Choosing a Company for your First Product Role with Google Product Leader

This week, Product School hosted Ezra Park, Product Leader at Google, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Ezra is full of energy and good ideas, and decided to share a bit of that with us. Read on for his thoughts on Android vs iPhone, how he broke into Product from a non-tech background, how to find a mentor, and recommendations on what to look for in a company.

Meet Ezra

 Ezra Park, Product Leader at Google

Ezra Park is a Google Product Leader currently building amazing things for ChromeOS experiences.

Before this, he worked as part of the PM team at Microsoft for five years. He started off working on the company’s mobile and essential products Surface Duo and Microsoft Launcher. He was promoted to Principal PM Manager after just two years where he continued to work on mobile and cross-device experiences for his final year with them. Further back, he worked with the company as a Program Manager for just over three years. He has also worked as a PM at Amazon.

You have worked a lot on operating systems. Which mobile OS do you prefer? Android, iOS, or Windows Phone?

two people standing in a park, with mobile phones in their hands. both are looking down at the same phone screen

You’re right – I have spent most of my career working on operating systems, both mobile and laptop/desktop! I’d have to say that my favorite OS is still Android. Despite still being an admirer of iOS and a past fanboy of Windows Phone. Android has been good to me both from a consumer POV and a developer POV. I believe that an operating system that affords enough flexibility so that users and developers on it are able to have the largest range of engaging experiences is really important. Android was particularly attractive to me because of this aspect so I’m still an Android user today (not just because I work at Google ☺). Now if I could just convince my wife to give up her iPhone…

What advice would you give someone looking to pivot into Product? In terms of company size, would you recommend joining a mid-size or large organization versus a small start to better understand the foundational elements of PM?

My advice would be to not have any expectations about your first PM role except that you’ll be able to practice the PM skillset. A lot of times, we can severely limit our opportunities because we have a specific standard that might be too high for our first PM job. Whether it’s at the company or even in the same team that you’re in, you can start practicing Product Management anywhere.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to whether you should start at a larger company vs a startup. What’s important to assess is what skills any given opportunity would let you practice and how many “revs” (revolutions) you’ll get. As someone starting out as a newer PM, you want to optimize for revolutions which is a short way of saying how many times can I experience a full product cycle (from ideation to launch/optimization). I would assess any PM opportunities you’re considering using these factors.

In short, if you’re just starting out as a PM, it’s important to get revs/reps – this essentially means how many “turns of the crank” are you getting as a new PM? How many revs of the product cycle (from ideation to launch) are you getting? If you can optimize for this, you can build up the foundation of skillsets that you need first, and then apply them to the problem space you want to go.

How did you get your first job working with products?

I was actually studying to be a full-time accountant (can you believe it???). In my last year of undergrad, I decided to take a chance on a 6-month Product Management internship at Research in Motion (the company that made the Blackberry phones). Immediately afterwards, I decided that Product Management was where I wanted to spend my time. I came back to undergrad and added a second degree in Informatics so that I could learn the requisite skills to enter into the tech field. This is one of the reasons why I tell folks interested in product that it really doesn’t matter where you come from or what you studied…what matters is the passion and interest in the space and the drive to learn the right skills to succeed in Product Management.

Read next: Transitioning to Product Management From ANY Background

Do you primarily work on products that have a pre-determined vision, or do you get to have a hand in shaping them?

person sitting at wooden table against white concrete background. seated at the table, with a disposable coffee cup and a laptop in front. the person is looking into the camera and has a finger pointed up as if just having a great idea

Actually most of the products that I’ve worked on were “0 to 1” as in I had to come up with a product idea and corresponding vision. In larger companies, this also involves convincing your leadership team and other partner teams to buy in so that you get the needed resources to go and build it. This is probably my most favorite skill in Product Management as I love thinking about new ideas and starting new projects based off of them!

Do you use any canvases or tools that help you when you start working with a product?

I have a fondness for writing and sketching so my canvases/tools are usually a word editor and an empty piece of paper. I would say that the tools you want to use largely depend on what stage the product is in. If you’re thinking about a “0 to 1” idea, then you’ll likely want to start off with something that’s less confining (like an empty piece of paper, document, or mindmapping tool). I’ve started experimenting with mindmapping tools (there’s a good number of free ones out there) but haven’t fully integrated this into my workflow yet.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve dealt with in your career thus far? How did you deal with it? How has it shaped you professionally?

