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Getting a product management interview

Detailed advice on how to land a product management interview

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: August 13, 2020

Networking | Publishing insights | Building side projects | Other advice

Getting a product management job today is tough - full stop. Even getting *into* the interview itself is extremely tough - there is a crazy amount of competition.

This post provides advice on landing an interview. To write this post, we surveyed 20 product managers from Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Instacart, and Gusto to name a few and have curated and categorized the advice.

Nearly every single piece of advice fell into three categories, which we'll do a deep dive on below. We added a catch-all for a few good pieces of advice that didn't fit neatly into the three buckets:

  1. Networking
  2. Publishing insights
  3. Building side projects
  4. Other (applying to APM programs, etc.)

Finally, it's *critical* to note that these are not mutually exclusive. Landing a PM interview often requires successfully executing on some combination of buckets 1, 2 and 3.

#1. Networking is key (Top)

It's easy to understand but hard to do right.

In this section, we'll start by covering four types of people you should consider networking with. And next, we'll talk about advice for how to network with these people effectively.

Starting with who to network with, the product managers surveyed highlighted four key constituent groups:

  1. Friends and alumni
  2. Company meet-ups
  3. Recruiters (both internal and external)
  4. VCs (for earlier stage)

1.1 Ask friends and alumni for insights and help

The natural starting point is finding friends who've already made it into these firms and demonstrating your interest in their companies. Many tech companies offer referral bonuses to the employee who made the recommendation for a hire, so if they like you, they're really incentivized to make an introduction to a recruiter.

"The single best way to land an interview, IMO, is reach out to someone in your network (from your college alumni if you are starting out, or peers if you have some work experience) that already work at the company you are targeting and ask them for a referral."
- Murali Kamalesha, Sr. Product Manager, Instacart

"Find ANY [acquaintance] you know who works there and have them go to bat for you. At a large company -- there is probably even a bonus to them for helping get someone hired -- so it works for both of you. At Google, I helped many people get hired -- because they really wanted to work at Google and at a big tech company -- no just means you didn't find the right job to apply for -- apply again."
- Anon Google product manager

If you're in undergrad, another avenue is your university alumni network. This loose affiliation can be an avenue, since many people have some affinity toward their school and fellow graduates. However, remember that anyone from your school has the same level of connection to your alumni. Thus, you must find a way to uniquely position yourself and demonstrate why you're a particularly compelling candidate.

"When you get a coffee chat, don't talk about recruiting/interviews right away. Avoid making it transactional. Instead try to form a genuine connection and display what you have been doing and your experiences."
- Darsh Thakkar, Incoming Microsoft PM, ex-UPS APM

1.2 Leverage company meetups

If you don't have any friends or alumni connections, consider how you can meet people at your target company. One popular route is meetups (obviously this is tougher in the Covid-era, but virtual meetups could still work).

Companies that run meetups are often using them as a thinly veiled recruiting event. Why? Well, it's very effective to host a talk on a specific topic the company cares about (e.g., Airbnb hosting a meetup on trust & safety) and see who shows up. Naturally, the people who attend likely gravitate toward that topic and thus may be open / interested in roles there. Given that, there are likely to be recruiters there on the hunt.

"Find out what the events are that they are hosting. For example, Uber hosts tech talks (or used to pre-Covid) and that is really a way for them to recruit. Go to the events and network. You will meet people who work at Uber and I'm certain there will be recruiters there."
-Anon Google product manager

1.3 Utilize recruiters (both internal and external)

Speaking of recruiters, you can always go directly to the source too. In most tech companies, recruiters are financially incentivized by the number of candidates they source that ultimately get an offer and accept a job.

Recruiting is a sales role: they are selling you a job they hope you can get and will accept. And your incentives are well aligned with a recruiter at your target company - you want the same thing!

Many PM candidates mistakenly "look down" on recruiting as a less prestigious role - this is stupid (they are a powerful gatekeeper). Don't make this mistake - treat recruiters with respect. First, because they have a tough job, and you should emphasize (PMs need that skill). Second, because if they like you, then they will help you more (side note: they're great sources of info for what to expect in an interview). Third, because a good human treats everyone with respect, duh :)

"Don't be afraid to ask recruiters for coffee chats. If you bond with them, they are as human as you..."
-Darsh Thakkar, Incoming Microsoft PM, ex-UPS APM

Finally, you should consider working with third party recruiters as well. While they don't work at your target company, they are incentivized all the same to place candidates into roles. If you can get a recruiter to buy into your story, then they can help package that and sell it to companies. And if they're a good recruiter, they'll have a bunch of companies on their radar that they know are recruiting.

