In 2021, Meta’s Chief Product Officer earned a base salary of $855,385, plus a cash bonus of $841,803 along with a $12.5 million stock package vesting over five years, according to SEC data.
In 2023, the CPO at Coinbase famously departed the company having banked $105 million in just a three-year period.
While these may be extremes, there’s no doubt that becoming a CPO can be incredibly lucrative. For many product managers, it's the ultimate goal.
It's also incredibly tough to crack into.
To help you get a realistic look at the process, we had a look at the real data. We analyzed the career progression of 100 Chief Product Officers to see just what it really takes to land this coveted role.
We manually sourced data points from public LinkedIn profiles of 100 Chief Product Officers who are currently active in their roles. We aimed for a mix of CPOs from Forbes Cloud 100 companies, top public SaaS companies, and some of the largest tech organizations by market capital.
Here’s a quick summary of their profiles:
We took into consideration subjective, identifiable factors such as formal education, years in this profession, as well as prior roles, and the exact path it took for them to become a CPO.
Let’s start with the basics:
Most commonly, you’ll need between 21 to 25 years of work experience before your first CPO role:
Fast movers will be able to score a CPO role in the first 6 to 10 years. But they are the minority, at only 4%.
In most situations though, CPOs didn’t start their careers as a PM. The most popular role is by far anything related to Software Engineering with many CPOs starting in this track.
Fun fact: One particular CPO held the Chief Technology Officer role before switching to the product side of the C-Suite. Our research also shows that people in executive roles such as VPs of Design or Chief Customer Officers can also get a CPO role without having had a formal product role. What matters the most is hands-on experience with a particular product within an organization.
The CPO role has been constantly evolving over the past decades but it’s still in its earliest stages. There’s only two people on our list that have held this role for as many as 20 years. Most of them have under five years of experience in this executive product position.
The chart below should give you a clear idea of how many years you’ll likely spend in a CPO role. Since being a Chief Product Officer is such a senior role, there aren't many opportunities after this. You could become CEO, maybe COO, or make a lateral move into a different C-suite position. We didn't look at hard data on post-CPO life, but anecdotally we have noticed that many aim to retire, work in philanthropy, or focus on advising and investing after a CPO tenure.
The odds are fairly even with 56% of CPOs having been hired into their role.
Getting promoted to a CPO might seem easier if you’ve been working with the same company for a while. You prove yourself, you know the ins and outs of the product, and you score promotion after promotion.
But the company also has to keep up. If your organization’s not growing, there may be no need for a CPO. Or prehaps you'll organization is very mature and you'll have better luck brining your expertise to a smaller team. That’s why a lot of senior product professionals opt to switch their organization to land this role. Some of the CPOs we looked at also held previous CPO roles at other companies. Once you have the role, it’s much easier to hold the same responsibilities at the company of your dreams.
Generally speaking, location is not the primary factor when it comes to becoming a Chief Product Officer. Although businesses do have preferences in terms of location, candidates qualified for this position can often find great opportunities regardless of their geographic place of residence. Some of the CPOs we looked at work remotely or as part of a hybrid team.
But there's two core indicators of why you'll still want to take location into consideration:
Most CPOs attended and finished a degree in a traditional, four-year university program.
There seems to be a strong preference towards candidates from popular majors like Computer Science, Business Administration, or Economics as most CPOs have a degree in one of these or related fields.
What about those that didn’t get any kind of formal education?
They simply started from smaller roles.
One particular CPO started working as a Web Designer, then built his own company and gradually jumped into the product space.
Note: When it comes to other types of certificates, it largely depends on the type of product and team a CPO regularly works with. For instance, some of them got extra courses in Machine Learning or Project Management. This proves CPOs are primarily interested in improving their knowledge and abilities within the space they’re active in. The most popular certification, however, is anything Scrum-related like a Scrum Master or Scrum Product Owner certificate.
Only 35 out of 100 CPOs we analyzed have an MBA. Many Chief Product Officers come from technical backgrounds in design or software engineering since their job typically involves supervising the development of a product. While having a general business background may have been beneficial, most of them focused on building other company/product-specific skills.
Earning one can be an excellent choice for those who want to become a Chief Product Officer. An MBA provides broad business knowledge and teaches important strategies to help one succeed in a product leadership role.
On the other hand, a degree in Business Administration may not be required, but the education certainly helps someone understand the complicated and competitive nature of the marketplace, along with the business acumen to succeed in these positions. Ultimately, for most CPOs it was their individual experience beyond formal education that determined whether or not they qualified to become a Chief Product Officer.
Becoming a Chief Product Officer is not a single journey. But there’s some common experiences today’s top CPOs share.
Starting with a background in business or even computer science can provide you with the skills and knowledge necessary to understand how an organization's product is managed from the top down.
For your next steps, make a plan of where you want to be in the next five years. Write down the experience you need to acquire and the skills you should continue to polish.
It's also worth paying careful attention to the companies you choose to work with:
Some of our favorite resources and communities where the CPOs of tomorrow hang out!
Best of luck!
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