If you are a product manager or you’re trying to get into product management, you may have noticed that our discipline is a little different from other tech jobs - you have to work with every other department in the company, in a job that isn’t standardized and is really competitive!
Now consider how difficult it is to find a PM job. Job titles are all over the place - a “senior” PM in one company might be a “plain” PM at a different company. Some hiring managers want an MBA, some will give you a coding test or ask you to create a presentation, while others will not really understand what they need but were told by someone that they “needed to hire a PM”. It’s enough to make anybody’s head spin – even the seasoned pros who have been doing this for 10 or more years.
Sure, you can probably find 50 PM jobs right now to apply to, but will they be a good fit for you?
In my job search 3 years ago, I applied to around 125 positions.
In my job search 6 months ago, I only ended up applying to 7 positions.
For me, it was a matter of finding focus and being purposeful. Let’s start by breaking down the issues with the product field right now.
Crowded and Confusing
The biggest challenge to changing jobs in product management right now is how crowded the field is and how hard it is to get your resume through to recruiters. There are so many people who are doing product work or trying to get into product management that hiring managers are overwhelmed by the volume of resumes for each job posting. In those few seconds that a recruiter or hiring manager might spend on your resume or application, you need to find a way to let people know that you are capable of doing the job - either because you’ve done it in the past, or because you have built up the skills needed in other ways.
Unlike engineering roles, which usually have pretty clear titles like “Senior Frontend Engineer”, you could work in product management with titles like Product Manager, Program Manager, Product Lead, or Product Owner. Sometimes these roles do the same functions, but sometimes they don’t. If your recent titles don’t have the exact same words as the job you’re applying to, you might not get as many callbacks. And then there are the experience levels - having 5 years of experience in PM might be enough for a senior title at one place, but a midlevel title at another place.
And when it comes to the tasks of the product manager, there is a big divide in both expectations from the company and what you want to be doing. Some companies are simply looking for someone to drive execution (and maybe to be the fall guy when something doesn’t ship). Some roles are more focused on maintaining the backlog, or owning the roadmap. Some roles need you to do scrum ceremonies, and some don’t. The “best practices” books which everyone loves are telling you that you “should” be doing certain things, but the company doesn’t want you to. At least with a developer job, you can be fairly confident that writing code is going to be needed! No such guarantee exists out there for product folks.
Tech is Easy, People are Hard
Another challenge that PMs face is all about people. As a PM, you are at the center of a lot of conversations and are usually either facilitating them or participating in them. As you are driving toward decisions and aligning the different people and teams in your organization, you are interacting with all levels.
So when trying to get a product manager job, you need to be aware of the existing team chemistry, ownerships, and how you fit in. What if you only interview with a few people, join the team and realize you don’t get along with some of the developers or designers? This can be especially true for women in product, needing to navigate what is normally a male-dominated team and company. One wrong turn, or bad reaction, can result in a difficult conversation or termination. So you need to be sure to vet organizations just as much as they are vetting you!
As one of my coaches once said, “Some people and places just can’t handle your jelly. Find someplace that can handle your jelly.”
So yes, this is a hard job! If you’re struggling, you’re not alone.
Here’s what you can do to better your odds of success in your search for a product management role.
Find your focus
My first piece of advice for job seekers is to think very carefully about what part of product management you want to be doing in your next role. This should be a combination of what you know you do well, what you enjoy doing, and what you want to do for professional growth. Do you want to focus on delivery, working closely with a development team? Do you want to focus on research and discovery? Do you want to work on more business-focused tasks, like go-to-market or pricing? Do you want to build something from scratch, or maintain and innovate on an existing product?
Once you know what part of product you want to focus on, start targeting job descriptions that match or emphasize those areas - don’t just apply to every “Product Manager” opening you can find. If you like delivery work, look for job descriptions that emphasize working with the engineering and design teams. If you’re looking to build something from scratch, look for jobs at small startups. If you’re looking to own a budget and GTM, a larger company that is “tech enabled” might be a better fit.
If you are new and still need to figure out what parts of product you like best, I would suggest looking for either Associate Product Manager roles or Product Analyst roles. Normally, these roles will have you working with and shadowing other PMs doing things like documentation and customer interviews.
