Mikaela Reyes
Mikaela Reyes

How to Get a PM Role Out of College

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Dear undergrad/new grad trying to get into product,

First, a little about me.

  • I’m a woman of color.
  • I studied at a liberal arts, non-Ivy League, non-tech feeder school
  • I was applying to jobs in the west coast all the way from the east coast.
  • I had no prior network in tech (except for the gracious alumni who answered my cold calls!)
  • I was an international student; hence needed sponsorship for my visa.
  • I am not a STEM / CS / engineering major.

That list is not meant to be a pity story. I’m proud of everything I am and am not! It’s meant to be a preface to say if you fall under any (or all) of these categories, you can absolutely land a job in product right outta college.

But let’s be real – it is a tougher path and you will probably work 10.485x harder than your peers.

You will fail. You will get rejected (a lot!!!) But you will get that perfect job offer of your dreams and it will be the glorious start to your product career.

How do I differentiate myself to nab a role in product?

The number one thing to nail with your interviews is crafting the perfect why behind your motivation in going into product. As a PM, you must be good at communicating a user’s story and wow-ing an audience with the vision around your product. Do the same for yourself.

My general story: My biggest goal in life is to augment the growing tech economies in developing countries. I want to create products and movements that enable access to resources in emerging markets. Diving into product is training ground for me to learn about all facets of building movements and companies, from engineering to design to business. I want to gain these skills to build something of value that impacts the communities I care about in these developing communities, starting with my home in the Philippines.

That being said, be genuine. Don’t make up a fake story – what’s the use???

Second is to demonstrate how you are already doing the things required of you as a product person. How? Read more.

What can I do now as an undergrad to prepare myself for a career in product?

There’s no “product management” major in college (at least none I know of and which, I believe, makes sense). How then does one demonstrate being a product person with minimal product experience in undergrad?

In general, I like to divide “product management” into 5 buckets.

  1. Engineering
  2. Design
  3. Business/Product Sense
  4. Data
  5. Leadership

A PM is a jack/jill of all trades but a master of none. Dip your feet into learning skills for these buckets – that in itself already shows leadership and initiative. The best way is to start something yourself. Founders/entrepreneurs are the greatest candidates for PMs. Their entrepreneurial gusto is evidence of their leadership and initiative, plus they work through tough product decisions early on.

If you want to learn the above in small, bite-sized pieces, think about which bucket you’re weakest at and find ways to fill that hole.

Not majoring in any of the above? Not an excuse. I’m an econ and psych major – far from most of these buckets. I had to get creative.

  1. Engineering: I sat in my friend’s summer CS class; built my own portfolio website from scratch; took 2 CS classes; enrolled in 2 CS online courses; got a fellowship in a coding bootcamp; coded a few websites & apps of my own
  2. Design: worked on portfolio projects for mentors; understood the process of human-centered design and applied it to my work; taught a class on design thinking; got an internship as a UX designer; talked to 50+ designers to understand their processes; did freelance design work
  3. Business/Product Sense: went through the HBX Core MOOC; wrote several product reviews on Medium for several different companies; went through dozens of business case studies; understood base business terms; founded a non-profit and student organization on campus; advised on-campus startups
  4. Data: took classes on data particularly learning R, STATA & SQL; worked on data analysis projects related to the Philippines; worked on data projects with professors
  5. Leadership: started a non-profit and school organization; led different dance troupes; a cultural identity club and another school org on campus; coalesced groups of people to work on different projects; started international online communities

What are some examples of things you can do?

Teaching a class on design, engineering and management 🙂

  1. Build: Build an app and put it on the app store. Work on a side project with engineers and designers to start a product that benefits other students on campus. Code your own website. Design fake apps. Redesign real ones.
  2. Orgs: Found a non-profit or organization that caters to a problem you see in your community. Join a student-led VC and analyze businesses for them. Join orgs on campus that develop design, business or engineering skills. Better yet, become a leader of one of them.
  3. Write: Start a blog and write about all different types of products. Write product reviews of existing apps or companies. Build your online brand through things you post on Quora, Medium, etc. Read about economic trends and write about how these affect certain markets.
  4. Get Real World Experience: Find internships in one of the buckets. Intern for a startup while in school. Do freelance work. Join a coding bootcamp. Start that startup.
  5. Study a little bit more: Take online courses. Take classes on campus that demonstrate the skills above. Practice business case studies. Sit in classes. Better yet, teach a class.

Point is: You have no excuse. There are several other ways to demonstrate your leadership and initiative to learn all these skills. Not everything has to be listed on a resume but the process will help you build the necessary skills along the way. In no way do you have to “succeed” in building that startup or app. Whatever it is, whether you fail or not, you learn, and that manifests in your interviews & resume.

What opportunities are out there?

When I applied, the entry-level PM roles were few and far in between. But the trend is growing really quickly! Here are some programs I know of:

Anything else you don’t see on this list? Message me.

How do I go about the application process?

  • Don’t apply online.
    • Stop sending your resume to the resume ether of nothingness hoping you’ll go against the statistics and win the lucky draw. You won’t. There are better, smarter ways to spend your time.
  • Get a referral.
    • One of these better, smarter ways is finding a referral. It’s absolutely much better to get referred by someone who already knows you and can vouch for your work. But coming out of college, and into this industry, referrals from that route may be difficult. Best thing to do early on is network network network. LinkedIn makes it easier. Reaching out to people from your alumni network is a great move. Get into informational interviews with them and genuinely try to understand their job role. Show an inherent interest, then towards the end, ask for a referral (if they don’t already offer it). Show your spirit and build those relationships early on.
  • Craft your story.
    • Closing the loop. Make sure you have a tigh story that pins all your experiences under a cohesive theme. Also craft your story around where you want to be in the next x years – PMs need to demonstrate foresight, too.

What other resources can I check out?

This is not a very comprehensive list. They’re mostly things I suggest you start off with. If you want really really comprehensive lists with many many more resources, check the link at the very bottom.

Books:

People/Blogs to Follow:

  • Bo Ren – FBRPM, Tumblr PM, now cooking up her own thing in VC; non-traditional PM career path
  • Julie Zhuo – designer at Facebook who writes splendid stuff about product as well
  • Ken Norton – parter at GV who writes really good product material
  • Jackie Bavaro – head PM at Asana; wrote Cracking the _ Interview books
  • April Underwood – CPO at Slack
  • Merci Grace – formerly a Dir of Product at Slack, founder of Women in Product, all-around great product leader
  • Ellen Chisa – worked at Lola, Kickstarter, now building Dark
  • Mika Reyes (jk – but that’s the dream, yo)

Links to More Resources (much longer lists than I will have if you really really want more!)

Hope this post helps you out on your journey. I encourage you to keep trying if this is something you want to achieve. All PM paths are non-traditional these days and it’s so great to see a diverse range of stories. Keep trudging on and I’m sure you’ll find the job that befits you. 😉 As always, reach out and I’d be happy to chat more!

With PM Love,

Mika 🙂