When I first started applying for PM roles, I heard the same rejection over and over again. Each one had its nuances but the message was roughly akin to: “You’re not a good fit because you didn’t go to Harvard / Stanford / MIT and you don’t have a CS degree.”
Since then, I’ve learned that that excuse is BS but it will take concerted effort on your part to overcome it. The good news: it’s doable - if you’re willing to do the work.
This action plan I’ve created below is the template I’ve created for helping a non-CS degree MBA break into product management (although I think the advice is mostly the same for an undergrad or early career person too).
Landing a PM requires three things: 1) understanding PM context 2) getting an interview and 3) acing the interview. All three are necessary steps - so resist the temptation to skip to part #3 immediately.
Time: 1-4 weeks
If you do *not* truly understand the PM role, you will almost certainly not get an offer - even if you’re super smart. There are two ways to build context: 1) primary research and 2) secondary research.
Secondary research: Start with secondary because it will *improve* your ability to do primary research (e.g., you want to be ready to ask good questions live when you talk to a PM at Google, Facebook or wherever).
Read a handful of practitioner PM posts on various aspects of the job to bring what you’ve learned already to life. There’s hundreds of good options here, but a few favorites of mine are a bad product decision by Brandon Chu (Shopify) and there are no small changes by Des Traynor (Intercom Founder).
Learn about the day-to-day cadence. This day in the life of a PM w/ a calendar breakdown is a good start. For additional context, watch this interview with an ex-Google PM and this one with an enterprise PM at Okta.
Write down at least 15 questions about the role of product management that came up *directly* from consuming the aforementioned content. NOTE: Things that confused you, seemed vague, or conflicted from source to source are fodder for great questions.
Primary research: Now that you’ve got 15 (or more!) questions, you should begin reaching out to PMs to deepen your understanding. You should also speak to PM adjacent folks (e.g., design, eng, etc.) because 3P perspective is very useful too (if you’ve been following the steps from secondary research, you’ll understand why).
Line up “coffee chats” with 5 PMs - ideally at a range of companies - and ask your questions. If you have friends who are PMs at these places, that’s great. If not, you’ll need to network and get intros (this video has tips). NOTE: Even if you do have friends working as PMs, speaking to people you don’t know is great too for new perspectives.
Identify 5 people in ancillary roles (e.g., PMM, UX, Eng.) and do “coffee chats” with them too. When you reach out, share some of the specific questions you’ve compiled so they know you’ve done your HW.
Take stock of what you’ve learned. I recommend keeping a running doc with your questions and the answers you’ve received - PLUS new follow-up questions they’ve prompted.
Dedicate some time to identifying which aspects of the role seem the most compelling, which types of companies and product areas are most compelling, etc.
By the end of part I, you should:
🤔 You'll notice that "Learn to code!" isn't on this list - that is because I don't believe it's required. If you want to learn to code, that's great - BUT don't do it just for PM interviews. In the interviewing section below, I'll lay out specific steps to build technical fluency which will cover the key parts you need to know and do it efficiently.
Time: 3-12(or more!?) weeks NOTE: This time guidance is really loose - sometimes this stage can take awhile and that's OK.
This is where the hard work begins. The key analogy to keep in mind: you need to treat your PM job search like a product in and of itself. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy you need to product manage your journey to becoming a product manager (officially, at least!).
My “strawman” checklist begins with the upfront legwork (resume revisions, target lists) and shifts into execution (dropping resumes).
One final important point: as you begin this “get an interview” phase, know that if stars align you could find yourself being put into interviews immediately. Given this, you should parallel track the advice in this section AND the section below on interview prep.
Get your PM resume into ship shape. If you’re unclear what strong looks like, review this post from a Facebook PM.
Build a target list of 25+ companies w/ open PM roles. Don’t just focus on 3-4 top companies - it’s fine to have G and FB on the list but go beyond that.
For each company, generate a list of 3-4 key questions you’d love to ask their product team (e.g., how do you see X influencing your space? etc.). See my advice here (“generating questions”) in particular if you need ideas.
Optional: for your top choice companies, do some relevant work (e.g., user research, a survey, a mock feature design) that you can share in your coffee chats and eventual interviews. It’s critical that it’s shareable so that it’s tangible and people can see it. Here’s an example from a MSFT PM intern (this one is focused on Asana).
Reach out to PMs (or people on product teams) at your target companies to express your interest, share your list of questions to demonstrate your legwork. Again, this video can help w/ writing a networking blurb.
At the end of those meetings, express your interest in X or Y role and ask if he/she would be willing to forward your resume to the appropriate recruiter and/or hiring manager. NOTE: If you can’t get any chats at your target company, you can still apply via their website and/or reach out to their recruiters too.
Be “on brand.” When recruiters look at a potential candidate, they often do some quick googling and scan your twitter, linkedin profiles etc. If you’re sharing relevant tech news, discussing it, pontificating etc. that can help indicate you’re worth chatting with (here’s one example).
