I have interviewed for a lot of product manager roles in the past. After having a meeting with one of the execs at 500px during one of his signature “walking coffee meetings” to get some advice, a thought had crystallized when he said something to the effect “Don’t even bother with 500px if you’re not into photography”. Sometimes you know you’ll be a good fit because you’ve already been a power user of the company you’re applying for. You know about industry the company is in, inside out, its competitors, market size and what segment its attacking.
In that statement, it conveys a few things and qualifies candidates the kinds of candidates they want right from the get go. Enthusiasm/passion/belief in a company can spill over into the quality of work you do and it qualifies candidates based on empathy for end users of the product. It enables candidates to view the company from the ground user level all the way up to a 10,000 foot view because of that empathy and understanding of the industry because of being quite familiar with it.
Want to work at X company?
Want to work at Shopify? Having an e-commerce store and talking about the challenges you’ve faced and overcome is a good story to tell. Also, having a history of shipping and taking the onus to own something from the ideation is something they look for as well. Want to work at Freshbooks? Maybe you’ve done freelance work before and needed to invoice your client and recall how painful it was keeping track of your invoices/billing. Want to work at Wattpad? Do you even read fiction a lot or write stories for fun? Deeply empathizing with the end user and being a few steps ahead of a particular desire or need of the end user are major pluses when you step up to the plate and take a swing at going through the motions of potentially joining a new team.
What precludes experience in the face of a fledgling PM or what can substitute it?
Sometimes it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether or not a PM is a good fit in the long haul. I’ve heard this from a senior level PM at Freshbooks in that hiring for product managers is more art than science, hiring for the discipline of product management falls into quite a fuzzy area.
You’ll get a group of PMs in a frenzy if you were ask them what makes for a good fit when it comes to successful product managers. But guess what? There is no one right answer. Even this blog post is an approximation based on anecdotal evidence of what may be true, much like how PMs have anecdotal evidence of what has worked out in the past.
However, you don’t need to have passion for a particular space or product, it certainly helps and gives you a leg up when you’ve created a track record for yourself, doing your homework to get a baseline understanding of the industry and knowing the space inside out
In lieu of actual PM experience, some good proxies for some experienced related to PM can be any function working close to the product as follows:
– If you’re a designer working with engineers
– A marketer working closely with engineers
– An engineer working on a product who shows an aptitude for working amongst cross-functional teams
– Working on side projects that you’ve shipped on your own or contributed to
– Or simply being founder driving forward the vision of your company / product
– Having a clear and repeatable problem solving framework that you rely on and being able to communicate that succinctly to stakeholders
By being any of the above and a part of the process of shipping product, it conveys not only your understanding and competence of the process of shipping a deliverable, but that you have a repeatable and iterative framework that you can repeat and improve, each time you ship something. That may very well be the edge when in comparison to other candidates while more experienced, when you’ve built up a track record and the data points that point towards your learning and progression. This can especially ring true when a company is keen on internal hires and seeing a candidate’s progress first hand as opposed to hiring externally.
Creating a digital paper trail
Another way of looking at it, is what I call de-risking yourself as a candidate. In essence, you’re looking to craft a track record for yourself. While a hiring manager may have to take a bit more of a risk, your track record, references have created a succinct story on where you’ve been and where you want to go as a PM.
Above all, if you’re to remember one thing, when hiring PMs, not only are they looking for culture fit, they are looking for a certain mindset – a problem solving mindset. Exactly what that is varies from company to company, but generally speaking, they want to see a clear process of deconstructing problems and how you make trade-offs in terms of resources (specifically engineering and design resources). That means being able to influence without authority and have stakeholders buy into whatever it is you’ve deemed worthy to stake your reputation on.
It is important you create a track record of undertaking projects that entail understanding a business problem. You’ll have done the research to present a clear and compelling business case in order to fathom gathering resources to see a particular feature or initiative through to the end. By doing so, that should set a solid foundation and a fighting chance for any PM role you apply to.
While this isn’t the most concise answer at this point, this is what I’ve synthesized from my own experiences, many unsuccessful interviews, and a few successful ones, alongside a failed startup. If you’ve started creating your own experience, you’re well on you way to getting into eventually landing a product manager role.
Sometimes all it takes is someone seeing the raw potential in you and taking a chance on bringing you on board.
How has it been like for you? Would love to chat with you in the comments!