"A good recruiter has knowledge and connections with hiring companies, so they will be able to identify opportunities that the candidate wouldn't have known about otherwise. They also are very skilled at translating the candidate's background into a compelling story, and can help them get their foot in the door for an interview. Both of these are especially valuable for a first-time PM with a smaller network and less experience applying for product roles."
-Alex Rosen, Co-founder and Head of Product, Sense, ex-Google, ex-GREE

NOTE: In 99.9% of cases, the recruiter will be paid by the hiring company, not the candidate. If a recruiter pitches you and asks you to pay upfront, you should proceed with caution.

1.4 Build connections with investors (VCs and Angels)

Another route is networking with investors - either angel investors or venture capitalists.

This route will likely take time but, if you can build a relationship, then an introduction from an investor - which will typically go directly to the CEO or founding team - is a great way to get into the hiring funnel.

Building the relationship with the investor before the ask is the tough part - and likely requires you to put in significant proof of work, as discussed in the next section.

"Get a recommendation via one of the investors (when the company is still a start-up). This means building rapport with the VC -- so this isn't a one off quick action but something built over a career."
- Anon Google product manager

A great example of this working well is Tyler Hogge, who used this tactic to land a job at both A16Z and Wealthfront. He goes into great detail in this medium post, including screenshots of the actual emails sent.

IMPORTANT: All of the above networking routes only pay off when you display a genuine interest in the target role AND clearly distinguish yourself from the pool of available candidates.

Simply reaching out and expressing your interest - unless you already have a stellar, super impressive resume (e.g., valedictorian at Harvard, built your own iOS app that earned 10K downloads, etc.) OR the person already knows you and your accomplishments well - won't work.

The way to think about it is like this: there are multiple avenues for networking (as outlined above) but in each case you need that person to go to bat for you. To do that, you must equip them with your elevator pitch so they know how to "sell" you to the hiring manager or recruiting team.

#2. Publish your insights and showcase your work (Top)

The reality is that a good resume and "significant" interest in product management isn't enough to get an interview (in most cases). Even with networking the level of interest is too high - you need to cut through the noise.

Hands down, the best way to do this is to demonstrate that you're capable AND willing to do the work. Saying that you're interested doesn't cut it. So how do you "do the work" if you're not already a PM? The simple answer is that you pick an aspect of the job and prove you can do that.

There are many aspects you can pick: doing a "teardown" of a product and providing feedback, conducting user research and summarizing results, using your unique domain expertise to provide insights, doing a relevant industry analysis, etc.

The good news is: no one needs to give you permission to do this. You can study any product, industry, or user group yourself. The bonus: you'll learn by going through the process alone - even if it doesn't lead directly to a role, you'll be smarter. That's a win.

2.1 Go deep on the product and share feedback

Product feedback is a natural fit here. After all, if you want to work at a company as a PM, you better have some concrete ideas about how you can improve this product.

Putting these together in an email, Notion, Google doc or blog post and sharing them with your target company can be a great way to get your foot in the door. Note: once you've created an asset like this, it can be used to help set yourself apart in any of the networking conversations above.

"Send detailed product feedback to the CEO or high level leader (Depends on the size of the company). There is no guarantee this works -- but it is worth a try if it is a company you "must" work at. This is how Uber's first CEO (Ryan Graves) got the job. This is also how Foursquare hired one of their key leaders."
-Anon Google product manager

"[If Uber were the target company] Don't just give suggestions about Uber's basic features, but go deep on driver engagement, market expansion, rider privacy, or another topic. When folks looking to break in ping me, I've found this to be much more of a hook than broad generalizations about the business or product. It shows their ability to think critically about a narrow topic, rather than sharing a vague opinion (which is also more likely to be cribbed from someone else)."
-Mike Lyngass, Director of Product at Ethos, ex-Gusto Product Manager

"I was able to use this post [that I wrote] to get a solid PM connection at LinkedIn (could have been out of interest to help or the case study, not sure what actually prompted him to help)."
-Milap Patel, Incoming PM intern, Microsoft

2.2 Do user research and share insights

Another avenue is user research. If you're unsure if your feedback is just "fun ideas" or something customers (whether it's consumers or businesses) really need, this is a great place to start.

When I was interviewing at Uber in 2012, I did research on their drivers - taking 15 Uber rides and interviewing the drivers about how they used the driver side app, what worked, what didn't, etc. (details and findings here).

Truly understanding customer needs is critical for success as a PM. And there is no better way to start than by observing and interviewing actual customers. NOTE: This is obviously a lot easier for consumer products than B2B - the latter may be possible with the right connections, but tougher.

"[You] don't necessarily need to publish it in a polished blog post, it could be a simple Google Doc shared with the hiring manager or recruiter."
-Mike Lyngass, Director of Product at Ethos, ex-Gusto Product Manager

2.3 Leverage your domain expertise

Another angle you can use is leveraging any domain expertise you have. In any given space, having deep knowledge of the customer or industry can help improve the quality of decisions a product manager makes (note: not in all cases, but in many).

