5 aspects that I think are crucial to success
If you were to head to LinkedIn and put the words ‘Product Manager’ in the search bar, you would be returned ~14 million results. However, if you were to dig a little bit deeper, you would begin to notice a trend in the profiles.
There are 3 primary paths for breaking into Product Management:
- Landing a PM role straight out of college
- Switching functions within a company after a few years
- Obtaining an MBA then moving into a PM role at a new company
Out of these options, path 1 is the most rare and debatably the most difficult one to follow, and for good reason. As someone who took the first path into product management, I have an extremely high bar for anyone hoping to do the same.
Below is the set of criteria I use when screening PM candidates straight out of college. While the criteria is difficult to meet, it certainly can be done. Overall my criteria attempts to make the new PM hiring process more objective and selective for college candidates.
Do you have any professional experience?
The role of a product manager is already difficult enough, so I first need to trust that you know how to operate in a professional environment. Trying to learn how to become a product manager and professional at the same time is a recipe for disaster.
If I’m interviewing you for a product manager role at a large corporation, there is almost a 0% chance I would consider hiring you if you don’t have any previous internships under your belt. There are certain aspects you have to learn about how companies operate, and if I have many quality candidates in front of me (which I will) I’m going to choose the candidate that has already acquired that knowledge.
Also, realize that not all professional experiences are the same. I’m not going to hold a job at your University’s library in the same regard as an internship at a Fortune 500 company.
Similarly, if I’m hiring for a role within a software company, I’m going to give more weight to internships completed under other software companies. I know it can be difficult, but you should aim to have at least one professional experience that parallels the company you are applying to. With all that being said, any internship is better than no internship.
What tangible skills or domain knowledge can you bring to the table?
I’m going to be interviewing a lot of really smart people that also have a lot of solid professional experiences. What is a differentiator you can bring to the table? Two obvious buckets are: tangible skills or domain knowledge.
Examples of tangible skills are things such as: ability to code in some language, how to query a database, how to use Sketch to create mockups, etc.
I value tangible skills because even if you don’t have to use them directly, you will definitely have opportunities as a PM to indirectly leverage these skills to help your team.
In terms of domain knowledge, some examples include: internet compliance laws, finance or accounting knowledge, foreign policy, SEO optimization.
While domain knowledge is often easier to acquire on the job than tangible skills, it can still be a legitimate differentiator coming into a role.
Overall, both of these buckets make it easier for me as a screener by making the decision more objective. If you have tangible skills or knowledge that I can definitively confirm, then that is another a clear separator from other candidates.
What products have you helped build and launch?
This is probably the filter I face the most resistance from others on, but I consider it to be table stakes to have built and launched some type of product to get a product manager role out of college.
I don’t care if you worked on the product at one of your internships or as a personal project. Heck, I don’t even care if it was a software or hardware product, but you need to have something to show me.
How can I trust your skills as a Product Manager if you’ve never actually helped build or ship anything? It would be like hiring a software engineer with an empty Github or a painter that’s never picked up a brush.
During my time in college I worked on over 6 personal projects and helped formed the teams needed to build and launch them in market. Our teams went on to win over $20,000 in competitions and amass thousands of users across our products. That is experience you can’t find in a classroom or read in a book.
Almost every single of my peers that took the same path into product management out college had worked on at least one serious side project while attending college.
How strong are your soft skills?
If you don’t take your soft skills seriously, you are not going to succeed as a PM. This is one of the few aspects that I am able to observe in real-time and it’s important that you nail it.
Communication and being able to craft a clear narrative is crucial as a PM. You need to be able to display this during the interview. If you can’t communicate clearly and compel me in a 1x1 environment you won’t be able to do it in a large cross-functional environment.
I also think it’s crucial that PM’s are strong writers as well. This is a skill that you need to apply on a daily basis as a PM, and should be putting on full display. Take the time to publish some pieces online and prove to me that you have this skillset and are serious about becoming a thought leader.
Not to single people out, but I’ve found that it is usually the candidates with technical backgrounds that have the hardest time realizing the importance of soft skills. The PM role is very different from the software engineering role and the interviews reflect this. Please make sure you take this into account and prepare appropriately.
Are you a good culture fit (Or addition)?
My definition of culture fit is someone that hits all of the non-negotiable aspects of a company’s culture. Do you display traits such as professionalism, passion, intellectual curiosity & respect for company values? These are the types of traits that I would consider culture fit requirements.
Things that I don’t consider culture fit requirements are things such as technical prowess, customer expertise, domain knowledge, etc. If you check all of the required culture fit boxes, I am going to assume that you can be taught these other aspects of our company culture over time.
It’s great if you can bring some of these non-required aspects to the workplace such as domain knowledge or qualitative/quantitative expertise. I consider these types of candidates culture additions. Culture additions are important, because it ensures that a company cultures continues to evolve in a positive direction over time.
To summarize, I need to trust that you won’t hinder the required aspects of our company’s culture, and will also look to see if you can bring in new knowledge or perspectives that can make the culture even stronger.
As more and more companies begin experimenting with early career product management development programs, I think it is important that they all ensure that there is a rigorous screening process in place.
Given the somewhat subjective nature of the PM screening process, these additional filters will ensure that you are hiring the best candidates possible. While this criteria may seem difficult, I know many early career PM’s that were able to check all these boxes. There isn’t one single playbook for how to accomplish all of these things, but I hope my personal anecdotes can help guide any of you that are looking for ideas.
If you have any additional thoughts or filters that you or your company uses, please feel free to add to the comments below!
All material presented above reflects my own personal views and not necessarily those of my employer.