I've been coaching Product Managers and teaching the PM class at AllWomen.tech for the last 2 years. And the biggest help people have asked me for, understandably, is about their first PM role - how and where to find them.
Some talk about hitting a wall. Being blocked by job openings that require years of PM experience. Or being told that they're not technical enough. (What does that even mean? Bruce McCarthy said it best in this article that being technical is at the bottom of the PM skills food chain).
Some talk about not feeling confident. To present themselves to the world as Product Managers - impostor syndrome bringing them down. And to apply for a role when they don't tick all the items in the requirements list.
I'm pretty sure there are a lot of other aspiring Product Managers out there who are facing the same challenges. And not everybody has access to the support and network that can help them punch through walls. A situation that can only be made worse by the lack of feedback from recruiters and hiring managers when they reject candidates.
So let me round up the learnings I've shared with the PMs I've worked with in the last 2 years.
Ignore the Requirements List.
I've seen a lot of Product Manager job descriptions. I've even applied to most of them. And I have to admit, even with my many years of PM experience, some of these requirements have still put fear in my heart. I realized later on, that a lot of them are looking for a person who does not exist.
Here's what I know about these requirements, having written down a few myself.
It's really a wishlist. The picture of an ~ideal Product Manager that the hiring team would like to have in their organization.
It's probably a copy of somebody else's requirements. Like the requirements for a similar role in a different team or even company. Or even the requirements that the person recruiting has responded to themselves when they were applying for a role.
It can be a projection of the hiring manager's self or their immediate peers. Who else would be better references for what kind qualifications a person should have than ourselves and the people we know? Not exactly a nesting ground for diversity; but having done this myself, this was not done on purpose either. (This is why D&I programs and education are important in organizations, people!)
As Product people though, we know that a set of requirements does not necessarily reflect the right solution to solve a particular problem. It's what people think they need to solve it. Keyword(s) here being - they think.
And we know that it's important to look past these requirements. To focus, instead on the goals that are to be achieved, and the problems that are blocking this achieving from happening.
Approach your job search with the same mindset.
Give more importance to the ambition and responsibilities listed instead.
Then ask yourself a few things.
Do these things excite you? Do you think doing these could be fun? Because if the answer is yes - then let your enthusiasm for the role spill out of you. Don't be afraid to show it. Make the people who are hiring feel excited too! Because a skilled person is great and all; but an excited person will be amazing to work with.
Have you done something similar before? Can you share the impact from doing something similar? Yes? Fantastic! Be clear and obvious about these things. Highlight the result from your efforts. Did you make anything better? Did you increase or decrease something? Made something faster? And more importantly, what did you learn? Put those stories on paper. In your CV, in your Linkedin Profile, in your Cover Letter. Then tell the story again during your interviews.
Do you have other skills, knowledge, and experience that might not necessarily be specified in the job description, but can be relevant to the role? Have you built your own product before? Do you have a weirdly deep knowledge of the industry that you're trying to get into? Have you taught or mentored anybody? Spearheaded a project? Grown a community? Believe it or not, the skills you used to do any of the previously mentioned are the same skills that you will need to be a successful Product Manager.
Highlight these things! Help people paint a clearer picture of who you are, what you're capable of, and what value you can add to the team. These things are, most of the time, more important than the requirements listed for the role you're interested in.
Test new solutions to solve your job search problem
If you're not getting any responses to the applications you've sent out, take out your PM hat and look at it from a problem perspective. What are the potential problems you might be able to explore here?
For example, if you're submitting your applications only through the usual suspects (Linkedin, Glassdoor, Indeed, etc) - that's you and 100,000 other applicants for a single open role.
So if your tactics are not working well, how about trying out other potential solutions?
When I was looking for a PM role that not only would accept me, but also sponsor my work visa - I actively avoided submitting applications through job portals. I did the following instead:
I introduced myself directly to hiring managers, heads of products, even CEOs of the companies that I would be interested to be part of. I remember sending a message to John Dennehy on LinkedIn. First to give him feedback about Zartis because I used it for sending out applications (in its first iteration), and then presented myself as somebody who would have loved to help "take Zartis to the next level" (i have yet to outgrow my cheesy language). Happily, some of these conversations ended up as interviews.
I reached out to friends and asked them to refer me for roles or introduce me to somebody who can. And these referrals put my profile on the hands of the hiring managers directly, skipping the algorithms and the potential dead end that is recruiting tools. Most importantly, I also got valuable insights about the company that helped me make my profile stand out.
I looked for roles in different channels. I got active on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook Groups. I joined the Product Hunt community among many others; where people were sharing roles that they were looking to fill in their teams. Sometimes even before they got uploaded in the job portals. This was in 2015. There's a lot more to add to this list now like Slack, Telegram, maybe even Discord.
I'm not saying you should do exactly what I did above. But here's something to think about - Don’t forget that as PMs, part of the role is to find the right solution that will help us achieve our goals.
Is your current solution not bringing you the results you want? Then try another.
Wear that Product Manager Hat and Own It
Landing the first PM role can be hard, but it is not impossible. In many ways, it can be likened to building a product.
1️⃣ Have a good understanding of the goals of the organization you are trying to join, and the problems that are getting in their way.
2️⃣ Identify how you might be able to help that organization achieve their goals. Develop an awareness of your strengths and the learnings you've had from your previous experiences.
3️⃣ And make sure that the potential value you can provide is what is standing out in the stories you tell, the profile you're putting out there, and the conversations you're having.
When you're clear on your WHY - as in why you want to join the organization, why you're going to be a good fit for the organization, and why should the organization care... THAT is going to trump the number of years you're missing in your CV.
I like to tell the aspiring Product Managers I work with that what they bring into their applications are what the recruiters and hiring managers are going to get.
So start calling yourself a Product Manager. And own it. If even you don’t think that you’re already a kick ass Product Manager (one way or another), it’s going to be really hard for other people not to think the same.
Got questions, feedback, violent reactions? Or other tips for Product Managers looking for their first PM role? Leave them in the comments below👇
I work with Product Managers who want to learn how to successfully build products that provide value, create a collaborative team culture, and have trustful relationships with their stakeholders.
If you're curious to know more about how I might be able to support you in navigating this crazy beautiful world of Product Management, you're welcome to book a call with me. And let's do some discovery, shall we?
You can also write me at firstname.lastname@example.org 👋
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