What if I told you it took me 25+ failed interviews and 2+ stressful months to secure my first product management job?
Would you believe that behind the facade of success lies a journey filled with ups and downs, self-doubt, and invaluable lessons?
Today I share the story of the challenging path to landing my first product manager job and critical insights that helped land my first PM job.
Most Indian B-schools do interviews in phases (or something more commonly known as "Days".)
We had the Tier 1 companies coming to campus on Day 1, Tier 2 on Day 2, etc. Each day is not really a day but a period of 1-2 weeks.
The application process starts 2ish months before Day 1 starts.
I used those two months to do two things primarily:
- Refine my resume and apply to relevant roles
- Do mock interviews with batch mates and friends on campus
I was thrilled once the shortlist results started coming out because the top product companies shortlisted me for interviews.
I worked hard and prepared well for each interview -- I read about the company, recent news, new products, and anything else I could find online. And I continued doing mock interviews with peers.
I couldn't clear even one of the interviews on Day 1.
The weight of each rejection letter, the self-doubt that crept in with every missed opportunity, and the emotional roller coaster of hope and disappointment was a journey that tested my resilience to the core.
I started questioning my abilities, battling impostor syndrome, and was trapped in a cycle of self-doubt. It took a few days to break free from feeling like a failure and summon the strength to understand what went wrong.
But it was precisely in those moments of setback that I discovered their actual impact on me.
They ignited a desire to understand my mistakes, learn from them, and improve my approach.
Through this process of introspection, I learned what I did wrong:
Mocking with peers is not good enough.
Mocking with peers is simple. You're talking to "friends" and "equals." There is no stress.
On the other hand, interviewers are not friends. They are also not equals. They are experienced and know a lot more than you.
And, most importantly, they make the decision that decides your fate.
In other words, real-world interviews are way more stressful than mock interviews.
Force fitting frameworks:
During my preparation, I learned how to solve product sense problems (as that was the most common question we were asked in PM interviews.)
However, my learning process was far from ideal.
I focused only on "frameworks" and not on understanding the essence.
As a result, my answers were shallow, a lousy attempt to force fit a "framework" for all my answers.
In my first interview, I was supposed to "Make Dropbox better." The interviewer saw I was struggling and subtly hinted at the user persona she wanted me to focus on. But instead of identifying problems for the persona and innovating solutions, I spent about 15 mins trying to set up the framework as I had learned. And wasted time overthinking how to create the universe of user personas.
Lack of understanding.
While I learned frameworks and hacks to solve product questions, I never took the time to understand the real essence of product sense questions. For that matter, I didn't even understand what product management meant and what real PMs do.
For example: in the Dropbox example -- one of the mistakes (that I now know) I made was completely ignoring the business goal for Dropbox at the time.
I didn't spend any time discussing the goals, so my solutions were all over the place. It was impossible to know which one would create the highest impact.
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The Turn Around:
That was it. I knew what I did wrong.
And then, I was determined to turn my setbacks into stepping stones.
This is what I did. This is also what I recommend all product managers to do when applying for their first PM job:
Step 1: Focus on understanding product management
Understand what it truly means. Then read about frameworks and use them only if/when required.
Talk to experienced product managers who have done what you want to do.
In my case, I spoke to many alums who were in the companies I was applying for. I got into the details of what the company does, what product management means for them, and what a successful interview candidate looks like.
In my conversations, I was not focusing on "how to crack PM interviews" but on "what product management means and how you do it."
I also started reading voraciously about product management. Unfortunately, there was not too much content available. (This is in 2013) But I was lucky to come across Marty Cagan's book - Inspired. That helped tremendously. It enabled me to decode product management as a function holistically and understand the role of a product manager.
Step 2: Mocks
Once I had stronger relations with alums, I started requesting them to help me with mock interviews. It took a lot of work to get time from them. But the few that did help made a world of difference.
Their feedback was pointed and actionable (compared to zero feedback from peers.)
After one mock interview with a pretty senior alumnus, the feedback helped me understand that while my ideas were promising, my communication was unclear and unstructured.
I took the feedback to heart and worked on improving my structure. The goal was to present my thoughts clearly and briefly. I would practice this by picking a complex technical concept and trying to explain it to my mother. If she understood, I did a good job.
Finally, I also worked on my overall communication. I realized I was taking too long to answer basic questions like "Tell me about yourself." or "Why do you want to join our company?" I started recording myself and identified redundancies, and then worked on making the answer crisper.
Step 3: Use frameworks as a starting point (or ignore them altogether)
I had taken frameworks to heart and focused on using only them to answer every question. That did not work.
Frameworks could be good for understanding the basics. But I know today that frameworks are rarely helpful in real-world scenarios.
The New ME:
Once I understood product management better, my thinking evolved. When I answered questions, I focused only on the following:
- Always think about the user.
- Create solutions that help the user but also positively impact business goals.
- Be explicit about "why" you choose to do A or B.
- Be clear and structured in your approach. Help the interviewers see "how" you're thinking instead of only sharing the end state.
- Check with them if they agree, like, or dislike the direction you're taking.
- Iterate along the way.
As the Day 2 interviews came closer, I had enhanced knowledge about product management, better interview strategies, and increased self-confidence.
In fact, after one of my interviews, the interviewer commended me on my user-centric thinking. He was pleasantly surprised with the detailed ideas I shared on the users' pain points.
The noticeable transformation resulted in a higher interview conversion rate, eventually leading to my first job as a product manager.
- Invest in understanding the role first, and interview process second. (resources below)
- Try doing mocks that replicate the real-world situation (and stress)
- Frameworks can be a useful tool. But not always. Use them sparingly.
- Build your network and learn from real product managers
- Build product sense: remember to focus on users first, business second. Ignore all else.
If you're an aspiring product manager, focus on a few high quality content sources only