When looking at these roles, it’s important to understand what kind of support you’ll have in the organization. During the interview process, ask questions like: is there a career ladder for me? How much experience do the other PMs have, so I can learn from others? How much ability will I have to work directly with the product leader(s)?
Optimize that resume!
In addition to targeting the right roles, you should revise your resume to include the “keywords” for the part of product management that you’re targeting. Some people (including me!) use the “Skills” section of the resume for those keywords and it works to get past AI resume screeners.
For example, if you want your next job to focus on delivery work, you should spend most of your resume bullets describing your experiences with agile ceremonies and working with engineers and design and QA. You could include skills like “smoke testing”, “prototyping”, “design reviews” and “business requirements documentation”.
If you want to focus on research, you should deemphasize your agile experience and add more depth to your experiences with customer research and UX. Example keywords here would be “customer interviews”, “discovery”, “feature concepts and ideation”, “service design”, and “user journeys”.
In general, your resume should assure the hiring manager that you’ve done the tasks that they want this role to do. As a hiring manager, I only have a few minutes with your resume to decide the answer to that question! So focus most of what you write in your resume on the experiences and skills you want to do in the future and which the job requires. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to edit your resume for every job you apply for (which is a ton of work!), but you should have maybe two or three versions of your resume for the types of positions you apply for, so they lean towards the job descriptions.
I got the job! Now what?
Once you have your new product job, try to listen first and focus on pragmatism. You will want to understand the team and company’s norms, so you don’t accidentally rock the boat too much. A lot of product managers get into trouble by pushing for too many changes too suddenly. Listening first and explaining what you’re hearing and learning can make your new coworkers more likely to be open to any changes you might want to make. Also, be careful about trying to apply frameworks, templates, or practices from your prior companies without assessing whether they are right for your new team and environment. Instead, take notes on what you find different and what you might want to dig into more.
Another tip to onboarding as a product manager is to approach your new coworkers for their “backstory”, including the people you talked to in your interview process. You have an opportunity to ask as many questions as you can - this puts you in the best possible position to bring transparency and knowledge back to your team or distribute it throughout the organization. You should make sure to ask a lot of probing questions about all aspects of the product you’ll be working on - including the technical details of how it’s built and any insights from sales or marketing or other non-tech departments. Also ask for the “history” of the product – how it was originally built and who built it. This information will help you make sense of your team and product more quickly.
Talk about it!
The last advice is to find your own sounding board. In the interviewing phase, having an accountability buddy can help keep you on task but also help you vet opportunities - they can ask questions about what you want in a way that you might miss yourself.
As a PM, having a coach or close PM friend is vital to talk through the situations you’re facing in detail. This could be a professional coach, or another product person at your company, or a buddy that will respect any confidential matters that might come up. I talk to both a close professional friend and my partner during job searches to go through the pros and the cons and I always get helpful pushes in the right direction.
In my last job search, I was debating about a position that heavily emphasized “growth” - my partner chimed in that I don’t like growth PM work and why would I even consider a position like that? Great point and lesson learned. I find this approach helps keep my focus and avoids making concessions to your goals during the interview process. It can be easy to get excited about a job that won’t be a good fit or isn’t in line with your goals.
It can be really hard to talk about your job search or your troubles on the job, both because of NDAs and because of social taboos. But it’s important to encourage transparency and open dialogue in these situations. Doing so can help normalize talking about experiences in product management and help others avoid similar mistakes.
If you are open about your situation, more people can try to help you or give you a referral or assistance in your interview. If you don’t ask, people won’t know you need help! The product community is generally welcoming and supportive, so reach out on Elpha, on Twitter, or in your other product communities.
Finally, a note on self care. Job hunting in product management is difficult. It can be draining, stressful, and demoralizing, especially when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or looking for the goldilocks product job. Being selective, can feel like it will take a lot longer than the “spray and pray” job application approach. But I promise, it’s worth it in the long run! Take a break from your search if it gets too hard and take some PTO if it is more stress than you can manage.
Alright, now you are ready to reengage with that job search!