Over the last 2 years I have had the privilege of helping over 50 aspiring PMs in their career planning, resume revamp and interview prep, this article covers in detail the questions I’ve been asked from candidates looking to break into Product Management.
I don’t have previous Product experience, should I apply for mid/higher level Product roles?
Every organization has their own designations for entry-level Product positions – some hire new PMs as Junior PM/ Associate PM/ Product Manager designation. What really matters is finding out what the job responsibilities are to check whether or not it’s an entry level position.
Why is it recommended to start at a junior position for Product?
Product Managers have a very complicated mix of skills, which are best developed and strengthened over time while working on complicated projects where you’re able to learn but have a fall-back space. Having a chance to learn without the pressure of having the team fail and more importantly being in a position to receive mentorship and feedback for growth are not easily available in mid and high-level positions in Product. And having an experience at junior level sometimes makes the whole difference in confidence when you’re ready for your next step.
What are the basics of being a good junior PM? How can I be confident that a career in Product Management is right for me?
- Be very curious – PMs are supposed to be constantly aware of how their product is doing? What do users have to say about it? What does the internal team think of improvements that can be made? Basically if you’re someone who asks a lot of questions to try and get to the core of an opportunity or a problem, being a PM is going to be easier.
- Believe in Data and Feedback – You’re going to be in a position where you’re able to make suggestions for building/ changing products and a lot of times these suggestions will be born out of ideas that you or someone else on the team proposed. As phenomenal as it sounds, you really want to validate hypotheses by searching for data and actual customer feedback. To be able to do this you’re going to need to be somewhat interested in data analysis tools (start off with Excel and learn the basics of analytics)
- Great at creating and managing relationships – As a PM you’re expected to be at the centre of all relationships your team is ever going to need, this means you’ll be speaking to actual customers, sales reps, marketing team, legal team as well as your senior leadership on an everyday basis. If you are someone who can build strong relationships and deliver as promised – you’ll find it easier to navigate escalations and ask for favors that could help turn your projects into a huge success.
- Empathetic towards your team – Your larger team will consist of engineers, developers, business analysts, scrum master, etc. Basically everyone on the team has a very different skill set, probably a different point of view on most things as well as a unique style of working. How you build rapport and provide the team whatever it is they need to be able to perform to their best will greatly determine how successful you are in delivering too.
- Dependable and open to learn – Being open to learning about new tools and methods that your team uses is going to make you not have to be dependent on anyone else to provide data/ inputs you may need at a moment of urgent decision making. For example, the mobile app that your team built faces a massive error when someone tries to use one specific function, your ability to investigate what’s causing the issue and how fast you are able to justify an action for the benefit of your customers will create your image of dependability within your team.
These skills are the very basics of being a great Product Manager and as you garner experience in shipping new features and new products you learn situation specific responses that you can improve to level-up.
What do I need to start applying for PM roles?
1. An excellent resume – which clearly states the impact you’ve created at previous roles, don’t dive into responsibilities if they’re standard to your role. Mention the important projects you were a part of and how they made a difference to the customer/audience of that project. Mention your academic background, for certificate courses – feel free to just list them and not go into too much detail.
2. Too many certificates is not always a good thing – you want to show that you’re interested in a specific field but not that you’re desperate. It’s better to show actual side-projects you’ve done instead of putting in 100s of hours in online courses – practice matters more in Product Management.
3. Network with PMs in the industry/company you’re interested in – show them your latest resume and get their feedback, they’ll be able to help you tailor your resume before you send it in. They will also be able to tell you which skill to focus on in interviews – all companies are unique and their teams have unique needs. If you’re able to bring to focus something they’re looking for you have a higher chance of being called for a follow-up round of interview.
4. Try to get a referral before you apply – there’s definitely benefits in going through the referral route as you’re showing that you were able to convince someone from the team that you’re the right fit for that role.
5. Triple check your resume and cover letter before applying – put yourself in the shoes of the company you are applying to: if you were to hire someone to manage a team that has to deliver great products and features would you hire yourself? If the answer is yes/no, dive deeper into what makes you feel you are/are not a strong candidate – there’s no one who knows you better than you. And please take the time to write a strong cover letter, it’s the one piece of personalized message you are able to send to the recruiter that can show your personality – a lot of times it’s your personal-fit and not your professional experience that can get you that first interview.
6. Learn JIRA and basic SQL – JIRA and Confluence are used by 90% organizations for their product teams, they are simple enough that a weekend should be enough time to become somewhat proficient. SQL and Excel are the most versatile for data analysis and whatever fancy analytics tool your company uses, chances are that the queries are based off of SQL and Excel formulas. If you have to choose between some Product Management course and JIRA+SQL, always choose JIRA+SQL because you’ll always have a Product Management supervisor/ mentor but you’ll never have a mentor that can teach you how to use these tools.
