Breaking into product management: an interview with Sense Co-Founder, Alex Rosen

Recently, we had the good fortune to sit down with ex-Googler and Sense co-founder, Alex Rosen, who's held PM leadership roles at Funzio, GREE and his current company, Sense.

In our conversation, we discuss Alex's journey breaking into product management beginning with his first "bombed" PM interview, his "junior" PM experience at Google and his unique take on transitioning into PM via a deep understanding of the customer.

I want to be a product manager

Kenton Kivestu: Let's start with the basics. When did you first learn about product management?

Alex Rosen: I was in college but I can't recall where I read about it. I do know it sounded cool immediately - setting the roadmap, making decisions, working with engineers.

I remember thinking to myself: "This person gets to do everything and be in charge - sounds good to me."

KK: Perfect first job out of college, right?

AR: Haha, right. I got one PM interview and completely bombed it.

The draw to product management as a career

KK: OK, so you learned about the role in college. Why were you drawn to it?

AR: I've always liked the idea of making products.

I like figuring out how things work. I like thinking about why various product decisions were made, and I've always had this urge to see if I could help make products better.

Also, I don't have any other applicable skills - I'm not an engineer or a designer. So, in some ways, given my interest and skills (or lack thereof), it was the only role left that I had a shot at.

Getting "junior PM" experience at Google

KK: OK, so you realized in college that product management was interesting but you bombed the one interview you got. What happened next?

AR: After Wesleyan, I started at Google in the Consumer Ops group in a non-PM role.

I did a mix of customer support and helping companies implement G Suite (e.g., getting set up on corporate Gmail, Docs, etc.).

My boss knew of my interest in PM roles and he advocated for me. Luckily, I was fortunate to be on the G Suite team because there was more work than PMs to do it.

KK: In what ways did your boss advocate for you?

AR: He'd volunteer me to help out PMs with various projects, especially if they needed insight on particular customer pain points.

That led to me helping on the launch of the Reseller Dashboard - a dashboard that helped "middleware" companies resell G Suite products. It was not sexy. There was a PM on the project but, quite frankly, no one wanted to touch it. Except me. So I got to take ownership of small pieces, suggest things, help test it out, etc.

KK: That's great! So you were PM'ing this dashboard?

AR: Yeah, little pieces of it. It was a start.

Importantly, that led to work designing the G Suite setup wizard where I worked directly with the PM lead. I didn't know any of the PM vocabulary since my core job was still talking to customers all day, but I'd developed good intuition for what our customers cared about.

During product meetings, I was the annoying guy saying "Hey, this is not at all what customers want!" Sometimes I was right, sometimes I wasn't, but I learned that the PM team really valued my domain expertise on the customer needs.

It was a great opportunity to be a kind of "junior PM." I thought the work was great and I feel very fortunate that I got these opportunities.

Earning the product manager title

KK: Did this make you want to be a Google PM?

AR: I was interested in trying to get into the Google APM program but the transfer politics were tough. My manager was supportive and people were willing to help but nothing was happening quickly. Google rolls on its own schedule.

KK: Ha, yes it does. Did you start looking elsewhere for PM roles?

AR: I got the opportunity to join a gaming company, Funzio, in a data and growth marketing type role.

It was effectively a growth-focused PM role. This is where I got a rapid education on the product management role. We were launching products quickly and iterating, and it was very, very data driven. It's where I cut my teeth as a data-focused PM. Over time, I grew the team in analytics and led what would now be called growth marketing. Eventually, I transitioned into my first formal PM role, managing some of the specific games.

Advice to aspiring PMs: know thy customer

KK: What do you tell aspiring PMs that ask you for advice?

AR: You want to leverage your deep skill set into the role - so if you're an engineer or designer, use that as the gateway. But for people like me who don't have those skills, my advice is to get a job where you're in super deep contact with customers.

Customer experience or support roles aren't always glamorous, but I'd never give up that experience! I can't imagine being a PM now without having it.

It's so helpful for understanding what the "ground truth" is and what the customers want. If you can force yourself to keep running notes of what needs to be fixed, what can wait (but should be fixed) and what should never be changed (because it's counter to the product vision), you'll start building good muscle memory around prioritization.

This is embodied at my current company, Sense, where I run the Product and Customer Success organizations. Right now we have two PMs, and they do plenty of customer success manager work, including ramping up customers on new features and gathering feedback.

KK: What else should one do?

AR: Speaking the language of your collaborators (like engineering and design) helps a lot.

If you're technical, maybe taking an intro level design course can help. Or if your non-technical, doing an intro level CS course might help, as these are people you're going to interact with at lot at your job.

For example, my own CS experience didn't progress beyond building simple terminal games in entry level programming classes. But ten years later, I still remember being super pissed off when I couldn't get my Sudoku solver to compile in Java. So the scale of that versus what I work on today is obviously massively different, but some of that experience helps me empathize and communicate more effectively with engineers.

I was also really fortunate to have people around me willing to teach me the basics of how modern software is architected and made. My old roommate (and current colleague!) Kyle is a great engineer and was endlessly patient with my when I asked him how something worked, why it was that way, etc. That helped build up my technical fluency, which I think is critical for any PM who doesn't have a formal engineering background. It seems simple, but hanging around people building the kinds of things you want to helps a lot.

As a PM, you have to work with everyone, so it pays to care about the details of each role. It's a "T" shaped role, so a breadth of experience is helpful.

Approaching product management interviews

KK: If you fast forward to preparing for the PM interview, how should one prepare?

AR: Buy RocketBlocks.

KK: Ha! I agree, but I'm super biased. What else?

AR: Almost all PM interviews will evaluate you on the typical dimensions: product sense, analytical skills, technical chops, execution skills, design sense, etc. But most companies have one or two they care about most.

You should find out which of the core skills matter most for that particular company and/or role and how you can demonstrate your strength there. Also, there is other domain expertise that you can demonstrate. For example, if it's a PM position for an iOS app and you bring in-depth knowledge of how the App Store works and how to optimize for that, that could be a significant advantage.

KK: That's a good point. There is a lot of variability in PM roles and particular domain expertise can be extremely attractive to hiring managers.

AR: I think the last piece of advice is just to demonstrate a really strong product sense and overall curiosity.

When I hire PMs, I look for the drive to build things. I'm open to hiring someone who's never opened Excel before as long as that product sense and drive is super strong.

KK: Any last comments?

AR: Even when you're not a PM, there are lots of opportunities to practice being one. Make sure to identify the moments when someone is giving you an opportunity and jump on them.

Much of being a PM is figuring out a way to get things done, even if it means steamrolling at times. So if the path to PM seems fuzzy and not fair at times, finding a way to pass those hurdles can be a good test of what the job is like.

Summing it up

Putting it all together, here are our three key takeaways from Alex's journey into product management.

  • Customer expertise: a deep knowledge of customer needs and pain points can be a valuable way to get your foot in the door and pays dividends when you're a PM!
  • Learn the vocabulary: From design to engineering, PMs work with a wide range of interdisciplinary roles and knowing how to speak to colleagues in their respective 'languages' is helpful.
  • Seize opportunity: take the initiative to do PM-like work - even if it isn't sexy - because it helps build your skills and your resume. It's also a skill that's inherently part of the PM job.

Finally, if you're considering a career in product management, we encourage you to check out our Getting started guide, which is chock full of insights from PMs at companies like Google, Amazon, Stripe, Facebook, Twitter and more. If you're interested in learning more about Alex, you can find him on Twitter here: @alexmr.

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.