10 Tips for Landing a PM Job Offer

How to make a notoriously difficult job search a little easier.

Two years ago I was working an internship in journalism, wondering how I was going to transition into tech. I knew that I wanted to work in product management, but I had no idea how I was going to get there, or what the recruiting process was like. Now, having gone through recruiting several times over (and survived!), I wanted to share my tips from the other side.

Without further ado, here are ten things you can do to maximize your chances at landing your dream PM job.

1. Know what you’re looking for.

Only apply to companies you can actually see yourself working for. To do that, you have to know what you want.

Do you want to work at a big tech company or an early stage startup? Is your heart set on product management, or would you be just as happy in business development or software engineering? Are you location agnostic, or is your dream city non-negotiable?

Because recruiting is so time and energy intensive, the fastest way to minimize stress is to do a bit of soul-searching before you start your job process, rather than applying everywhere at once. The narrower your scope, the easier it is to focus.

2. Have a coherent story.

Companies hire largely based on pattern recognition. They need to be able to glance at your resume, skim your cover letter, or talk to you for five minutes and immediately see why you would be a great candidate for product management.

Make your recruiters’ lives easier by owning your narrative. Why do you want to do PM? What have you done in the past that’s related to PM? What unique skills or experiences can you bring to the table that would benefit a product-centric team?

Your story is an essential part of your job-search efforts. Don’t overlook it.

3. Get your foot in the door.

The earlier you find a way to demonstrate your value, the better off you’ll be. If you held a PM internship prior to recruiting for full-time PM jobs, that’s a very strong signal that you’re not only interested in PM in theory, but also qualified and competent in practice.

Of course, having prior PM experience is certainly not the only path to building legitimacy. You could do anything — win a hackathon, lead a club, find a bug in the company’s website, write about technology, start a YouTube channel to talk about your favorite tech products, publish a portfolio to showcase your design work, launch a new product or service of your own creation.

Whatever you do, do it well, and be prepared to talk about what you learned.

4. Be timely.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the most qualified candidate in the room if you miss the deadline to apply. The window to apply for PM roles can sometimes close by the end of September — so be cognizant of deadlines, and apply early.

A note on timelines. Bigger tech companies with annual recruiting budgets tend to fill their roles much earlier in the year. Startups, on the other hand, tend to recruit in a less structured manner, closer to the start date, and usually only when they have a defined need. These rules are not always hard and fast, but they do serve as good guidelines.

If you’re not sure about timelines, communicate with recruiters or friends in the industry to make sure you’re not rooting around in the dark for a position that’s no longer hiring.

5. Tap into your network.

Which of the following statements is true?

  • A. Referrals are the most surefire way to get an interview.
  • B. Resume drops are usually black holes.
  • C. A warm intro to a company always beats a cold email.
  • D. Cold emails should be concisely written and warmly sent.

The right answer is “all of the above.”

What drives these underlying dynamics? Supply and demand. For each PM role listed on a public website, top companies are usually flooded with more applicants than they can realistically process. Make their jobs easier by showing them that you’re the one.

Your network will come in handy during times like these. Once you have a shortlist of places you’d like to apply, ask friends, mentors, and acquaintances who have worked there in the past to refer you. Oftentimes, informing recruiters about other offers you’ve received can also expedite the interview process, especially if your offers have deadlines.

6. Come prepared.

If you really want to maximize your chances of success, put as much effort into researching the company you’re interviewing for as you would a final you wanted to ace.

Research the history, founders, key executives, culture, recent initiatives, new innovations, customer reviews, public financial data — the whole nine yards. Think about the user, how the product fits into the industry as a whole, new growth opportunities it could pursue in new markets. Moreover, use the product, and develop opinions about it — how could it be better, how could it be changed?

Doing your homework will put you ahead of the curve. Fortune, as they say, favors the prepared.

7. Speak their language.

After reading Gayle Laakmann’s Cracking the PM Interview (the holy grail of PM prep books), the biggest takeaway I got was something along the lines of: If you look like a PM, talk like a PM, and think like a PM, chances are, you’d make a pretty good PM.

I took this philosophy to heart. I learned a new language around talking about products, and in the process, started thinking more and more like a PM. In a PM’s world, everything is focused on users, structure is incredibly important, and design is meant to delight and inspire. A product becomes less of a completed abstraction and more of a series of considerations — subject to scrutiny, analysis, redesign, and optimization.

So get into a product-centric paradigm, and start thinking about how you would build it better.

8. Practice interviewing ad nauseam.

Interviewing is a skill, not an inborn trait. I cannot emphasize this enough. I scheduled mock interviews with everyone I could conceivably imagine who would be willing to help me, got incredible feedback, and began building my intuition around how to think about products.

Interviewing, in the end, boils down to this: what is the first impression that you make? Can you think critically, on your feet, in a variety of situations? Do you consistently exhibit sound judgement and say things that make sense? Would you be a pleasant person to work with?

Barring any bad days, companies will assume that certain things they can extract from your interview performance — how you structure your answers, how you think through questions, how you communicate your thoughts, how you react under pressure — will be consistent over time. Nail the fundamentals through practice, so that you can think creatively about the details.

9. Learn how to write.

Writing may be an aspect of PM interviewing that is less talked about, but it is incredibly important for success — both in recruiting and on the job.

Your ability to communicate the vision of your product and the needs of your team is heavily dependent on your ability to write. Every PM interviewing cycle I’ve completed has required some sort of writing sample, probably to test my ability to write a clean product spec.

As with anything else in life, the best way to get good at writing about products is to practice! Once you get the job, you’ll likely be writing a lot about products anyway, so consider it a great investment to hone your skills as an effective PM.

10. Dazzle them.

In a competitive job market, companies don’t need to compromise on quality.

Remember that above all, you have the skills to make anyone want you. Show that you’re passionate, show that you’re kind. Show that you’re willing to come in early and stay late, that you’re willing to go the extra mile. That you can empathize with users, designers, and engineers. That bringing you onboard would be a force multiplier for the company.

Do this and there won’t be any competition.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about the PM process, email me at yehongzhu@college.harvard.edu.