[Episode 1] How to land a PM job without PM experience

Elena Chen
8 min readSep 23, 2019


Recently, Product Management (PM) jobs have become one of the most popular career options for graduates from top MBA schools following consulting and finance. At the heart of Silicon Valley, the question I got asked most often has also changed from “How can I get into Stanford GSB?” to “How can I land a PM job like you?”

Lead without authority
Source: https://chiefexecutive.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Best-Companies-for-Leaders-compressor.jpg

Many people chase after a PM career because PM is often regarded as the Product CEO. Even thought the title seems pretty eye-catchy, the reality is that PMs have no authority over anybody. Your everyday would be spent on attending an average of 8 meetings, writing documents and putting out fires. Another brutal fact is that recruiting for PM jobs with no PM background is a lengthy and challenging process. You will not hear back from most of the companies you apply for and probably receive more rejections than ever. If you keep trying, I am confident that you will eventually land on a PM job. However, your first job might not be a product you feel so passionate about.

If you are still interested in a PM career, hold tight, this fun ride is about to start. The rest of the post will answer the following two questions about PM recruiting:

  1. How to prepare for a product manager interview in a few weeks?
  2. What was the secret sauce behind my successful career switch from finance to PM?

How to prepare for a product manager interview in a few weeks?

Most PM interviews are composed of 5 types of questions, product design, strategy, analytical, technical and behavioral. I found a majority of candidates without PM background need most work on product design questions. On top of that, if you only have a business background like me, technical questions will probably scare you the most; if you are an engineer, strategy questions will look like a monster. The good news is that regardless of your background, most PM interviews can be prepared. It takes a lot of efforts but these skills can surely be learned.

If you only have a few weeks before your first PM interview, here are a few must-dos:

  • Get a copy of the PM interview bible Cracking the PM Interview ASAP and focus on Chapter 13 Estimation Questions, Chapter 14 Product Questions and Chapter 15 Case Questions. I have also read Decode and Conquer and 164 Actual Questions and Answer. They helped me prepare for a diverse set of questions but I didn’t find them as relevant as the first one. If you don’t have much time, I would recommend just go for the bible.
Source: https://medium.com/@diemkay/how-i-prepared-for-a-product-manager-interview-26122f2c80ba
  • Study 3–5 products that you like and be ready to answer the two most famous PM interview questions “What is your favorite product?” and “How can you improve it”? If you have time, I would strongly recommend going through the exercise of writing down product goal, users, main use cases, product strategy, personal story, competitors or substitutes, key metrics, moonshot ideas for each product. This exercise will significantly improve your product sense in a very short amount of time. You will be surprised by how your business or engineering brain can just operate like a PM.
  • For firms that assess creativity, you can read my other post [Episode 2] How to activate your creative brain in a PM interview to instill more creative flavor into your product design interviews.
  • Get yourself on StellarPeers founded by Malena Mesarina, an amazing PM interview prep forum that gives you sample answers to all types of PM interview questions. It is also free. Read through sample answers and summarizing your own answer frameworks for different question types.
Source: https://stellarpeers.com/learn/
  • For technical questions, I would recommend doing lots of wikipedia searches, watching Youtube videos about software engineer interviews, reading this open-sourced system design primer and reading through the two free lessons on Grokking the System Design Interview. It is more and more rare to get coding questions in PM interviews but system design questions are increasingly popular. If you have more time, taking CS classes online is the best way to catch up on technical.
  • Find a mock interview partner and do as many mock interviews as you can. Stellarpeers is also a good place to find mock interview partners but it’s hard to tell whether your partner’s level is gonna be close to yours. A genuine warning for folks who plan to read through all the materials and only start mock interviews when you feel ready. Trust me. You will never be fully ready. It is like learning to swim. Learn from mock interviews and get a sense of how to tackle super ambiguous interviews on the fly. You will save way more time by jumping into mock interviews ASAP.
Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Man_Doing_Sit_Ups_Cartoon.svg

What was the secret sauce behind my successful career switch from finance to PM?

In 2017, I left my banking job in Hong Kong to pursue my MBA at GSB. At the beginning of my MBA2 year, I received a full-time product manager offer in the Bay Area. Many friends have asked me how I did it, especially without a technical background. Let me share my secret sauces here. You should tell me if they are secretive at all.

First, you need to know what you want.

After I left banking, I spent 3 months interning as a chief of staff at a Chinese startup. This experience allowed me to get a good sense of different operating roles and I found myself naturally attracted to product management. As a result, instead of putting eggs in different baskets like many of my MBA classmates, my recruiting was laser-focused on PM.

Source: https://www.diocesecpa.org/blog/2019/07/04/focus/

Second, I am always excited about learning something new.

PM interview questions spread across so many disciplines, engineering, business, design, analytics that they sometimes even seem intimidating. A learning mindset is particularly effective in helping you power through PM recruiting. If you see preparation for PM interview an opportunity to learn new knowledge and skills, you are more likely to succeed. For example, I didn’t know how to code or what API was when I left banking, but I got lots of energy from the sheer fact that I can pick up useful technical skills while recruiting for my next job. I signed myself up for entry-level CS classes, e.g. programing abstracts, web applications, machine learning and deep learning, and coded my own coaching website.


Third, don’t ask for permission. Make yourself a PM.

An irony about PM recruiting is that most PM openings require candidates have PM work experience. I empathize with these companies because due to the nature of PM jobs, direct PM work experience is the ideal indicator for a candidate’s likelihood of job success. The reality is that seasoned PMs are under-supplied, so Career Switchers, you do get a chance. The key here is to build up your PM experience without a full-time PM job. There are two good ways, i.e. product study and side projects.

PMs live and breath products. Put on your PM hat by simply paying attention to products around you, whether they are software, hardware, or non-technical. It is actually quite fun to ponder about questions like “Why Facebook’s login pages are not designed for logging in but signing up?”, “How can Live Photo take photos before you press the shutter button?” and “What made Typeform such a success despite scary competitors like SurveyMonkey?”.

Source: https://towardsdatascience.com/cracking-an-awesome-product-manager-interview-2baa902791a1

Working on side projects or taking on part-time PM jobs are also great ways to build your PM credibility.

  • If you have a product idea, fantastic. Get yourself out there to start interviewing users, identifying pain points, coming up with product requirement and mock-ups. If you can convince an engineer to build a prototype together, that’s perfect. Even if not, it is still a valuable experience that you can talk about in your interviews.
  • If you are still at school, do you know that you can get part-time PM jobs from early stage startups more easily? Most pre-seed/seed startups can’t afford a full-time PM. If you don’t mind volunteering as a PM for a few months, many startups would say yes.
  • If you have a full-time job, your best shot is to ask for a project on which you can function as a PM or work closely with a PM.

Fourth, respect the hard work required for PM interview preparation.

Most people I knew who successfully switched into PM did lots of good interview preparation work. The reality is that it takes time to catch up on what you didn’t know, build your muscle memory, and be really good at answering those interview questions. What I found most helpful in my interview prep were studying 7 products inside out, summarizing 9 frameworks for different interview questions, and doing mock interviews for ~15 days. Those efforts will pay off not only when you get your PM offer but also when you start your new job.

Source: https://jooinn.com/man-on-the-mountain.html

I know it’s a lot, but I am sure you can do it, too.