My biggest challenge in my career is definitely reinvention. There’s a book that I’m reading now called What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. At every stage of my career (junior to senior, senior to Principal, IC to Manager), I’ve had to figure out ways to reinvent myself and figure out how to get to the next stage of my career. It’s a very uncomfortable process but one that is critical if you’re career motivated and wanting to advance your career into larger scale roles. Luckily I’ve had mentors (this is important!) that constantly pushed me to find new ways to solve both product and career problems. I’d highly recommend thinking about this as you all are thinking about how you want to develop your PM careers.

What are some tips that you have for university students to land internships (@Google and other top tech)? What stands out to you when/if you work with them?

For students, my number one advice is that what you studied is only part of the picture. Companies like Google specifically are looking for traits rather than accomplishments. Are you naturally curious? Do you act on that curiosity and experiment with new technology or create something that might not have been a great idea? What matters to companies is that you have the natural drive to learn, experiment, and create. Coursework and personal projects should reflect those traits as much as possible. Of course this doesn’t mean that the other things don’t matter, but for interns specifically, the ability to be curious, solve a problem and learn will be critical.

How does one build a good base of technical skills coming from non-tech background?

My personal journey is a bit different from others here. The majority of PMs that I’ve met have come from a CS background which wasn’t my case. Because of this, I had to supplement by using various resources (both free and paid).

I think what’s important here is to decide first what you want your PM brand to be. Do you want to build core strength as a technical PM or just know enough to be dangerous? That should dictate how much time you spend learning the core technical concepts that you need in your role.

Read nextL Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

I have experience as an IBM product Manager, but not many companies are looking at the mainframe much anymore. What are some ways I can make myself competitive to other PMs with more relevant experience? 

Great to hear about your experience. I might turn this back to you and ask what type of work you like doing and what you see your 1-3 year plan being for your PM career. It sounds like right now the biggest urgency is gaining employment again so I would take a hard look at your experience and see whether it’d be more fruitful leaning in on your current experience or looking for other roles that would give you a softer landing into Cloud, security or platform type roles.

One thing you can always do is try to land a role that you know you’re prepared for in interviews and in the meantime, start learning and spending time in the other fields if you feel like that would be a better career path for you. Feel free to DM if you want me to take a look at your resumé.

What advice do you have for a growing startup to organize their Product Design team? I’m facing challenges in convincing my CEO that the lead designer should not report to engineering, could possibly report to product, but best if independent of both orgs.

person in office setting standing in front of a whiteboard and drawing a wireframe

This is a bit more challenging because startups typically have very fluid organizations. Depending on the size, you’ll have discipline-agnostic leaders or triad leaders to create a less flat org. Have you already tried looking at startups that are a similar size to yours and see what they do? One thing that I’ll say is that org separation by discipline has its pros and cons and those are different dependent on the scale of the product and organization. In your case, it might be easier to convince an executive that Product Design is better suited to sit closer to the PMs because it’s important to have a tight-knit working loop especially in a smaller group size. I’d start here and build a case with evidence that your startup is seeing value from this. You could suggest that you do a trial run and see how things go after a few months.

What are the KPIs that we need to consider before launching the product and why do you think they are critical?

This is a big tough to answer generally but I’ll give it my best shot. Without knowing that the product is, I would start with the company and organization first. What is the mission and goals of your organization? That should give you some sense of what KPIs your product needs to move before it launches. It might be growth-related, monetization-related or some other metric that needs to be optimized. If your thesis is that every product exists to solve customer problems and provide value to the business/organization, then it’s KPIs need to directly roll up into the goals or OKRs at the org-level. Let me know if you’re thinking of something specific here and I can double-click on this.

I’m applying for my first PM job tomorrow. Any tips?

Welcome to the world of PM :cara_ligeramente_sonriente: If this is applying for your first PM job, I would make sure you have a couple things:

  1. Your 10 second intro – If the CEO of the company takes the same elevator as you and asks you who you are, what would you tell them?
  2. Resumé – This should speak for itself and be a deeper dive from #1
  3. Your best and worst – What are the best projects (work or personal) that you’ve worked on? Why? What have you learned from projects that have failed? How has those projects impacted how you work now?
  4. How I PM – Most PM interviews are going to have a combination of product solving, analytical, business acumen, technical and design problems. I would brush up on these and think about the framework you would use to solve each one.
  5. Be You! – PMs work at an intersection of many disciplines (marketing, eng, design, data, executive, partners) – I would make sure that you don’t forget about bringing your authentic self (to a degree) to any interviews you have.

