Zero to PM - product management prep plan

A step-by-step recruiting and interview prep template for how to land a PM job in 3 steps.

Gavin Tong, Senior Product Manager at Unity
Published: Dec 21, 2021

Understanding PM | Get interviews | Interview prep

When asked what I do for a living, the title “Product Manager” often requires further explanation. I would often say: “It’s kind of like the intersection between business strategy plus project management plus experimentation and analytics plus product design plus sales plus…(the list goes on and on).” Sometimes this answer made sense to the audience and other times even I would struggle to pinpoint what I exactly do for a career.

Even if the audience works in tech, everyone’s concept of what a PM does varies. An individual contributor growth PM on a consumer product will have different responsibilities and strategic vision than a manager level PM on a platform product. Individual PMs may even approach the same problem differently.

Consulting prep plan

If this career of cross functionally working with every corner of the business and setting direction on strategic business decisions (with a slight sprinkle of ambiguity on how it all works) is interesting and you want to learn more, this is my guide on how to go from zero to PM:

Step 1. What is a PM and how can I be one (Top)

To me, every Product Manager’s job is to work with various stakeholders to create solutions to business problems. PM responsibilities can be highly ambiguous depending on what stage a company is at: Some may work on completely new products from the ground up (i.e. creating a new dating app with zero users) or grow products that already have a mature audience (i.e. optimizing the user acquisition funnel for an existing dating app with lots of users).

This ambiguity and autonomy is often the most fun part of being a PM: you can work on solving and identifying problems however you want with your team. There is no “correct way to PM”.

Even if you don’t know it yet, you are product managing your own career path so the first thing to do whenever solving any problem is to figure out what the landscape is. How can you become a PM if you don’t know what a PM is? Step 1 is really all about being a sponge and how you can equip yourself with the knowledge to become a great PM.

The following steps are broken down to Internal and External Learning. Internal learning are things you can do on your own to improve your knowledge of PM-ing. External learning requires the help of others.

Internal learning:

Learning what a “Product” is and how to make products sticky. Nir Eyal’s book does a great job of breaking down some common products:

I really like this guide on describing what the role of a PM is by Alex Valaitis (LinkedIn, Intuit, Dell).

Read this guide on a light framework (Zero to One) by Michelle Lee (Protocol Labs, Code for America, Google) on how to approach Product Development as a PM and PRD writing

Develop a “curious” mindset and the ability to ask a ton of questions to get to the core of a problem. Be a learning sponge!

  • PMs have to work with various stakeholders like Engineering, Design, Sales, Ops, Leadership, etc., who are all experts in their realm, to solve problems. PMs are experts in none of these areas, but as the person helping to steer the ship, your responsibility is to make sure everyone is aligned.
  • To ensure alignment, you will have to know how to ask questions. Be humble, don’t make unsupported assumptions, and ask questions with a focus of “Why?” and “How?” to solve a problem versus the “What?” of a solution may look like.
  • Create 2 lists of questions for informational interviewing in order to learn what makes a great PM (more on this below):
    • 1. Pms
    • 2. PM stakeholders (Engineering Leads, Product Designers, Product Marketing, Operations, etc.)

Document everything!

  • This will help your progress as it will be impossible to remember everything you want to do. This will also help your own learning as documenting and writing concisely is a huge part of successful PM-ing.
  • This is my own screenshot of notes from back in 2017 as I was transitioning and learning more about being a PM. The thoughts are a bit disorganized but served as a checklist for what I knew I needed to do and things other people I had talked to recommended:
  • Screenshot of checklist for learning more about PM

External learning:

Conduct informational interviews with a few PMs and PM stakeholders in your network and buy them coffee. Getting different perspectives on the same questions will enable you to grow to become a great PM. Remember they’re doing you a favor, so prepare accordingly and maintain professional courtesy:

  • Some questions to PMs and stakeholders can include (and should spawn subsequent questions):
    • Why did you choose to become a PM?
    • How is being a PM at your current role different than previous ones?
    • How have you seen great PMs perform well? (The inverse is applicable too, especially with PM stakeholders).
    • What are some mistakes you’ve made as a PM and how would you approach them differently now?
    • Who is someone else you think I should talk to for a good perspective? (network building)
  • If you’re switching from a different career path to exploring PM-ing (like I did), you can have chats with PMs at your company (and your manager) to see if you can help PM a small part of a project in order to get a hands-on feel of PM-ing.

By the end of Part 1, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What does a PM do?
  • What are some things I’ve done (either at work or not) that are examples of PM-ing?
  • Roughly, what are things for PM-ing I’m good at and what are things I can do to improve?

Step 2. How can I get PM interviews? (Top)

Getting an interview for a PM role is not really different from getting interviews for other jobs but here a few main pointers:

Get your resume for PM applications into shape for application. This RocketBlocks post from Justin Luk, PM at Meta, does a great job of showing how to write and design a PM resume.

Depending on what stage of career you’re at and what you’re looking for, identify some companies you would like to work for as a target list (make this list very large! Sometimes you may think you want to work for a “sexy” company, but you may need to balance a great role vs a great brand name).

Leverage your network.

Use your existing connections and those you’ve formed via informational interviews to help forward your resume along. You can also ask secondary connections for help here too:

  • This can look like: “Hey it looks like you know someone at XYZ company, would you mind reaching out for me so I can have a chat?”

Most people that you have a good relationship with will be willing to help you out. Do NOT ask people that you barely know to recommend you, it’s just poor form and the recommendation will not go very far.

Polish your personal brand.

Update your LinkedIn to reflect your experience and cool projects you’ve done. You should also use this platform to interact with others in your network, as that will come up in any potential search.