For example, if you've worked in hospitals before (or come from a family of healthcare workers,etc.), you may have deeper insight into how to launch products for a SaaS company focusing on hospitals or large doctor offices. This may not be your ideal PM job but it's possible that experience might set you apart and get you into the funnel. Down the line, you can then trade in your PM experience there to work toward a space you're more interested in (assuming you've built a track record operating as a PM there).

Once you're a few years out of school, this strategy can be even easier to employ if you've got 2-3 years of experience in an industry - whether it's healthcare, retail, construction, etc. Almost certainly, there is a PM job somewhere that serves customers in those industries.

"Deep expertise in the subject matter of the product area you want to interview for could be an important differentiator to make a recruiter or hiring manager think it'd be worth getting you into the PM interview process. So, even if your ideal product job is in another industry or at a company less related to what your expertise is in thus far, it would be worth playing the longer game in order to land that first PM role...

The process might look like:

1. You've identified you want to move into product management.
2. You have deep expertise in payment processing technology based on your last few years of work experience.
3. Longer term, you want to become a PM at Airbnb.
4. First pursue PM roles at FinTech companies within payments processing where you can really tell your story about your deep expertise and can use that as a way to demonstrate strong product chops.
5. Land that first PM role within payments
6. After a track record of success, go for a payments PM role at Airbnb.
7. After a track record of success, pivot internally to another PM role at Airbnb.

Alternatively, it's easier to seek a PM transfer within a company you've already established credibility at. So pursue role X that's aligned with your existing experience, but start talking about your career goals to move into product and work with manager(s) and mentor(s) internally to get you familiar with the transfer process and help set you up for a successful transfer after demonstrating success in your current role."
-Jill Schweitzer, Airbnb Product Manager, ex-Uber and Amazon Product Manager

#3. Build side projects to showcase your talent and drive (Top)

So far, everything we've discussed is pre-building - as in, you may have networked your face off, studied products, done user research etc, but you haven't built anything yet. This is where side projects come in.

Side projects give you an unrivaled opportunity: to take something from idea to living thing. If you strip down product management to its core, that's all it's about: take an idea and bring it to life (our detailed post on building a side project).

One of the reasons product management is such a tough job is that the skills required to successfully bring something from idea to life are incredibly varied. Many people are good at one end of the spectrum (e.g., they're great at high-level strategy but weak on tactics, execution, etc. OR the reverse, weak on strategy but great at executing). PMs really need to be strong enough throughout that spectrum.

#4. Other advice (Top)

4.1 Apply to APM programs

This route is both lower cost to entry (e.g., send in your application) but also less likely to bear fruit, since the competition and number of applicants can be staggering. However, there is no harm in trying.

Google and FB run the most popular APM programs, but there are a host of options out there and more popping up each day. For example, Instacart just launched an APM program. Targeting newer programs which have fewer applicants can help. Additionally, applying early can (sometimes) help get you noticed.

"Apply as EARLY as possible. If you apply on the same day as when a role is opened, often chances of getting a recruiter screening is more, in case of top tech companies."
-Darsh Thakkar, Incoming Microsoft PM, ex-UPS APM

4.2 Use the "foot in the door" strategy

Given the competition today, one of the best ways to get your "foot in the door" is getting a non-PM job in a smaller startup where there will be ample opportunity to pick up PM-y type work when it needs to get done and there just aren't enough people around.

Many PMs get their start by chipping in without the title, proving they can do the work and essentially earning the title. That can then be used to "trade-up" to bigger tech firms if that's your goal. Abby Grills, currently a Gusto PM, did that as did Alex Rosen, now the product co-founder at Sense.

"I also think joining the company in a PM-adjacent role and then moving is another option especially in small companies - I think there's an interesting ladder move here - e.g., you join in PM-adjacent role at 40 person company, in 6 months you are basically PM and then you do that for a while and move to bigger company as PM. I think at big companies this is harder to do since there's more internal competition so I think the small company, long-game is likely higher ROI :)"
-David Gasca, Director of Product, Google

Summary: compounding assets (Top)

If you've read this far, you're likely serious about landing the PM role. You'll also have realized most of what's recommended here sounds like a lot of work - it is.

A lucky handful of candidates will get a PM interview because of some stellar resume or some great family connection (e.g., their father is a VC and knows a Google Director of Product). For everyone else, you'll have to work for it.

But there is good news. First, the work to get yourself into the interview stage is often the type of work you'll do on the job so, if you enjoy doing that, then you're going down the right path. Second, the work you do here will pay dividends down the line. Any "proof of work" you do now becomes an asset that you can deploy in multiple instances - potentially throughout the years in your career (e.g., the work I did to land an Uber offer now serves to help RocketBlocks customers understand PM homework assignments - double win!).

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.