Career Advancement is Product Management

Gayle Laakmann McDowell, Author of “Cracking the PM Interview” and former software engineer at Google, Microsoft, and Apple, shares what it takes to become a top 1% product manager, how to answer the toughest PM job interview questions, and how to advance your career in the field.

Here are the highlights:

And here’s the transcript:

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: I’m Gayle Laakmann McDowell, and I’m the author of Cracking the PM Interview, which is about how to land a job in product management. My background is in technology. I was a software engineer for a while, worked at Google, Microsoft, and Apple, and then started focusing more on helping people land jobs in tech, specifically helping them on the preparation side. Teaching them technical skills, teaching them how to articulate answers better, a very tech approach to how to land jobs. Career advancement is product management.

Mike Fishbein: Gayle has done recruiting for some of the top tech companies in the world. She’s interviewed hundreds of product managers. I wondered what she looks for when hiring for the product management role.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: One thing that makes a PM role very unique is that there are a lot of different backgrounds, because to be an effective product manager … What’s happening is that to be an effective product manager, the ideal one has technical skills, and understands that specific industry, and really has the ability to design and build a product. They also have sort of business skills. That’s the ideal person, who by and large doesn’t exist, especially when entering the PM role. So, that means that what companies are hiring for is not somebody who has all of those buckets completely filled out, but somebody who has strength in one or two, and perhaps has a little bit of depth in the others. So, there’s a lot of different backgrounds that somebody can come from to get a job in product management.

Mike Fishbein: That was unexpected. Essentially, very few people are qualified product managers, going into the role. Companies look for partially prepared people, who they think have the potential to grow into this role. Is a technical background even required?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: As far as education, what’s pretty central for a lot of roles is desiring technical skills. For product management roles in technology, that’s a really big thing, is having those technical skills. That said, I’d say probably half of product managers still don’t have that. So then, they want somebody who understands, really understands and empathizes with the user, but that doesn’t mean just one background.

Mike Fishbein: Although applicant backgrounds vary, does the role differ significantly from company to company? One of the most common questions I hear, even from people in product management, is, “What do PMs do on a day to day basis?”

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: A product manager’s day really can depend on the role, and the team, and the stage of the company, and the stage of the product. But often, it’s talking to a lot of users…. Motivate developers to work on particular things, without having direct management responsibilities over them. So, you know, it can be a lot of meetings. It can be a lot of talking with users. It can be a lot of just working with developers to kind of understand where they are in the stage of development. So, very, very heavy on collaboration and design. Not necessarily at the user interface level, but at the level of, “What features do we want, and how will this build out the right experience for the users?”

Mike Fishbein: The top question on Quora on the top of product management is, “What does it take to become a product manager in the top one percent?” Let’s hear what Gayle has to say about that.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: One thing that people look for is the ability to launch and drive a product, particularly when you’re talking about an earlier-stage company, or an earlier stage product at … You know, even at a more mature company. So, the ability to drive a product from conception through launch…. What do these users want, and how are we gonna get traction on this product? Who are we gonna talk to? Are we gonna get marketing? Are we gonna get … Not advertising, but are we gonna get stories written up by journalists? So, how we build out the launch of this product, and then somebody who can take that full circle and say, “Okay. Now that we’ve launched, what do we do?” That’s gonna be somebody who is very, very good at collaboration and motivating people to do what needs to be done, even when they can’t directly instruct the user to do these things.

Mike Fishbein: Let’s take a look at some of the top trends impacting product management interviews and career advancement.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: The general trend of what companies look for, I think, is fairly consistent. But I think what you see is, you see a lot more companies taking advantage … Particularly as more and more companies become based in technology, and have a lot more technology roles, a whole lot more technology PM jobs, I should say. And so, you’ll see more product management jobs, and you’ll see a lot of companies really being understanding of PMs have to come from a diverse background in terms of technical skills, or whatever they come with. Sometimes companies kind of can be more understanding of, this person doesn’t have technical skills, but they understand the user. Or, they understand this industry very well.

A company wants a product manager who brings something to the table, and they understand that you’re not gonna bring everything to the table. And one thing that makes it difficult in a lot of ways to find a PM job is that it’s not just about the role. It’s not just about the company. It’s also about the other product managers in the company. So, you may be more valued because you have technical skills, and the other PMs don’t, and they have that gap at the company. Or you have an industry background there, and the other PMs don’t. Or they need someone with more business background. It’s something that makes it very difficult in a lot of ways, because you’re being hired in part because of who else is at the company, as opposed to just on your own footing.

