Getting to the Product Manager interview stage

Jun 22, 2021

Eight hundred and fourteen.

That's how many applicant CVs we screened last year for a Product Manager role I had open. 814. Plus the countless number of LinkedIn profiles we proactively screened ourselves, with approximately 50 or so people we reached out to asking them to apply. 64 applicants had a phone screen with our recruiter or the hiring manager (that's me!). 10 made it through to a full interview loop and case study with the broader team. 1 offer went out. 1 offer was accepted.

I wish a submitted CV was a fair and objective representation of somebody's experience and their potential. That isn't the case though. And so we have this imperfect process filled with potential bias made worse by incomplete information. I'd love to be able to speak to each and every applicant to try give them the best opportunity possible to let themselves shine. That's not going to happen with 814 applicants though. There's going to be some sort of filtering required to distill it down to a number we can manage. That might mean we miss out on someone great, and that makes me sad.

So let me try and help fix that!

While I've got your attention, I'm Glenn and it's great to meet you! 👋

I'm currently Director of Product @ HashiCorp, and we're hiring! Including multiple roles at various levels (i.e., junior through to senior) across

Product Management,Design, and Engineering & Engineering Management.

If you'd like to work with us please get an application in ASAP.

Going meta on the PM application

Especially given we were hiring for a Senior Product Manager at the time I was ok not cutting too much slack on CVs that didn't present well. Because like it or not, especially as someone applying for a senior role, your CV is in itself implicity the first test in the process. You have a potential customer (the recruiter/hiring manager) and you're trying to understand their needs and find them a solution (you!) to solve it.

And so that's the journey I'm going to go through today. A look at what it's like on the other side of this review process. The common pitfalls I see. The mistakes people make that either make it hard to get a sense for what they'd be brining to the role or why they're different to the other hundreds of people we're potentially going to talk to.

Because no matter what level of experience we're talking about the best problem for me to have is to have too many amazing people with great potential.

Cover Letters

This has been an eye-opening thing for me and has forced me to rethink some of my own long established process bias. I used to loathe cover letters. Too often they seemed like a pointless procedural thing that people just did because that's what they were told to do. Looking back I think I've also been carrying the scars from hiring many, many years ago. Back when a HR team would physically dump a pile of printed out CVs on your desk to review. And cover letters and CVs would invariably end up becoming separated and you'd get half way through and realise you'd matched up two print outs for completely different people and then... well it was all just a mess.

Technology and process has obviously come a long way since then though.

Correlation is not causation, blah blah. But... I've found it curious often a strong application also had a interest piquing cover letter submitted with it. Addressing the topics called out in the posted job description. Showing some curiosity for the role, at least a passing familiarity with the company or product. It's the opportunity to make the application is tailored specifically to the employer. Which is in part the first step in also trying to communicate that the person applying is perfectly tailored to the role. Back in my old timey days we expected the actual CV to be tailored to the role you were applying for. I've got a half dozen slight variations of my own based on whether I was applying for a management role, one as an individual contributor, early stage vs large scale company, etc..

This is step one in your opportunity to showcase your skills as a product manager. The job description has a list of expectations, you need to show you've noticed them and help connect the dots directly to your relevant experience. Tailor your CV to speak to them directly, or write a cover letter that addresses them. The latter seems far more scalable if you're applying to multiple jobs.

Information Hierarchy

I worked at a place that specialised in internet marketing and I still remember very trite advice I'd hear in those circles: "The subject line in an email has one job: to get someone to open the email". It's always served me as a good reminder that, especially when you're dealing with an audience that might have limited attention, you've got to give them a reason to keep reading. If you don't want to take your lead from some internet marketing advice (but hey, why not? You are trying to market yourself here!) then maybe you should consider the inverted pyramid approach commonly used in journalism, or the BLUF approach used in military communication.

Hit your notes, and hit them early. Don't bury the lede.

Don't do this:

# Glenn Gillen
 
## Educational Experience
* A college you've never heard of - 20 years ago

## Skills
* Photoshop
* MS Word
* JIRA
* Black belt in taekwondo

Instead, consider something like this:

# Glenn Gillen
 
## Experience
 
### Job Title, Last Company
* Biggest highlight, biggest impact, wow factor moment goes here

There's some subtle signaling here in what you think is important and/or your ability to surface what you think the reader wants to learn about you. If you went to some world famous school 20 years ago you think it's worth putting that front and center. Who am I to disagree? But for the rest us, the schooling choices we made a decade or more ago probably aren't the most important thing to tell someone. Same with the skills. Personally it doesn't matter to me if someone knows how to use JIRA or not. It's an interesting tidbit to know but it's also totally irrelevant to whether I'll hire them. Never used it before? It's fine, I'm pretty confident we can help you learn it quickly.

Highlighting your experience

It sounds simple. Just highlight it. Your experience.

Don't do this:

## Product Manager - Company A, most recent
* Engaged stakeholders
* Gathered requirements from customers
* Delivered solutions
* An extensive list of generic product management tasks

## Product Manager - Company B, a little while ago
* Engaged stakeholders
* Gathered requirements from customers
* Delivered solutions
* An extensive list of generic product management tasks

Instead, consider something like this:

## Senior Product Manager - Company A, most recent
* Facilitated design sprints, including rapid prototyping and user 
testing to validate approach for new product launch. 
* Scoped down intial launch requirements to ensure a delightful 
experience for an initial target cohort.
* Over 40k signups in first month, but with 25% churn. Reduced churn 
to 5% within the first 90 days.
* Exited first year as a $100M run rate business.

## Product Manager - Company B, a little while ago
* Worked with company leadership to craft 1, 3, and 5 year product 
vision.
* Mapped vision to a list of concrete initiatives.
* Used a combination of customer interviews, surveys, and A/B testing 
of early proof of concepts to validate problems. High collaboration 
with engineering peers through this process to iterate towards potential 
solutions.

I'm not going to say the first example is bad per se. Because it's the format of about half of the applications that came in. Therein lies the biggest problem though: you're completely undifferentiated amongst a sea of hundreds of other people. The other problem with the first approach is it doesn't really tell me much about what you've actually done. It's a collection of overly abstract process bullet points. There's no evidence of how or where they were applied. No outcomes. No sense of what exactly you've worked on. What's interesting about your experience? No growth or development. Just generic PM experience after generic experience, each one the same as the previous, and the same as everybody else.

Reflection & Iteration

At the end of the day though it shouldn't be about copy & pasting someone elses playbook or blindly embracing their opinions. It's about developing a process, being reflective of what's working and what's not, and iterating on it. If you're not making it to the interview stage you need to work out why. Try arranging for 5 of your friends to get on a video call, give them 3 minutes to read/skim your CV or application, and then ask them what they can recall from it (without referring back to it). Is that the same few points you want your next employer to notice? If not, how do you bring more focus to the key points?

The main job of your CV in a job application is to get you the next stage. Give the hiring manage a reason to want to call you.

Hi, I'm Glenn! 👋 I'm currently Director of Product @ HashiCorp, and we're hiring! If you'd like to come and work with me and help make Terraform Cloud even more amazing we have multiple positions opening in Product ManagementDesign, and Engineering & Engineering Management across a range of levels (i.e., junior through to senior). Please send in an application ASAP so we can get in touch.