Selective Application: Strategy for Getting Your First Product Management Job

Originally posted on 

Getting your proverbial foot-in-the-door is among hardest steps when are looking to transition to a new career.

Most career transition advice have you focusing either building specifics skills or following certain tried-and-true tactics to make sure someone chooses you, but I have argued that making the right decision on where you should apply to is just as important.

Being selective in your application is one of the most important choices you can make in your career transition process. Just as any company have their choice in a pool of candidates, you have your choice in the pool of jobs.

I believe optimizing your selective application strategy can significantly increase your likelihood of getting an interview. When it comes to choosing which company you want to apply to become a PM, I have found the following considerations helpful:

  1. Founding/Leadership Team
  2. Product Team History and Composition
  3. Industry (relative to your experience/skills)

The key is to look for companies where each of the characteristics above works in your favor, increasing their likelihood of take a chance on you even if you don’t have the perfect background or experience.

1. Founding/Leadership Team

Key: look for companies run by people like yourself.

Here’s the inevitable truth: people hire those who are similar to themselves (partially explains why there’s a lack of diversity in tech…). However, you can use this fact to your advantage in your job search. Look for…:

  • … founding/leadership teams with work experience/education that looks like yours
  • … founding/leadership teams that tends towards being first-time executives

For example, a Founder/CEO who was previously a marketer is far more likely to believe someone with a marketing background will succeed in a PM role.

Similarly, someone who’s founding a company for the first time at age 25 will naturally be more risk tolerant and willing to take chance on someone else who may not be deeply experienced. A young, disruptive, intelligent problem-solvers will bias towards hiring other young, disruptive, intelligent problem-solvers in spite of (or perhaps even because of) their lack of experience.

How: do some research on LinkedIn and find all the executives at your target company. Especially check to see if the background of the CEO or the head of product have something in common with you. You can also check Crunchbase to learn about a startup leadership team, assuming they have been updating their company profile.

2. Product Team History and Composition

Key: look at what phase the product team is in.

Here is some of the stuff you want to find out:

  • How many PMs do they have on staff?
  • What is the background of various PMs?
  • Who do the PMs report to?

You can quickly find out some key information, such as…:

  • … whether the team only hire people with prior experience
  • … whether the team favor internal transfers from other departments
  • … whether the team has management bandwidth or a deep bench to mentor someone without PM experience.

Depending on the company and their inception/origin story, a PM role is either ingrained in their DNA as a key value-add role, or it is a organic gap that they could no longer be filled with the existing cross-functional team. Companies with deeply experienced PMs will also have the ability to hire and train people without prior experience. Knowing this will help you position your application.

How: Again, LinkedIn is the method-of-choice for this type of research. Do a search of [company name] + “product” and see how many current and former employees pop up. There’s a chance that some people haven’t put their title on LinkedIn, or the search misses it. Assume there are a few more PMs at a company in addition to the list you have found. Chances are, any company with more than a handful of PMs will have an organizational structure to handle management overhead.

3. Industry (relative to your experience/skills)

Key: look at what customers they serve and problem they solve for their customers (and how your experience/skills can give them a unique advantage).

This one is a bit more obvious — leverage your experience and expertise on a specific market or customer segment to land that PM gig. Questions to consider:

  • Which industry is the company in?
  • What are they trying to solve?
  • Who are they solving those problems for?

If you are a sales person, you have a greater chance being considered for a PM role at a company where sales people are the customers (e.g. CRM) or sales people are a key part of a purchase customer decision (e.g. B2B). Same goes for bankers going into to fintech PM-ing, instructional designers going into edtech PM-ing, or game testers going into mobile games PM-ing.

These are some considerations I have previously found to be helpful in strategically optimizing a job search. Give this a try please let me know if you have found the same level of success as I have.

Good luck!


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