  • For example, be specific on KPIs your project achieved in a way that anyone reading it could understand: “Developed a new UI feature that provided customer insight into game performance, increasing the amount of time users spent on the dashboard by 35% compared to historical measures.”
  • Don’t just write things on your profile that are “I did…” or “I have…”. Avoid statements that are basic like “Experience using SQL” and enhance them by providing real examples like “Wrote SQL queries and analyzed data that uncovered a breakdown in the customer acquisition funnel. Fixing this increased conversion by 12%”.

Scrub any reasons to question your candidacy from social media (ie Maybe your “hot take” on grilled cheese in college isn’t worth keeping on the internet). People post silly things all the time, it’s up to your internal risk assessment what’s worth keeping.

  • People will do a google search on you and so you want to make sure you are coming up in an appropriate light.

By the end of Part 2, you should:

  • Have your PM resume ready and examples of an elevator pitch of PM-ing you’ve done (the latter is less applicable for entry level).
  • Personal brand is polished.
  • Have your resume forwarded or applied for a bunch of roles on your target list.

Step 3. Preparing for the PM interview (Top)

This might seem like a strange idea, but interviewing is actually a skill that can be honed with practice and time. Think of interviewing like auditioning for the part of a play. There are certain things you can practice like memorizing your lines, but other aspects like how you deliver a line (with emphasis and gusto!), that also factors in. Much of the time, interviewers aren’t looking for the “correct” answer to a question but the line of thought you use to arrive at that answer and how you can demonstrate that.

There are 3 areas that are important to hone in on for a PM interview:

  1. Product Sense (good read here by co-author of Cracking the PM interview)
  2. Analytics
  3. Communication

1. Product Sense

Developing a “Product Sense” is a fundamental skill for Product Managers and is the skill that sets PMs apart from other roles. This is the ability to understand what makes a product great and how it could potentially grow further.

Interviews will ask you to work case studies and/or ask you questions about real world products (or your own products if you’ve been a PM before) in order to understand how you can break the problem down and communicate your strategy.

  • There are a lot of resources out there about Product Management case studies. I recommend going through a few and then practicing some with a PM friend if you can.
  • Jackie Bavaro’s article has a great “Goal Practice” section to help you develop this skill as well.

A few fundamentals to ask yourself whenever you are asked a product sense question or case study:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve? What are some KPIs (Key Performance Indicators, stats that prove you are solving the problem) that let me know if this solution works or not?
  • What assets can I use for this company (existing or not) that can help me solve this problem?
  • Who is your target customer?
  • How could I potentially go to market with this product or improve market adoption (what are channels that make sense)?
  • What could this product look like in 3 years? 5 years?
  • This is a great framework provided by Allen Yang on approaching Product Sense questions (ex-Google, current at Bubble)

Lastly, don’t worry about creating the perfect solution in your interview that will be applicable to everyone in the world as such a thing doesn’t exist. What’s more important is to showcase how you arrived at your solution and to walk the interviewer through your line of thinking.

2. Analytics

Analytics are the tools PMs use to prove that their solution is solving the intended problem. It’s important to establish these KPIs before you start development of a product, otherwise, how would you know what impact your solution has or not?

Interviewers will ask questions around the type of data you use in order to quiz you on how you have evaluated your own products (hypothetically or not).

For example, if you are running a game’s monetization strategy and have rolled out a new place in the game to show an ad, what are some metrics you would use to evaluate the impact of the new ad?

  • You could look at KPIs like ad revenue per user to see if you’ve made more money with this new ad, average session length will tell you the impact the ad has had on how long players play the game, etc.

Interviewers are really looking for how you evaluate the product in a way that makes sense, not as much the metric itself that you would use. They’re also looking for how you would employ analytics with experimentation, as products often go through multiple iterations before even making it to market. You should practice talking about each iteration of a product and why it worked or didn’t according to its KPIs.

If you want to read more in depth on answering questions around analytics, this is a great guide.

3. Communication

This is the skill that ties everything together. Great communication is defined by how effectively you can get your message across to your audience. This is the part of your skillset that allows you to really sell your vision of yourself as a PM to your interviewer. Much like the example of auditioning for a play, great communication is sometimes more about how you say the words, not really the words you use.

There are a few things that sound silly to do, but really help to hone your communication skills.

  • Practice answering a question out loud and record yourself. Yes, it can be very awkward to watch yourself talking, but this will help you identify any gaps in communication that may distract your interviewer from your message. Am I saying “um” too much? Am I rambling? Etc. can be mitigated by practice.
  • Give a mock presentation on any topic to your friends or trusted colleagues. Present a hobby of yours with a Pecha Kucha style to develop speaking and communication skills. This format of presentation forces you to present quickly with minimal visuals so you have to really focus on what you present and what you want the audience to know.
  • Ask them for feedback on what worked, what didn’t, so that you can hone this skill when you’re put on the spot with a question by an interviewer.

Personal tip here: oftentimes when people are nervous, they tend to speak faster, say “um” a lot, and use more words than they would normally to explain something. It’s okay to slow down, take a breath, and focus on using fewer words. I oftentime find that focusing on using fewer words and speaking slower helps me to get my point across more effectively.

By the end of part 3, you should:

  • Developed the beginnings of a great product sense (or further developed if you are a PM already).
    • Keep practicing to keep your product sense sharp!
  • Be comfortable talking about metrics and how to evaluate a product’s success.
  • Recite Shakespearean soliloquies a few times a week. Kidding on that last one…maybe?

This isn’t a comprehensive guide by any means, but learnings I’ve encountered on my journey as a PM. Feel free to add this as a tool in your toolbox and definitely continue reading, learning, practicing from others in this space as well!