Say No to PM Internships

Why product management internships are suboptimal.

The practice of offering product management internships, aimed at undergraduates, has grown at major tech companies (e.g. Google). While I’m strongly in favor of internships, having benefitted greatly from one at Hotwire, I’m against Product Management Internships specifically. I believe undergraduates and recent graduates need to focus on tangible skill acquisition and output generation, two things product management internships aren’t optimized for.

Career moves are tricky, avoid PM Internship detours (courtesy Unsplash)

Product managers are expected to lead product teams and are ultimately judged on the output of the teams influenced by their decisions. Inherent to product management is the human element of being integrated with a team. In Product Managers are APES, I alluded to the importance of trust and influence when maximizing output:

Great product managers rely more on influence than on any authority given to them by organization structure. Product teams will only be influenced, and in turn deliver their best work, by product managers they trust.

Achieving trust and influence on any product team takes time, and direct experience in non product management roles will streamline the process. I suspect that’s why AngelList expect new product managers to “work in a technical capacity for their first 6–12 months” Anyone considering a product management internship will be better served by first honing their ability to ship functionality, be it writing software or designing products. What’s more, honing those skills at a company will give you a front-row seat to how product management operates, allowing you to learn techniques by osmosis.

For reference, my transition from engineer to product manager began in earnest in 2006, when I was fortunate to have Zillow’s leadership support my desire to gain exposure to strategic business decisions. By that time I had gained years of experience as a software engineer on numerous large projects, including the initial launches of Zillow and Hotwire. While I wouldn’t know it at the time, as you can only connect the dots looking backward, those engineering experiences play a critical role in my ability to lead product teams. This is why I encourage students, particularly Computer Science undergraduates, to spend their limited internship time in roles that actively build shippable products.

In support of this belief, I’ve come to reframe the phrase “A good product manager is the CEO of the product” to read “A good product manager is the captain of a product team”. As is the case in sports, you have to learn to play the game before you can captain the team.