Need more help with that interview? Check out The Ultimate List of Product Manager Interview Questions

If you were to join a start up company, what would be the first steps you would take as their only Product Manager?

group of 5 people sat or standing around a laptop on a table and looking at the screen

The first step that I would take here is to do a full assessment of the startup’s mission. That will help you understand who your customers are, what problems that you’re trying to solve, and what products you need to build to successfully solve them.

I think of Product Management as an umbrella/decision tree and what’s at the top is not what product you work on. It’s the customers that your startup want to serve and the problems that they’re currently experiencing. Everything flows from there. If you have a solid thesis on the problem statement, then you can start doing a full assessment (Porter’s Five Forces and SWOT are good frameworks to start from) on where the startup is currently and where you need to go. This is a tough job so I would take this in steps. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

What is the most important skill required to be a PM, according to you?

This is a hard question! There’s so many skills that are important but if there’s one that I look for in PMs that I hire, it’s scrappiness. I can’t tell you how many times that plans fall apart and what you thought you were going to be able to do ends up not working out. What separates great PMs from good PMs is the ability to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to achieve your definition of success. For PMs, no job is “not good enough” for us to do. You have to be willing to be scrappy and be committed to doing what is needed to reach your end goal. The most successful PMs combine scrappiness with curiosity and achieve results that stand out.

Another great read: Characteristics of Exceptional Product Managers

Have ever participated in recruiting/interviewing candidates from non-PM background applying into PM roles and what are the experiences or skill sets you have found that convinced you that they can do the job?

All time time! I’ve interviewed candidates that have non-traditional backgrounds (like Anthropology!). I’ll reiterate what I mentioned in my previous answer to the internship question – what’s important is natural curiosity and an ability to problem solve creatively. If you can demonstrate this in your resumé, projects and interview, you’ll have success landing a PM job.

Where should I start to prepare myself into applying for PM roles? Do you have any book recommendations, podcasts, or video channels I could check out?

There are an abundance of resources online and via books. If you’re just starting out, I would definitely read The Art of Product Management and The Product Manager Interview by Lewis Lin. There are a few other books like Cracking the PM Interview by Gayle McDowell that are great as well. Note that books may have outdated information from when they were first published but the main frameworks about how to approach PM interviews and how to create a PM framework for yourself will still apply.

What are the main differences between Product Manager and Product Lead roles?

This is a harder question because each company will have different role definitions and different mappings. Some job postings use the term “Product Lead” as someone who is an IC but is seen as the leader of that product overall. Other roles explicitly mean the “Lead” definition to mean that this person will be a people manager (like Microsoft). In the case where the “Lead” distinction means the role is a people manager role, that will be the main difference between the two roles. I could go on for hours specifically on the differences between a PM manager and a PM IC but maybe that’s an AMA for another time :cara_ligeramente_sonriente:

Do you consider “active listening” as one of the main skills for Product Manager? Any advice?

Absolutely! Active Listening is a core foundational skill for PMs. One thing to remember is that in conversations with other stakeholders, questions and comments typically have an underlying meaning or goal. It’s important to be active in the conversation to understand what that might be. This helps you create more closer relationships with your cross-discipline stakeholders to create more win-win situations. Active listening means being able to be fully present and understanding of the other person’s perspective. That’s a skill useful in all situations.

Read next: How Soft Skills Can Save a Business

What are your views on design sprints?

I love design sprints! In the midst of all of the things on every team member’s plate, design sprints give allocated time to brainstorm and blue-sky think. I highly recommend these when you want a multitude of opinions/views on customers, problems and solutions.

I have tech experience of 5 years and tons of resources from all over the internet on PM roles. How can I use this to gain hands on experience?

person coding in front of 3 large computer screens

Great question. It’s true that there are so many resources out there to learn about Product Management (which is great for our space!) but it’s truly a different challenge altogether to try to apply them. One of the ways that I’ve done this in the past is to separate the “HOW” and the “WHAT.” There’s no shortage of info on “HOW” to do Product Management, but the question is “WHAT” will you do with that knowledge?

