Product Management Certifications – A Bit of History and Are They Worth It?

Early Market Dynamics

Product management is an established profession.  It has formally been in existence for several decades and is a well-recognized corporate function for many industries, particularly in the technology sector.  Companies require efficient product management processes, coupled with competent people to execute those processes.  Many individuals have built successful and respectable professional careers in various product management roles.

Accordingly, it was only natural that discussions about the need for a product management certification started to appear in the late 1990s on several of the online communities that were dedicated to product management.  Much of the talk centered on the lack of existing options that would allow a person to validate their professional competency or assess it in others.  In addition, many practitioners, HR managers, and recruiters lamented that there was no reliable way to evaluate product management professionals, and, as a result, companies and organizations were employing various inaccurate criteria, hastily conceived tests, and implausible interview styles in order to identify or qualify a candidate's or an employee's product management skill set.

Indeed, people sensed at that time that the product management profession had reached a point of maturity and acceptance which would justify opportunities for certifying expertise.  I was one of those people.

This was in the early 2000s, at the outset of my career, and I was just beginning to establish and make a name for myself.  In response to that growing need in the market for a product management certification, I pioneered, designed, and wrote all the questions and content for Pragmatic Marketing's (a product management training company from Arizona, USA) original Pragmatic Marketing Certified Practitioner (PMCP) certification program.  It was a yearlong effort.

The PMCP certification program was highly respected and consisted of a single high-stakes test that was delivered via Prometric test centers (Prometric is a global test delivery and administration provider, based in the USA).  High-stakes certification programs, an industry accepted classification, are regarded as having tests that can dramatically, positively or negatively, impact an individual's career, salary, and chances of getting hired and promotion.  These programs are more expensive and their tests are delivered in a proctored environment.  High-stakes tests strive to be credible and reliable but are hard to study for, difficult to successfully pass, and can have a thirty percent or higher failure rate.

Such was the PMCP certification which I had designed – it was an advanced certification program ahead of its time and it was terminated after about three years.  The PMCP certification program was a forerunner and the void left with its elimination was quickly filled by variations of low-stakes product management certification programs.

Low-stakes certification programs are regarded as having simple, general, and generic multiple-choice quizzes, and have virtually no impact on one's career parameters.  These low-stakes tests do not require much effort or time to study for and have abnormally high pass rates.

While the need for a product management certification was publicly recognized, lurking in the background is always the question of what subject matter should the certification be based and the individual tested on.   The low-stakes tests by their own design are very general.  Accordingly, the low-stakes product management certification programs content converged and they became based on a collection of disjointed and freely available generic public domain content, maybe coupled with some theoretical/academic content and proprietary models to provide more legitimacy.  These simple tests are not worthless but career-wise they are definitely worth less and their entire value is intrinsically limited to being a self-assessment tool, at best.

Alas, product management remains misunderstood and ill-defined by many, mistakenly generalized and detrimentally misperceived to be responsible for everything related to the product.  There are still people struggling to this very day to define what product management is.  Therefore, in the past and still today, building a neutral product management certification is a futile task since there are a confounding number of inconsistent and conflicting product management misinterpretations floating about.

Past Lessons Learned

In the mid-2000s I started to get requests, mainly from large enterprises and multinational corporations, for a test that would assess practitioners on a defined set of best practices and proven methods of performing specific tasks in product management.  The companies wanted credible validation that candidates and employees understood and comprehended the relevant subject matter.

With hindsight in mind relative to the Pragmatic Marketing Certified Practitioner (PMCP) certification program that I had built, I knew that the market was not yet ready for another high-stakes certification program.  I also knew that large companies and serious professionals are much averse to low-stakes certification programs.

The Blackblot PMTK Methodology™ was already established by the mid-2000s and, following careful consideration, the Blackblot certification program was built by myself and my team around the PMTK methodology, and positioned as a medium-stakes certification program with an intermediate rating of difficulty.  It was another yearlong effort.

Medium-stakes certification programs are regarded as personal achievements that enhance professional development, and can impact the certification candidate's career, as well as the effectiveness of the organizations that employ those individuals.  Such certifications are taken independently with open book materials and delivered over the internet.  The whole idea is to fairly verify that you know the material through learning.  You will pass the test if you study and fail if you do not.

Being Certified Has Some Value

Being certified is really about investing in one's self.  It is an intangible investment that demands much effort and yields probabilistic returns in both the short term and long term.  True high and medium-stakes professional certifications also provide individuals with means to demonstrate their commitment to their profession, and set themselves apart from others in the same profession.  It is also an asset that is often used by companies to assure that they have competent personnel.

But let us all be realistic.  An individual's career progression and employment is based on a multitude of shifting factors which include experience, track record, education, training, certification, pedigree, timing and opportunities, and a host of personal, social, cultural, political, and emotional considerations.  Especially today, nothing ensures getting hired, provides a measure of job security, or guarantees a steady income.

The reality is that being accredited with any good certification will not directly lead to and has little impact on getting job interviews or promotions since most employers presently place little value on the credential for the specific purpose of job hiring or workplace promotion.

On the upside, the majority of certified individuals affirm that a credential is a positive career differentiator.  In addition, the overwhelming majority of certified individuals profess that a credential has asserted their position as a trusted authority in product management and validated their skills and commitment to the product management profession.

Evidently it seems that obtaining an advanced certification credential nowadays will not yield major career opportunities or changes.  Conversely, being befittingly certified is a notable achievement that undeniably manifests in positive peer/employer recognition and higher professional esteem.