Mike Fishbein: While the majority of you listening are already product managers, some of you may not be. For those looking to break in, what can be one differentiator that can help you stand out?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: One thing I think is really valuable for somebody who’s trying to enter the product management profession, if you’re focused in thinking about technology, to learn how to code a little bit. It doesn’t have to be fantastic code. Just learn a little bit. And the reason why I stress that is that so many companies require that skill. Even companies that don’t require it often prefer it, and if you’re looking at the resume of somebody who doesn’t have any coding background, but claims to be passionate about technology, sometimes companies will question that a little bit. And it doesn’t take that much time to learn a little about coding. You can do it in a month. It’s sort of silly when you see someone who’s striving to get into product management, but hasn’t done this little bit of work that they can do. That’s one big thing I think you can do.

The other thing you can do, because you already have that background, is practice launching some things on your own. Come up with an idea. Show some entrepreneurial skills. Come up with an idea of an app, or something like that that you want to build, and find a way to get it done. Maybe that’s building it yourself. But maybe it’s hiring and managing an outsource team to do it. But find a way to launch something, get that sort of leadership and that ability to focus on the user, that’s really, really valuable. And be public about it. Create a website. Blog about what you’re doing. Blog about product decisions that other companies are doing. Let yourself be comfortable being kind of a public person.

Mike Fishbein: Let’s begin breaking down the actual interview. What are two to three interview questions that product managers are being asked right now?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: One of the most common questions comes in basically three different forms, and it’s, “What’s your favorite mobile app? What’s your favorite website? What’s your favorite physical product?” That’s a no-brainer question that every single product manager should prepare for.

Another really common question is along somewhat different lines, but, “How would you design an alarm clock for the blind?” That’s actually what the idea behind the cover for my book is. Or, “How would you design Bill Gates’s bathroom? How would you design a better pen?” Those design questions are really common. And then you’ll also see some questions about how would you improve that company’s product. Or, estimation questions can come up a lot. So, you know, “How much would you charge to wash all the windows in New York? How much money does Gmail make a year?” Those sort of estimation, problem-solving questions come up a lot as well.

With design questions, there’s certainly not a right or wrong answer. There are approaches and things they look for, though. One big thing they look for is the ability to really define the user at a deep level, and design a product that makes sense for that user. An example of that is, suppose you’re asked a question like, “How would you design a calculator for the blind?” The simplistic version of the user is, “Well, it’s a blind person…. So, what they need is a calculator that adds numbers and does basic arithmetic.”

The sophisticated person says, “Okay … ” You know, they ask a lot more questions, and they say, “Tell me about this blind person. Is this a child? Is this an adult? Where are they using this? Are they using this in school, at the job, at home? Why do they need a calculator?” They asking a lot of these questions, and make some assumptions themselves, possibly. They can talk at the level of their needs, not just at the level of, “Well, they need to be able to add stuff.” But if you’re talking about, say, a blind child, their needs may be not just adding stuff, but also the ability to work in a classroom setting, without disrupting the other students by, say, a calculator that constantly speaks things out loud. Or the ability to blend in, and have those kind of more emotional needs.

That’s one of the things that differentiates the simple candidates who just do the obvious, with the candidates who really excel there. It’s being able to understand the user more deeply, and understand what they really need more deeply.

Mike Fishbein: We’ve spoken extensively about what recruiters are looking for, and what candidates can do to stand out in the interview and prepare for moving up. Now, let’s discuss places people can go to find product management job openings.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: You can certainly find out about PM job opportunities on companies’ websites, but honestly, there’s so much competition for PM jobs that that’s not the most effective way to go about it. It’s much more effective to pick an industry, a stage of company. Pick something that you want to do. Maybe that’s financial products. Maybe it’s security products. Maybe it’s user-focused products. Pick somewhere you want to be, and get out and start networking with people. Go out to meetups. Go start learning about the products. Tweeting to the people at the company about suggestions, feedback, et cetera. Don’t be overly broad when you think about product management, or you’ll sort of never make traction there. Pick something you’re passionate about and focus on that, and meet the people there. Because the online job resume submissions don’t work all that effectively.

Mike Fishbein: What about people looking to transition into product management, like those currently doing consulting?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: When you think about what you need to be a product manager, the ideal candidate has the technical skills, they have official business skills, they have ability to understand the product. And when you want to think about getting into product management, you need to understand where do your skills overlap with your technical skills, business skills, industry skills, and product skills, and what are you missing?