You could partner with other friends, students, coworkers, or even people in Product School to put that to the test. Hackathons have been a great way for me personally to try this out (although these will take more investment from you). Another way to is simply do a “case study” by yourself and then get feedback from someone else on how you might have done. Lastly, if you’re already in a PM role, you can always apply these to your real day job or even do a 20% project with others.

What advice would you give to a former Machine Learning Engineer who wants to transition to Product Management?

I would first assess how you want to transition to Product Management. Do you want to be closer to your former roots/skills in ML or take a farther leap? That will help you decide what type of PM role/setting you want to land in. There’s no shortage of PM roles that need to figure out real world applications for ML (something that I believe the tech world is still behind on). That could be an easier transition for you given that it’s in a domain you’re already comfortable with. Then you can figure out how to fill in the blanks as you go. Hope this helps!

I’m curious about career trajectory and growth. Do you have mentors during your career? What’s a good strategy to get strong mentors in your corner and approaching that conversation?

I always say that “managers can make or break your career”. This is a heavily qualified/caveated statement because ultimately you own your career. With mentors, I feel very similarly that having great mentors is necessary. If you simply think about the time and experience that your mentors have put into the craft, you’re gaining insights at 1/10th of the time cost! I’ve been really fortunate to have many mentors (from Principals, Partners, and VPs) throughout my career that helped me chart my own path and were a great sounding board. That’s somewhat of a “career hack” that I would highly recommend.

One strategy to think about when looking for mentors is to optimize for either:

  1. Someone that has a similar skillset to you but clearly better/more experienced
  2. Someone that has the opposite/different skillset

Mentorship is all about helping you build up your strengths or help fill in gaps (whether skills or just perspective). Whichever direction you go, you’ll want to make sure that you have good evidence that these mentors have exercised these skills. Remember, your mentors can likely only take you as far as they’ve gone. In other words, mentors can provide deep learning/help based on their own experience.

You might also be interested in: Becoming a Product Management Mentor: Inspire the Next Generation

How did you cultivate a win-win mentorship experience?

This is something that I really struggled with early on as a mentee. As a junior PM, you would think that there’s not really much value you could provide a mentor at the Senior/Principal/VP level. However, I’ve tried to turn this around and think about the main value that I can provide as a mentee. There’s a couple things that you can think about

  • My unique experience in the problem space that I’m in
  • My unique POV as someone more junior inside the org/company (if your mentor is in the same company or org)
  • Additional insights that I might be able to provide as someone different

If you’re a junior mentee, I’d highly recommend thinking about this in your mentor relationships. If you’re a mentor, the same still applies.

Is the Google Project Manager Certification a good way to get entry into Product Management?

Project Management and Product Management are different roles and have different role profiles at Google (and most large tech companies). As Project Management focuses largely on execution, that is only one aspect of Product Management.

There are resources out there for Product Management certification that I would check out if you’re wanting to go the certification route. What’s important for large companies is a body of previous work that shows you have the requisite skills for a Product Manager role (these are available in the books that I mentioned above) and the ability to show this in an interview. If your goal is an interview, then please refer to my answer to a similar question above.

In Google, which teams most prefer non-Tech PMs (those who did not actively code)?

There isn’t an official preference on non-tech vs. tech PMs. Inside of Google, you’ll see a variety of PMs from a variety of backgrounds. Because of this, Google spends most of its time on interviewing for the specific traits that we look for in Product Managers, rather than whether they are non-tech or tech.

I have a 1 person startup in low-no code space (released a beta), I’m struggling to scope the product and milestones. What would you advise?

Lots of variables here so a couple of key areas to think about:

  1. Product thesis – do you have a clear product hypothesis on what you want to prove out? This is step 1.
  2. Product Scoping – Based on your hypothesis, how much or how little can you ship to be able to prove the hypothesis in #1? That should help you figure out how much you need to code and release. People typically call this a MVP.
  3. Milestones – This is largely going to be dependent on how fast you can ship. For instance, if your MVP needs 4 weeks to get enough customer feedback/data, then your milestones need to reflect and match that. That way you’re scaling your resources effectively and leaving enough time (since you only have 1 person in the startup) for validation, additional design, etc.

Any final advice?

My last parting advice would be to think about what attributes of the PM role give you joy and fulfillment. That’s ultimately going to be what will set you apart whether you’re looking to grow your career or land your first PM role. IMO, it’s better to be great at something than to be “ok” at a lot of things. Until next time, cheers and best of luck!

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