Your Guide to Associate Product Manager Roles: Part I

Editor’s note; the following is the first of a three-part guide written by a guest blogger. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please contact ellen@productschool.com

Part 1: Pitch Yourself

First, an intro: I’m Ke 👋🏻 a product manager at Google in San Francisco. I studied computer science at Dartmouth College. After graduation, I joined as the first Associate Product Manager at BuildZoom, a startup backed by Y Combinator and 8VC. I’m a Google interviewer, and also interviewed candidates for BuildZoom’s product and engineering teams. Outside of work, I’m a Built by Girls advisor and mentor at Grace Hopper.

This guide will help you discover why you’d be a great product manager, pitch yourself to employers, and find the right role for you. The guide will be split into 3 posts:

  • Part I (this post): Pitch yourself. Identify your “unfair advantage” as an aspiring PM.
  • Part II: Identify roles you’ll thrive in and stand out as a candidate.
  • Part III: Interview the interviewer. Evaluate which roles encourage you to grow in the direction you want.

Best of luck on your job search!

Ready to apply? Check out roles listed here or work with me on kicking off your product career.

Introducing the Product Generalist Framework

Associate Product Manager roles are competitive. Even lesser known startups get hundreds of applicants for a single APM role. Articulating your “unfair advantage” is essential to standing out in a hyper-competitive crowd! Think of your unfair advantage as the set of characteristics and experiences that make you uniquely well-suited for a particular role. 

First, I’ll introduce the skills you should leverage during your job search. Product managers are generally well-rounded overall while strong in certain areas. APMs, however, need to first build competencies in the basics before specializing as any “type” of product manager. The Product Generalist Framework is a great way to think about the competencies of an early-career product manager (and what hiring managers will look for).

The Product Generalist Framework can be thought of as a grid, with 3 “vertical” competencies and 3 “horizontal” competencies, creating 9 total categories. While a helpful tool, it is by no means a comprehensive framework. (In fact, there exist many product manager frameworks. For example, 5 Different Types of Product Managers, 6 Types of Product Managers, and What Type of Product Manager Are You.)

The vertical competencies are business, user experience, and engineering. Product managers will be at least proficient in each vertical, and likely strong in one or two.

Next, the horizontal competencies: execution, strategy and leadership, and domain expertise. These are horizontal as in, you “execute” across business, UX, and engineering. APMs need to excel at execution. 

Product Generalist Framework

Turn your portfolio of skills into a narrative

Use the Product Generalist Framework as a prompt to find your strengths and map them to desired APM competencies. Think about specific group projects, presentations, research positions, classes, roles in clubs and organizations, part-time jobs, and internships. 

Once you have a broad inventory of your skills and experiences, highlight the most compelling ones to create a narrative for why you’d be a great product manager. You might focus on one main experience, such as a product internship, or on multiple experiences to highlight different skills. The more you shape your experiences into a narrative, the more your narrative becomes your unfair advantage that sets you apart from other candidates.

Consider all your experiences, even ones you don’t think “fit” into product management or the tech industry. Your skills are transferable and it’s helpful to show your proven ability to learn quickly and adapt. 

You also might have industry experience you can leverage when you apply for product management roles in those industries. Even a high school job as a server at a restaurant can be relevant to a company building point-of-sale products.

Here are examples of how you turn concepts from the Product Generalist Framework into strong, product-focused narratives:

  • Startup operations experience -> Execution, business, strategy and leadership

You started a company in college with friends to rent out dorm futons. Over the past two years, you learned about the logistics of dealing with physical inventory, sales and marketing, and how to operate a business. You were in charge of the website and incorporated feedback from customers to improve the rental experience. These skills show a superpower in execution.

You’re also able to leverage your domain knowledge in operations if you apply to an “atoms” company — one that primarily deals with physical goods, services, and people, rather than pure software.

  • Finance internships -> Execution, UX

You’re majoring in economics and did a few internships in finance. You’re pretty experienced now in data analysis and Excel modeling. At the last role, you realized you could significantly improve one of your workflows with automated tools. You talked with coworkers to understand common problems and ideate on solutions. Then, you set up a nifty process using no-code software and Zapier integrations.

During this time, you evangelized your idea to leadership to get their buy-in (and approvals). Their support led to your project spreading to other teams and becoming an indispensable internal tool.

  • Engineering degree and coursework -> Engineering, execution, UX

You learned about product management during a group project in your engineering class, when you stepped into the PM role for your team. For your culminating project, you developed a hypothesis about a problem, interviewed users (classmates and professors), designed user journeys, iterated on your product, and built a prototype, all while keeping your team on track and resolving conflicts.

You presented your prototype and business pitch at the last student startup showcase on campus and won the audience favorite award.

  • Leadership in organizations -> Business, execution, strategy and leadership

As the editor in chief of the student newspaper, you’ve spent two terms coordinating, meeting timelines, inspiring writers, and making sure everyone cooperates for the greater good of the paper. Last year, you led the website revamp. You dug into readers’ pain points to create an improved site that everyone loves, with 20% more comments than before (and an increase in ad revenue).

You’ve kept a pulse on what the student body wants — no, needs. Now you have domain knowledge in the media and publishing industries you can bring into future product management roles.

You likely noticed that every example highlighted “execution”. Hiring managers are looking to hire candidates with potential, but they also love seeing a proven track record of getting things done. 

Build on your “unfair” advantage

Know why you want to be a product manager to pitch why you’d be a great PM.

Complement your narrative of why you’d be a great product manager: Have a solid answer to Why do you want to be a product manager?

Why you’re excited about product management doesn’t need to be the same as why you would be a great product manager, but there should be significant overlap. Ideally, you’re able to say, “I’m excited about product management because X. Here are past experiences where I did X and excelled.” Connect your passion with what you’ve demonstrated in the past.

Start with these ideas to craft your response:

  • What type of work do you enjoy? 
  • What parts of product management excite you?
  • What motivates you?
  • Why do you enjoy working with people and teams? 
  • What problems do you want to solve?

Note that the cross-functional aspect of product management is important too. If you’re excited about UX design, why not be a product designer? If you’re excited about business strategy, why not go into management consulting or business operations? If you’re interested in engineering but want to be involved in product decisions, why not find a startup that hires product-focused engineers? Dig into why you want to go into product management and not a different career.

Keep your narrative in mind as you refine your resume, write cover letters, and do interviews. Adapt your narrative for specific companies (such as playing up your data skills for data-focused companies, or highlighting domain experience). Remember, you’re not expected to already be great in every area. Focus on your strengths and your unfair advantage! 

You might also be interested in: Product Managers Answer “What’s Your Dream Job?”

Next up: Identify where you’ll thrive

In a future article, I’ll go over ways to identify jobs that will challenge you to hit your career goals.

I’ll also guide you on talking to product managers at companies you’re interested in. I have great questions you can ask that will give you insight into what various product roles, companies, and teams are like. Through the process of hearing directly from product managers, you’ll learn how to identify roles you’ll thrive in.

In the meantime, get more insight into the product management role! Familiarize yourself with the terminology and mindset before you go into your interviews. Here are a few places to start: 

Ready to apply? Check out roles listed here or work with me on kicking off your product career.

About the Author

Ke Deng Google Product Manager

Ke Deng is a product manager at Google in San Francisco, with a background in computer science from Dartmouth. She started her career as the first Associate Product Manager at BuildZoom, a startup backed by Y Combinator and 8VC. She’s a Google interviewer, and also interviewed candidates for BuildZoom’s product and engineering teams. Outside of work, she’s a Built by Girls advisor and mentor at Grace Hopper.

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