By the end of part II, you should:
NOTE: If resume and networking doesn’t get you an interview, you need to pursue the relevant work option. Demonstrate you can do the work, give yourself a project, do it and share the results publicly. This is walking the walk, you’re not just saying you want to be a PM, you’re doing the work proactively and sharing.
Time: 2-4 months
Ultimately, good interview prep comes down to two things: 1) targeted practice on specific skills and 2) active prep -> you MUST go through the motions, not just watching videos, reading, memorizing.
I’ll spell this out below BUT know that everything I say can be gleaned simply from watching this video of Steph Curry practicing - practicing the same skill over, and over, and over, and over again. You want to prep for PM interviews like Steph preps for games.
Just Steph Curry making 23 deep shots in a row pic.twitter.com/EhzMxJAjxB— Antonin (@antonin_org) October 21, 2021
Before we jump into skills, let’s first understand how they’re tested. Interviews are a two gate system - you must pass both gates to get an offer:
Both gates test a basket of skills. Gate 1 (cases) tests those skills on the fly (e.g., “How would you design a feature for X?”) and Gate 2 (behavioral) tests how you’ve applied those skills on the job in the past (e.g., “Tell me about a time you launched a new feature…”).
The next obvious question is: what skills matter? Every company varies a little bit BUT don’t let that trip you up, you can cover 80% of the key stuff by focusing on the 20% that matters. To land a PM job, you need to demonstrate competency in each of the following areas:
The first three get heavily tested in the case questions, the latter three get heavily tested in behavioral but there is some crossover too (e.g., you have to communicate well in both). Your goal in prepping for PM interviews is to systematically test yourself in each area and repeatedly hone your ability over, and over, and over, and over again. Remember: be like Steph.
Heads up! Many of the prep specific links in this section require a RocketBlocks account. If you're interested, there is a free trial for all. If not, there are other ways to gain this info and practice as well - just make sure you're doing ACTIVE & TARGETED prep. That is the key.
Review sample interview questions in each skill sets (e.g., product sense, analytics / execution, technical fluency, leadership and collaboration). Samples here.
Test yourself with 3 drills in each skill area and note where you feel most confident vs. least confident. RocketBlocks is designed specifically to help with this (requires account though).
Do a mock interview with a peer. Lots of communities like ProductBuds, etc. to find peers, RocketBlocks also has a mock interview tool you can use.
Build technical confidence: given your non-technical background, you want to learn about key components so you can converse with engineers fluently. This is the dirty secret of technical tests in PM interviews -> the goal isn’t to see if you can code, it’s to see if you can talk with an engineer (more details & history on this here).
To do this, I think there are three key topic areas to brush up on: 1) technical stacks (e.g., how everything fits together), 2) APIs and 3) databases.
Learn what a tech stack is, what the key components are and be able to describe the basic stack you'd need for a web app. Our technical concept reviews go deep on this topic.
Read up on APIs. Understand the basic function, what a call and response is and how an API would help power a modern web / mobile app like Uber or LinkedIn. We also go deep on APIs in our technical concept reviews.
Read up on databases. Understand the basics of how they work & critically how what data is saved enables product functionality and metrics tracking. Again, we go deep on this as well in ourtechnical concept reviews.
Practice technical explainer questions (e.g., “Explain how the internet works...”). Tech drills here (for this and next bullet point).
Practice technical implementation questions (e.g., “We want to launch X, what parts of our tech stack would need updating to support...”)
Do 3 (or more!) drills per week day -> try to actually space them out so you give yourself time to digest learnings rather than cramming. (e.g., 3 per day is better than 15 in one day). You can find Drills here.
Aim for 2 mock interviews per week with peers to assess your skills. You can find peers here.
Learn from giving interviews as well. Where possible, give the same handful of questions to others and observe the variance in responses. Try to explain why one answer was better than others.
Test yourself with expert feedback (either via RB expert) or a friendly PM who can provide quality interview feedback
Build “product critique” into your daily routine. This video is ostensibly about consulting prep but explains the principle of daily learning compounding.
Go back up to the top of this list -> focus your efforts on the skill areas you are weakest on.
Identify your key career moments. If you’re struggling, try the post-it note exercise here.
Learn how to structure career stories with STAR, SCAR-L, etc. If struggling, check out examples and advice here.
Learn to leverage great stories by framing & reframing. Advice on how to do this here.
Practice answering leadership focused questions
Practice collaboration focused questions (e.g., Tell me about a time you convinced a colleague…”).
Practice problem solving focused questions
I know, I know this doc sort of ends abruptly BUT I'm forcing myself to get this advice out there now and I plan to iterate on it, make it better and more robust over the next week or so. I'm planning to add more here including the what you should be able to do checklist, etc.
If you have feedback, please feel free to send it directly to kenton at rocketblocks.me