7. Be confident and tell stories – PM roles have to be very confident and definitive, you are also more successful if you are a story-teller and are able to talk about problems and solutions in a way that everyone in the room can understand with the context you provided. If you don’t know an answer to a question – be very graceful, accept that you don’t know the answer right now but you’ll make sure to dig deeper and then provide the answer over email/ whenever you connect with that person next.
8. Always send out a thank you email to your interviewer – they probably had to work an extra hour to be able to make time to meet with you, research your resume and possibly go over the job description of the role to prepare for the interview, not to forget the feedback they will provide to HR. Thank you email is the perfect way opportunity to resurface the highlights of the interview call and answer any questions you didn’t get a chance to, ask any questions you think may intrigue the interviewer and it’s always nice to show humility – everyone wants a nice person on their team and what better way than to say Thank you.
9. (OPTIONAL) Enrol in the Scrum Alliance CSPO course – only if you absolutely must and have the extra cash lying around – , this is a course that most large organizations and banks consider as “good to have” for their PM roles, it teaches the very basics of every PM concept but very rarely is anything usable in real life because organizations are very unique and teams have real needs that don’t always meet the textbook requirements taught in a CSPO course. I usually recommend candidates to let their employer pay for this as it can be covered under the continued education budget for most Product role employees.
How should I approach applying for PM roles? What can I use during my interviews to show my strengths?
- Engineer in a technical role looking to break into first Product role
– Any technical discipline requires a lot of documenting, constant improvement of process as well as having a chance to have a mentor, talk about those experiences.
– Highlight your interest in strategy and business problems.
– Show examples of how you worked closely to create a partnership with business decision makers.
– Use your engineering background to show that you can connect very well with other technical folks: talk about your experience working as/with developers, engineers, analysts and technical leads on your teams.
- Non-engineer in a non-technical role looking for first Product role
– Talk about how your previous experience led you to making strategic decisions, they don’t have to be big/bold projects. It can be as small as helping improve a team’s process on documentation. Show your problem solving skills. Explain what the problem was? How did you approach it? Who did you reach out to find more information/ ask for help and then finally what was the solution you used and whether you could have done anything better?
– Show your interest in looking for data and feedback from real customers and users. You can also talk about what kind of tools you are already using and proficient in especially if it includes JIRA (ticketing system), Excel (analysis tool) or Invision (designing tool) or any other complicated tool you use at work if they contribute to business strategy.
– Leverage your experience as a team player and how you build rapport within the team. If you’ve had opportunities to lead your team in a project, definitely talk about it.
- Fresh Grad with internship experience only
– Although it might be difficult to get a PM role without prior experience – it is not unheard of.
– Show examples of leadership, inclination towards research and analysis. If you’ve worked on personal projects that include some kind of business analysis, competitor analysis and real customer feedback definitely include that.
– Project a willingness to learn and show examples where you have multi-tasked on a time-sensitive project in the past. Examples of failures are also appreciated as it shows what you learnt and your willingness to accept opportunities of personal growth.
- Entrepreneur looking for Product role
– Think about PMs as being their own Entrepreneur, you have to show how you came about to being an entrepreneur – you probably identified an unmet need in the market that you researched on and thought would be profitable, then you built your product/ service and you marketed/sold that product/service through specific channels.
– Talk about how you are a self-motivating team-player who can drive folks on your project towards one common goal.
– Talk about what you would do if you could focus on just the product and what it is and how it is marketed, this is usually the piece that you’d be expected to experiment in as a PM and come up with the one vision of the product that makes the most sense to the customer while being realistic about feasibility.
What does a standard Product Management career journey look like?
At the Product Owner and Associate Product Manager level you are expected to know the daily workings of your team and own the delivery of the product. The time horizon you are looking over is about 3 months to a maximum of 6 months.
At the Product Manager level you are expected to be an expert at delivery but also provide strategic inputs towards the annual roadmap for your team and work with your technical lead to help with weekly goal setting.
At the Senior/Staff and Group Product Manager level you are responsible for creating and owning the strategy of a yearly roadmap, you are not involved in the daily/weekly working of the technical team but you are more involved in meeting with stakeholders to discuss ideas for the future as well as partnering with other team’s PMs to manage dependencies.
Principal Product Managers are expected to be mentors for other PMs in the organization, at this level you’re considered an expert at delivery, strategy and stakeholder management. You will usually be invited to help on extremely important projects for the company.
While the People manager roles have a similar expectation as Principal Product Manager their roles differ in the sense that PMs will report to you and you have direct authority and responsibility for other PMs performance.