ResourcesBlogProduct Management Certificate vs Certification — What’s the Difference?

Product Management Certificate vs Certification — What’s the Difference?


Product Manager now ranks #4 on Glassdoor’s 50 Best Jobs of America for 2020. So, it’s not surprising that over the past few years we’ve seen the number of product management training courses and content available explode. In many ways, this is a great thing. We applaud the strength and growth of the community of thought leaders and know there is much to learn from each other—across industries and organizations. In fact, here is another great blog on the best low-cost or free product management courses to start. As they say, smart people learn from their mistakes, but the wise learn from the mistakes of others.

At 280 Group, we do our part to give back with high-quality content, resources, and training curricula. We know it can be difficult to differentiate between knowledge providers—especially since the topics can start sounding the same.

There are two central questions to consider when evaluating any knowledge program:

  1. Will I learn what I need to be a phenomenal Product Manager?
  2. Will the credential be a credible proof point?

This blog will help you think more about the second point, explaining the differences between the two most common proof points we see: certificates and certifications.

Product Manager Certificates

Certificates are the most common type of proof points we see. Courses that offer certificates are designed for students to achieve some level of knowledge in a given topic or subject matter. They may be of varying length of study and also of varying breadth or depth of material. Certificates are issued by the same party that is creating and delivering the content. The provider may bestow a certificate of completion to any participant of a course. Some courses are designed with a quiz or short test at the end of a lecture prior to the delivery of a certificate.

Courses that offer certificates are the most common because there is no standard or requirement for their creation. Students should evaluate a course to see whether they will receive a certificate of completion or a certificate based on some degree of testing to make the certificate more meaningful.

Product Manager Certifications

More rigorous courses prepare a student to receive a Certification by passing an exam offered by an independent third-party. Multiple companies can provide a course designed to prepare a student for the same certification exam. They may cover some different topic areas, but they must align with the topics on the certification exam to properly prepare a student to pass the exam. This means that the courses have an independent standard or benchmark for the content they deliver. If too many students take the exam and don’t pass, the course provider will quickly earn a poor reputation.

Certification exams are also much more rigorous when it comes to quality. The exams are proctored by a third-party entity that must follow industry standard rules for certification. These exams are often timed such that it would be difficult to “cheat.” Obtaining product manager certification means receiving a passing grade on the exam. Merely showing up for the exam is not enough.

What’s the Difference

Given the rigors of a true certification exam, when a professional passes the exam and achieves certification, they have real proof that they have mastered the subject matter. Certificates on the other hand are merely a sign of completion and don’t typically measure proficiency with the material.

Unfortunately, some companies that offer certificates try to make them look like certifications. They can use marketing techniques to create a false sense of offering a credential, which is a disappointing and misleading practice. They can even try to use the term “Certified” to describe their learning program, to capitalize on the misunderstanding.

However, the difference is easy enough to tell. Just check to see who is offering the credential. If the same company that delivers the training provides the certification, then it is not a true certification. You are only receiving a certificate of completion.

Why Independence Matters

Certificates are distributed by the same companies that offer the knowledge program. Their value and quality therefore are not determined independently. Rather the company can set its own rules and processes to define who receives a certificate, and who doesn’t. Unfortunately, this can lead to low standards, including mere attendance.

“While the terms sound similar, earning a certification is not the same as receiving a certificate. When receiving a certificate, this demonstrates that a person has taken a course to gain knowledge in a particular skill area” said Therese Padilla, President, Association of International Product Marketing & Management. She added “Earning a certification affords the candidate both the title “Certified,” as well as demonstrates the candidate has a thorough understanding of the subject matter. AIPMM offers certifications following the stringent ANSI/ISO 17024 guidelines.”

High-quality standards

Certifying bodies achieve independent industry standards to maintain their ability to certify others. For example, exam questions are written by an exam board and are designed to have an appropriate level of difficulty. Certifying bodies also have rules on how the exam can be taken and how often. They are audited by another independent body as an incentive for them to maintain strict compliance with the rules or forego their ability to certify. Therefore, certification exams must comply with a strict set of rules and guidelines to maintain an elevated level of difficulty, and therefore real value.

In addition, certifying bodies maintain separation by only proctoring the exam, and providing materials, not providing training courses. This ensures that both the training provider and the certifying body align incentives with the learner. Since the certification exam is not written or maintained by the training providers, they are incentivized to maintain a high quality of materials and instruction to ensure a high pass rate for their students. If they are unable to adequately prepare their students for the certification exam, then the training provider would go out of business. And since the certifying body does not provide the training materials, but instead would like to maintain the credibility of its certification, this ensures that the material on the exam is maintained and is appropriately difficult enough to set a standard of proficiency.

Getting Ahead

To restate the premise at the start, what is most important in choosing a knowledge program is first to learn from it, and next to prove it. Because product management certification requires learning to a standard that is much more rigorous than receiving a certificate, you can be sure to learn the most important content and material that meets an industry standard.

However, that is not to say that certificates are not valuable. They too can prepare you for your role. And of course, no certification is going to take the place of real-life experience. So, while there are still many more considerations to make before choosing a program and to invest your time, energy, and resources into, I hope this post has helped you make an informed decision on whether to get a certificate or to get certified. If you are interested in the latter, visit our certification page to check out some great options and get on your way to an industry-standard level of excellence in product management.

Rina Alexin
December 16, 2020