The founding story of Product Gym and how best to break into a career in Product Management
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The tech-recruiting cycle is incredibly and massively broken. It doesn’t matter whether you are looking for a software engineering gig or a copywriting job. If the prospective company is looking to hire a knowledge worker, especially in this remote-first work environment, they’ll be subjecting you to the typical resume via website screening, calls, panel interviews, etc. Gone are the boomer days of walking up confidently to a physical office and handing someone your resume (although, I guess this still happens occasionally). The job candidate no longer has the opportunity to directly communicate with the job they are interested in as multiple, unforgiving filters are set up as barriers against the candidate. While this is efficient for the employer hiring, this process punishes fully-qualified candidates by reducing their experience within mechanical boundaries. I had to learn this the hard way…
Truth be told, I was not a good academic Economics Major at Claremont. When I graduated from CMC, I went to Asia to grow my professional career and after stints in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and a Taoist temple, I found myself unable to enter the tech industry after returning to NYC. I only finished half of a coding boot camp, and when I decided to pivot to design, that boot camp went out of business before the first class. So, I landed in product management. The PM program, however, was sorely lacking any relevant material that would get me the job I wanted. They didn’t even track their placement rate and their material was wholly irrelevant and removed from the modern recruiting practices.
I was incensed, and, truthfully, a little petty. I didn’t think I got my value’s worth and I didn’t get a refund for the program when I asked. They didn’t even bother to respond to my email. So, I decided to do what I could to answer the market’s needs – starting with mine.
With my business partner, we decided to start Product Gym to increase the focus on job acquisition, in addition to job readiness. And when I look back at the nearly 1,500+ product managers we’ve placed, I’ve realized that there is no ‘degree’ for Product Management. Even if there was, it’s unlikely that it holds any credit in the industry, much like the certificate mills that are profiting off of unsuspecting students. So, what can prospective product managers do to successfully transition into this role, especially if they have zero technical experience?
Understand your first obstacle is not an interview, it’s an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)
Too many times, folks will obsess about the best interview responses, feverishly prepare for all questions and combinations, and ingest encyclopedic quantities of interview answers. While admirable, they are rarely able to address the first obstacle – actually getting an interview request. That prep time is not wasted – it will be valuable later on in the interview cycle… but one problem at a time. The funnel interview is highly linear and it’s one step at a time.
All companies that recruit, use Applicant Tracking Systems. Lever, Greenhouse, Linkedin Recruiting, Glassdoor, Angelist, Workday, the list goes on. All of them use filters to some degree, and if your first point of contact, your resume, does not contain the required information, you will be filtered out. The recruiter will not even see your resume…
… And even if they do, understand that recruiters are very rarely product managers or experts in their field. They are too looking for required information that commonly comes in the form of buzzwords and vocabulary.
Optimize your resume and cover letter, not by pouring your heart and soul into a tear-jerking story, but for a bot. One ‘easy’ way to optimize for these bots is to first identify the keywords by using any word cloud tool publicly available. Pick an industry you’re interested in and find 10 to 15 job descriptions of product managers on any job board, copy and paste those into the word cloud tool, and you’ll get a quick gauge of what keywords might be popular among recruiting software !
As a Claremont undergraduate student…
A dirty little secret about the Product Management industry – certificates and ‘degrees’ are largely worthless in the hiring processing consideration. The Product Management community does not value your resume or skills any more or less just because you took a course, boot camp, or have a line on the resume with some acronyms. You need actual experience and you need to be able to articulate it.
Classic boomer problem though, right? “Job only hires people with experience. But to get experience, I need to be hired for a job! ”
This is difficult for a (Claremont) Undergraduate so here are some concrete action items you can take to position yourself for a PM job out of college:
- Leverage free resources to understand the product development lifecycle (Like from Atlassian!). You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a course. There’s enough free content out there where you can learn the process of software development on your own, at least at a general level. Just get a basic sense and move on. Don’t mire yourself in theory and concepts. You need to actually go through the process first.
- Then, pick and “launch” your own software product. Go through the exploration, requirements gathering, user interviews, wireframing, user story documentation, iteration, metrics tracking, etc – get your ‘product’ as far as you can so that you understand that struggle. This is key. Nearly all good Product Managers (in the interview, especially) can articulate struggles very empathetically about their users.
