Breaking into product management: Tanya Koshy

Breaking into product management: an interview with Tanya Koshy, Director of Product at UserTesting

In today’s post, we’re lucky to sit down with Tanya Koshy, a Director of Product at UserTesting and a PM alumni of Google, Facebook and Groupon.

Tanya shares the initial spark that piqued her interest in product management, how she convinced Groupon to take a chance on her and how she approaches PM interviews (hint: lots of research!).

Discovering product management at Google

Kenton Kivestu: When did you first think: product management is a job I want to do?

Tanya Koshy: It was at Google where I was an account manager, helping customers manage and optimize their Google ad spend.

My job was client-facing and my core duties were to help customers manage their advertising campaigns. Often, I ran into roadblocks in our product that prevented my clients from accomplishing what they wanted to do. I had to manually plug the gaps and find workarounds. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t clear to me how to fix it.

Eventually, I learned that there was a class of "product people" like product managers, product marketing managers and product specialists that were thinking about what customers needed and attempting to build products to address those needs.

KK: Ah! You found out who was responsible for those workarounds?

TK: Ha! Yes, and naively and arrogantly, I thought, "Well, I could do better!"

KK: Got it. So you wanted to be a PM on Google AdWords to fix those problems?

TK: Yes, but it’s not that easy. Product management is like a "cool kids" club. People have certain expectations of the profile you must have to be a PMs. At Google, they like candidates with a heavy technical background. I couldn’t talk my way into being a PM at Google.

However, I did figure out that I could get valuable product experience and exposure to the building products by joining the Product Specialist team, which worked with engineering and PMs to build products and was charged with being the customer expert, which I was well suited to.

An MBA as a path into product management

KK: Was taking the Product Specialist job a deliberate, interim step?

TK: Yes, they’re all stepping stones. My pitch to that team was: I’ve got deep client-facing and customer pain point knowledge and will be a great asset. In return, they help by giving me experience working with PMs and engineers and building products. It’s a give and take.

The way to get ahead is to make that calculus mutually work: give more, but continually gain experience that builds your skill set in the direction you want.

KK: Was the next step to leverage that experience into a Google PM role?

TK: At first, I wanted to be a PM at Google. I had a few other friends also prepping for Google PM interviews from internal transfers and they were making incredible efforts to ensure they’d pass the technical bar - getting letters of recommendation, taking algorithm classes to become more technical, etc.

Being technical isn't the only path into PM

The more I thought about it, I wasn’t convinced that becoming more technical was the right path for me. I started looking at PM job requirements at tech companies outside at places like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook et al and noticed a pattern: they all had "MBA preferred."

KK: Interesting, so that seemed like another path to explore?

TK: Yes. My read was: people are doing pattern matching for who can be a PM and, right now, I don’t have enough of the signals those gatekeepers want to see. I wasn’t technical, I worked in sales and I didn’t have an MBA.

KK: Did you get an MBA and was it useful to becoming a PM?

TK: Yes. I went to Kellogg. It was helpful for two reasons: 1) it was one of those signals companies were looking for in PMs and 2) it taught me how to approach a job search.

On the second point, I learned how to product manage the whole job search for a PM role. The hiring manager is the customer and I’m the product. I needed to make the case for why I was uniquely suited to succeed as a PM in his/her team and connect the dots for them.

KK: Great analogy. Did you land a PM internship or job right out of business school?

TK: Yes, I joined Groupon, which was growing like crazy at the time. Their MBA intern program was structured in a way where they hired generalists and then placed them into specific roles.

After getting a generalist intern offer, I told them I wanted to be in the PM group. Their default response was, "No way! You don’t have a technical background."

I went into sales mode and explained how my prior role involved working with engineers and PMs to build products to help small and medium sized business advertise and how that was directly applicable to what Groupon needed to build.

I told them that I'd work my tail off. I told them that the risk was so low - I was just an intern so I'd be gone in a few months anyway. I really pushed hard.

KK: What happened?

TK: They relented. There are a few lessons here: first, you need to make the case and fight for it. Second, you need some luck. A product leader named David Jesse took a chance on me and I’ll always be thankful for that.

Third, gain the experience that enables you to fight for yourself. I felt qualified to push hard, since I’d proven I could do the work in other roles already - given my PS experience at Google and knowledge of SMB marketing needs. Some people can just sell themselves based off of the confidence that they could do the work. For me, I needed to do it first to prove to myself I was capable, and that enabled me to say with confidence: give me the chance, I can do this.

Ultimately, getting that PM experience at Groupon gave me the confidence to return to Google as a PM too.

Preparing for a PM interview

KK: What’s your advice for folks going through PM interviews?

TK: First, do detailed research on the interview process at the company. Use anything you can find online like Glassdoor and Quora to learn about what that process might be like.

Second, scour the job description. I often find there clues to what skills they really care about. For example, some PM roles are more outbound facing where go-to-market skills are more important (e.g., Microsoft has a lot of these).

KK: That’s a good tip. What else?

TK: Leverage the recruiter as an information source.

You can ask them the "dumb" questions. Also, you’d be surprised what they’ll share and, in most case, there is no harm in asking. For example, questions like "What type of questions do the interviewers like to ask?" or "Where have candidates tripped up in the past?"

I also love to ask: “What makes a PM successful in your organization?” That’s worth asking to both the recruiter and the interviewers you meet with.

Do your homework before PM interviews

KK: What do you notice as a PM hiring manager on the other side of the table?

TK: Well, a lot of people don’t prepare. They don’t realize how strong the competition is. Here’s the thing: even if that person is really, really smart, how can you hire them if they don’t know your product well, haven’t thought about the business, etc.? That interview is the most important signal for how they’ll perform on the job, and if they didn’t prepare for that, well, who knows what they’ll do on the job.

KK: Got it. How should one prepare?

TK: You often face a pretty standard set of interviews that test 1) product sense/strategy 2) analytical skills and 3) your product execution skills. Technical skills are tested too, depending on the role and company.

I like to practice by thinking about questions in each category. I may over-prepare, but I also think it’s worth specifically structuring and articulating your approach.

Also, don’t just memorize answers to specific questions - that won’t work! Rather, you want to become adept at thinking about the class of problems - analytical, technical, product sense, execution - and articulating your approach to solving them.

KK: Any parting advice?

TK: In all of this preparation, don’t forget to demonstrate your unique approach and value. Remember, you are the product, the hiring manager is the customer, and you need to sell yourself as the unique, perfect solution to their hiring problem.

Summing it up

For us, there were three main takeaways in our conversation with Tanya.

  • Get the right experience: PM hiring managers often pattern match, so figure out how to gain some of the experience they’re looking for (and it doesn’t just have to be technical skills).
  • Make the case: Don’t be afraid to fight for yourself and make the case that you can do the PM job. You’ll need some luck too, but you’re more likely to find it if you keep advocating for yourself.
  • Hone core skills: In advance of an interview, practice questions in core categories to get comfortable structuring and articulating your thoughts.

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 Tanya, you can follow her on LinkedIn here.