analogy…

  20. I’d like to provide some additional perspective, and of course, my opinion about this topic. Just to prime the pump, and provide an indication of where I’m going, you might be interested in taking a look at the book “The Knowing Doing Gap” by Pfeffer and Sutton. In this book, the authors ask ‘why knowledge of what needs to be done frequently fails to result in action or behavior consistent with that knowledge.’ It is a sobering question.

    From my point of view, there are a couple of issues to contend with. One relates to ‘who’s got the right body of knowledge?’ and the second is ‘what really matters in business?’

    On the first point, some organizations that offer certification have paying participants take tests to validate that they’ve learned in a training class, and/or by reading some books. These represent each organization’s perspective and self-serving belief about a body of knowledge that had not been codified. How could we have three or more organizations – a for-profit company and two not-for profit organizations have their own spin on Product Management? The only outcome I can think of is that these different approaches add to the confusion and serve to degrade the profession — especially since there isn’t a recognized governing body (like PMI). Talk about confusion.

    On the second point, I’d like to relate what was important to me when I was a Product Management leader. What mattered most was what an employee could actually do and what results they could achieve. My job was to equip them with tools, instill a mindset of business thinking, and to continually challenge them. This is why I do what I do for a living now.

    I certainly do not devalue the benefit of traditional education and academics in all disciplines. They certainly play an important role in the building a person’s knowledge base. However there are serious problems that I see in companies today where there is a very big gap between employee knowledge and their ability to effectively carry out work. It’s not with everyone or every organization, but I see enough of it to be concerned.

    I feel passionately about the need to professionalize the field of Product Management. This is why I wrote “The Product Manager’s Desk Reference.” It is my contribution to codify the body of knowledge for Product Management. Its emphasis is on building both knowledge AND experience. Certainly, there are books that have been written, and there will be books in the future that will try to assert that their views on the right way to do Product Management. These may proliferate the way certifications already proliferated. However, in the end, product managers, at all levels, must possess some very important characteristics, some of which include:

    1) A solid, holistic understanding of how business works
    2) A thirst for business and market facts and data
    3) A mindset for bringing data together to form a defensible, fact-based go-forward posture
    4) The ability to bring a cross-functional constituency together to act as a unified bloc to meet and beat the competition
    5) Sharing what they’ve learned with others so that everyone can benefit from a growing body of experience
    6) A common vocabulary and methodology for carrying out work
    7) The ability to write clearly, present effectively, and to be persuasive
    8) To build relationships both across their organizations and with customers, partners, and other stakeholders

    There will certainly be much debate about this topic. However, these debates will continue as debates until product managers are so incredibly effective, that this topic will be rendered irrelevant.

    1. Thanks @Steven_Haines (on Twitter) for the incredibly thoughtful comment, and the follow-up offline conversation! I wonder if we’ll be able to (as an “industry” of product managers) coalesce around a body of knowledge. Today, we have people cobbling together some notions of best practices. With guidance like that from your book (self-serve), training from multiple sources (get taught), and coaching from a wide array of people and companies (hand’s on help), I think we’re making a ton of progress. It feels like product management is different (better) now than it was just five years ago. Maybe it isn’t but the increase in communication is what is different. Really fun stuff to think about!

      Thanks again,

  21. When you see companies hiring Jr. Product Managers, product management work being shipped overseas, and low salaries for full professionals, the commoditization is undeniable. It’s real. It isn’t my theory.

    Thinking is a skill that can be found anywhere. Current certifications other than thee PDMA NPD can be obtained quickly. Consider that the real meaning of having passed these certification tests. What it really means is that you can sit in a class for a day or two and pass a test. Passing a test is thin. But, this is typical of postmodernist education: pay for a class, pay attention, pass a test. Why would a company pay for that?

    I will admit that the MBA glut is a contributor to the commoditization of all management jobs. Tom Peters pointed to the downward pressure on white-collar jobs long ago.

    1. Thanks David (@DavidWLocke on Twitter), thanks!

      I agree that there’s some correlation, but I haven’t reached the “causality” conclusion. I could also be a contrarian and argue that companies that never staffed product management are now staffing it. Maybe that’s an interesting aspect to study in one of the annual surveys (like Pragmatic’s).

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  23. Old post, but still a relative topic. Okay, I’ve been assigned to be a product manager in a Product unit in a company that is new to product management. (who’s been there before??? :) ) So, after (or while) having read a few books on the topic, because there aren’t many books on the matter ( Product Manager’s Desk Reference, New Products Management, Product Manager’s Handbook, and their sequels, to name a few of the best), I want to get additional training in PM (maybe because I want a little hands-on in a classroom setting to help “validate” that I’m not alone in what know and a paper to document this, especially in a country (non-US) that deifies diplomas/doucmentation of knowledge), where do I turn to: a few university’s offering expensive certificate programs (can’t afford), private companies like Pragmatic Marketing, Sequent Learning Networks, 280 Group, etc. (some are affordable), or associations (that are pseudo-private companies) like AIPMM, PDMA, or a local area group (as some provide affordable or free training)?

    1. Hey Jel888, thanks for the question and welcome to Tyner Blain!

      I think the best option for “training” you have is to roll your own solution. Pragmatic’s training is the only formal third party training I’ve had, and it was outstanding. I didn’t walk away from it ready to be anointed “product manager.” But I did walk away with a framework and perspective about how to think about product management.

      I’ve had the good fortune to “study” under good product management directors / executives. Those opportunities allowed me to apply the concepts from the training (and books, and other sources, as you mention) to discrete, real-world problems – measuring against specific measurable goals. With good mentors, I was able to measure the impact of my work, and get feedback and guidance. Over time I’ve been able to question the goals, and explore alternative techniques for achieving them. Engaging with other product managers has helped me vet ideas and concepts.

      The Dublin Institute of Technology now offers post-graduate and masters of science degrees in product management. It is structured like an executive-mba program, and provides (as far as I know) the most in-depth coverage of the craft of product management. Disclosure: I’m an instructor for one of the modules, so I may be biased, but I think the curriculum of the program is very well designed.

      What the formal, but horizontal, training gives you is insights into the important measures of success, as well as some tools for achieving them. You have to do your own “keeping score” and your own reflection and introspection. When I graduated with my engineering degree, I was able to “start doing engineering.” A few years later, I was a much better engineer.

      I don’t think you can receive training and “be good” at product management, but you can get training that gives you some of the tools, skills, and perspectives needed to be effective and if you focus on learning while doing, gives you the opportunity to become good.

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