- Pick an industry or field that you can reliably access to ensure a clear detailed understanding of the users. This way, when you’re developing your product, even if it’s for a ‘portfolio’, there is a nuance that will set you apart from a purely pontificated product. One of the best undergraduate PM-products I’ve seen during my interviews was a woman whose product reimagined the academic literature submission process. Academia is known for its incredibly slow pace and she was sick of using an interface and tools that sent her back in a time machine. Clear user pain points. Indisputable addressable market. Obvious and easy MVP. Most importantly, as a student, she knew who the stakeholders were, and how to navigate a product launch. Unsurprisingly, she was hired as a PM out of undergraduate at an Ed-tech company.
You need to be able to speak about the product development lifecycle competently. There is no substitute for this in the interview. The only way you can convince the recruiter and hiring manager that you are a PM is if you’re able to convince yourself of it. Read, speak and write like a PM so you will start thinking and interviewing like a PM.
As a working professional…
You have a leg up from an undergraduate student. Specifically, having ‘work experience’ means that you’ve likely encountered instances where you’ve performed Product Manager duties.
Here’s another ‘secret’: You don’t need technical engineering experience to be a good product manager. It’s not even required for most Product Manager roles.
Does it help? Sure – but unless the role specifies a need for a Technical Product Manager (which is subjective as well), rarely will that engineering experience make a difference between a candidate that does vs a candidate that does not have that on their resume. Employers are more interested in a Product Manager that can actually make the company money, affect their bottom line, and move the product forward from a humanistic perspective.
Focus on the non-technical aspects of the Product Manager job. Pair that with what you do at your current job. And learn to speak about your role like a Product Manager would. A common member archetype at Product Gym are folks that attempt to transition from finance. Believe me, they have very robust experience “detailing business and user requirements” and “performing extensive qualitative and quantitative user research”.
Stop focusing on what might disqualify you from a Product Manager role, and start highlighting what will. Again, if you can’t convince yourself that you can do the job – there’s no hope of convincing anyone else.
As a prospective employer…
Hiring competent Product Managers is notoriously difficult. This of course assumes that your product practice is well defined and you, as a hiring manager, know what you are looking for. If you are a competent Director + people managing Product Manager, you’re doing your job wrong if you are looking to hire someone to ‘create order out of chaos.’ As a people manager of PMs, it’s your job to print the chaos into smaller pieces so that your direct reports can ‘create order’ out of each individual piece. As a competent PM yourself, you should be skilled enough to know where and how to print this chaos and create clear definitions among product spaces. Without clear definitions – you have no idea what you’re looking for and will likely find someone with the wrong fit, or someone far more skilled than you and can replace you.
Assuming you know the product space that you want your PM candidate to tackle, how do you ‘suss through the fluff?’
- Determine whether you want to hire for industry experience and train them in Product Management or vice versa. It will be rare to find someone with both industry and PM experience. This is usually relevant for Hiring Managers whose launch roadmap does not have the bandwidth for onboarding. You need someone ready to go.
- If you are hiring for industry experience and less PM experience, give a product management case study on the spot, during the interview. There are always nuances in the industry that only an actual industry professional will know. You can easily deduce a candidate’s actual expertise in a live interview. This is particularly relevant for Hiring Managers in highly regulated or technical industries (crypto, high-frequency trading, logistics management, HIPPAA / Healthcare, etc)
- If you are hiring for Product Management and not necessarily industry experience, give a Product Management case study that they can ‘take home’ and present to you and the interview panel. On the job, they will usually have ample time to research and learn about the industry anyways. But here is the kicker – good Product Managers know how to set clear boundaries. And this is not a skill that can be easily learned in a week of prep. You will easily be able to tell whether the candidate has sharp PM skills based on the scope of the assignment they’ve chosen to explore. During Q&A, you can push those boundaries and see whether they’ve explored those in consideration of the product. Plus, you’ll get to see how well they present too!
Product Management is what you make of it…
Since we started Product Gym years ago, the value of product managers has become clear to companies. Our membership organization does its best to equip aspiring and current product managers with the skills and knowledge to not only do well on the job but actually get the job too. We do everything we can to ensure our members know what good product work should be.
Unfortunately, this does not mean companies know what good product work should be. Sometimes it’s a combination of program, project, and partner management. Sometimes it’s a business analyst role. Other times, the PM is the internal salesperson who spends more time in pitch decks than speaking with users.
There is a textbook definition of what a ‘good’ product manager should do. But there is no company out there that can reliably provide this professional scope to their PM candidates. So until the industry is able to correct itself – Product Management will remain as a role that ‘does what the business and users require them to do’ as a catch-all.
You can help though! If you’re a subject matter expert with at least 8 to 10 years of professional experience in the topic and would like to share your expertise with our Product Gym community, please feel free to reach out to me or, if you’re looking to transition to product management – feel free to book a call on our site.