We’ve shared tips for nailing the case study interview and excelling once you land the role, however one of the best ways to break into product is by talking to those that are currently working in it. So we spoke with three exemplary product managers that have worked everywhere from Uber to Stripe to gain their insights into what it takes to break into product management.
Table of ContentsWeston Clarke, Senior Product Manager, Amplitude I Ex-Uber & Redfin
Jessica Chen Riolfi, Cofounder & CEO, Uprise I Ex-Ebay & Transferwise
Joyce Zhang, Product Manager, Stripe I Ex-Cruise & BCG
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Weston Clarke, Senior Product Manager, Amplitude I Ex-Uber & RedfinLinkedin I Twitter
What sort of skills or attributes make for a good PM?
Dealing with ambiguity is number one. The single strongest PMs I see are the people who can make really strong decisions in the face of ambiguity. That means like having frameworks, collecting all information available to you and intelligent ways of getting into that data. Then another one is just stakeholder management. You could be making all the right decisions as a PM, but you could just be not communicating them well and rubbing people the wrong way. It can just make things go downhill.
You started your career in consulting. Looking back, would you have still gone into consulting or jumped straight to product management?
Though I think consulting set me up really well with all the skills I needed, in hindsight I probably would've aimed for that APM-type role right away out of school. At the time, I just didn't know those roles existed. Oftentimes it seems like a chicken or the egg thing with PMs where if you haven't been a PM before, you're not gonna get a PM job. If you go for an APM role earlier, it’s easier to break into product.
Jessica Chen Riolfi, Cofounder & CEO, Uprise I Ex-Ebay & TransferwiseLinkedin I Twitter
After a career in finance, how’d you pivot to a product-focused career?
I started an independent study because I was having a hard time coming from a finance background and trying to get on the calendars of people who do product. There’s a ton of people trying to make that switch and I realized an independent study on international project management could be a differentiating factor. It gives you a reason to get on people’s calendars and get responses. You need to hustle and be innovative.
What’s your best advice for aspiring PMs?
The biggest mistake I've made in my different product roles is not taking the time to understand what “product” means at different companies. Within startups, there's one end of the spectrum where the product manager has a ton of ownership to figure out what the customer needs and then build that for them. There's the other end of the spectrum, where the founder is really the person who's defining all of the product strategy and product management is much more “project manager,” just making sure things are going through the door. You should really take the time to understand yourself and to understand where along the spectrum you fit.
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Joyce Zhang, Product Manager, Stripe I Ex-Cruise & BCGLinkedin I Twitter
What would you say to someone getting started in PM?
For a college student, figure out why you want to be a PM. The role might seem very hype right now, but after you chat with a PM, you may realize that you don't want to, for example, manage engineer personalities.
Do you have to be technical to be a PM?
The thing I hear most often is, “I’m not technical, maybe I shouldn’t apply for PM”. Doesn’t matter if you aren’t currently technical, just have to be interested in reading code, and understanding concepts like latency. Cannot be high level only and talk to execs, gotta get low level talk to engineers.
What are common misconceptions about product?
People often see product management as “CEO of the product” which seems glamorous but you have to deal with everything, not just marketing and roadmaps. For example, maybe the engineering team has a security problem and your technical program manager is on leave. You have to get into the weeds and search through the internet to find a solution for your customers.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.