So, a consultant probably has demonstrated a strong ability to understand business. That’s gonna be something that is gonna be a real strength. But then you have to understand, what are the concerns from your background? Maybe it’s the ability to work in a small team. Maybe it’s the ability to really have a product, because as a consultant, you may not have had a real product that you’ve had to build before. And so, understand what your strengths are, but know what your weaknesses are, and find ways of complementing that.

So, somebody who is a management consultant at Bain, BCG, McKinsey, one of these big firms, would do really well to demonstrate a bit of initiative by learning to code, maybe launching a simple app, or just hiring a team that launches an app. So, understand your strengths, how you cover those sort of core skill sets, and understand how to complement your weaknesses.

Mike Fishbein: Gayle provided some great insight into the world of product management hiring and career advancement. Product managers need to specialize, and those seeking to move up need to be able to work collaboratively and on a technical level. Next up is the benchmark. Let’s see how Gayle reflects on the next series of questions we ask to all our interviewees.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: I eat my own dog food by being in a role right now where I’m advising companies on how to work on their tech hiring process, but I don’t … You know, I feel like a product manager sometimes, because I’m sort of telling people what to do, but I don’t have the ability to actually do that. And so, I need to understand what motivates these people. What is gonna connect with them, so that I can have the kind of influence that I want to have? That’s really important, is to know just how to get people to do what you need them to do, without actually being able to tell them what to do.

I utilize user testing by … Before I launch a new book, before I make changes, before I launch new, smaller products … I do a lot of talking to users in advance. I have a Facebook page and Twitter page where I’m pretty active, where I’ll send out a survey. I’ll sometimes hop on the phone with people. I read emails very carefully for feedback about what could be done better. I also get a ton of involvement on Quora, and that’s actually been something that’s really valuable in a different way. It doesn’t get the survey responses, per se, but it gets us very rich feedback, where people are participating and asking questions. It’s a much tighter community, and so people are much more open about feedback. It’s not quantitative, but it’s still incredibly valuable feedback. What questions people are asking around the technical interview process. I look at what questions people are asking about my books.

When I was writing Cracking the PM Interview … First of all, I actually met my co-author through Quora. But I also used it to get information myself, to learn what’s going on with these different companies. How are they approaching interviews?

One of my favorite books, that I just started to re-read, is Stumbling on Happiness. I love psychology, and I also love data, and really making data-driven decisions. I really like the book because it approaches psychology, and a lot of what we know about happiness, in a very quantitative way. It’s not based on assumptions about, “Oh, here are the things you should do to make yourself happy,” but it’s really based on data about what matters and what doesn’t.

Mike Fishbein: And then of course, Gayle’s answer to my favorite question, what’s your recurring product management nightmare?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: I think one thing that I find really interesting is this constant sort of debate of to what extent is a minimal, viable product valuable? It’s so easy to [inaudible 00:16:55] value of a minimal viable product, and I do, too. I think it’s really valuable. But what always worries me is, the way that I got started as an author was, launching what actually turned out to be a minimal viable product. It was a short little PDF on interviewing for software engineers, and it did incredibly well, and that’s what motivated me to continue to write the book, and continue to build on it.

But the thing that scares me is, the minimal viable product failing doesn’t necessarily mean the product isn’t great, or can’t be great. It just means maybe you didn’t market it well. Maybe it didn’t sell well. Maybe it wasn’t quite perfect yet. And we bet on the minimal viable product to be accurate, but it’s a very imperfect measure still. And so I worry about, you know, what opportunities have I missed because the minimal viable product just wasn’t quite right at that time, for whatever reason?

Mike Fishbein: Here’s how you can learn more about Gayle and product management career advancement.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: What I’d like to leave people with is really understanding that you’ll hear a lot about what skill sets a product manager has to have, and you’ll have a lot of people with very strong opinions about, “All product managers must know this. They must know about metrics. They must know about industry.” And the reality is that a product manager is not just one thing. It depends on the role, it depends on the company, it depends on the stage of the company, it depends on what other product managers are at that company. Where it’s a very diverse role, and whatever your background is, there is actually an entry point. You just need to figure out what that entry point is, and what the things are that you need to do to complement your existing background.

You can reach me on my website, which is gayle.com. You can also find me on my Facebook page, which is facebook.com/gayle.

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Author of Cracking the PM Interview and former software engineer at Google, Microsoft, and Apple

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