Invest in Mental Models with Google Product Lead

This week, Product School hosted Andrew Barakat, Product Leader at Google, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Andrew talks about Product Management at Google, his most-recommended books, conducting research, and why developing different mental models is so important.

About Andrew

Andrew Barakat, Product Leader at Google

Andrew is a Product Leader focused on empowering people to own, evaluate, and improve their health.

He is currently working on Health at Google. He also previously worked as a Product Manager for X, the moonshot factory, helping the team create a vision for the app that included measures of both subjective and objective wellness. He also conducted UXR with more than 20 college counselors and over 100 students. His first Product Manager position was at Mindstrong.

Andrew earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s from Stanford University. He studied economics with a minor in Computer Science before moving on to study Symbolic Systems for his Master’s. He graduated both times with an impressively high GPA which earned him honors. During his studies, he volunteered as an Alumni Mentor, Student Consultant, and worked on the Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisory Board.

What do interviewers look for in a candidate for an Associate Product Management Internship at Google? 

Something folks typically miss is that the APM job is actually more competitive (by the numbers) than a classic PM job, because there are very, very few spots each year for the APM role, and because so so many people apply.

Our criteria are quite wide-ranging, and usually interviewers are most interested in understanding how a candidate thinks about a wide range of issues. A great book on this is Cracking the PM Interview, which lays out a lot of our criteria. Broadly speaking, we want to ensure that folks have the role-related knowledge necessary to perform the job across a number of domains (Strategy, Analytics, Technical competency, Communication & Creativity). How these areas are evaluated varies a lot across interviewers. Hope this helps!

Read next: Everything You Need to Know About APM Programs

Besides Cracking the PM Interview, anything else you recommend?

I’d recommend Atomic Habits just as a general book, but CtPMI is really the best.

bird's eye view of woman reading book

What resources do you suggest using to prepare for the Google PM interviews? How could I make my resume stand out?

Read Cracking the PM Interview and do exactly what it says. If you can get PM experience elsewhere first, that helps a lot. I personally don’t pay too much attention to resumes so not sure how to help there specifically.

Check out: 4 Tips to Write a Product Manager Resume Recruiters Will Notice + Examples

What advice do you have for someone from tech consulting (Oracle, SAP, Sage partners) who is looking for a way to break into Product Management at Google?

You should probably start by looking for any PM position. It’s hard to transfer to PM at the same role, level, and compensation without actual PM experience. What really helped me coming out of university was working at a startup for 2 years. I interviewed at Google 3 times before I got the position, and the 3rd time I interviewed was by far the best, because by that time I had 2 years of real PM experience.

What else do you think you did better in the third interview than the other two?Lots of current PM interviews become standardized and processed, how did you excel through that? 

  1. Confidence. Build your confidence by practicing the core elements of the PM role. If you can’t build it authentically through additional experience or education, fake it. Just remember not to be arrogant and be prepared to revisit your assumptions. Don’t back down on the things you have strong conviction in.
  2. Metrics. Understand the key product metrics—adoption/conversion, usage/engagement & retention. Understand the key metrics in your industry as well. In health this is health outcomes, health expenditures and patient/provider experience.
  3. Time horizons. Be prepared to give 3 answers—start with what you would do if you had no money/resources and very limited time. Then explain what you would do if you had infinite money, resources and time. Then pick the middle path, which is usually a fairly good solution as a result.
  4. Communication. This is actually the biggest one I think. Ensure that you understand how to manage the interviews. You should be able to present an idea, and after every idea you present, check in with the interviewer: “Does this make sense? Are we on the right track? What do you think? Anything else you would add?” When you’re asked a question and you have lots of thoughts on the question, make sure you say something like “I have a lot of thoughts on this, and want to make sure we’re managing our time effectively. I can give you a high-level answer or we can dive in: what would you like to do?” When the interviewer asks you to dive in, PAUSE AND ASK FOR TIME TO STRUCTURE YOUR THOUGHTS then actually structure your thoughts and walk the interviewer through your solution. Keep asking “Make sense? Anything we missed here?” The reason this is so important is because interviewing is a subjective practice, and you want the interviewer to walk away feeling like you worked together to solve a problem collaboratively.
woman and man seated at table and talking, with coffee cups in hand. they are smiling at each other. the image is taken from behind glass

What’s the major difference between being a PM at X vs the mothership Google?

X is more long-term based…I only worked there part-time as a %er, but it’s a much more creative environment. Fun fact, Astro Teller, the CEO of Google X calls himself “Captain of Moonshots” internally, and rides around the office on rollerblades. That’s the vibe at X.

A few years of “product experience” are required for most PM roles. Can roles such as software development help improve the skills required for a PM position?

Yes—CS/SWE helps a lot. If you can do a temp PM position either internally or externally (volunteer for a political campaign as a PM, for example), that’s a good starting point and is less formal. It also showcases that you are passionate and will put the work in however you can. 

Any advice on how to get a first-time PM role in an industry different from your current one?

You may need to be flexible about your preferences and take a step backward in terms of role/level/compensation…which makes sense because you haven’t had the tenure in the next field you want to pursue. Going back to school and getting another degree in the domain you want to focus on can help as well.

I get this question a lot and much of the time people want to both eat their cake and have it, but if your experience doesn’t translate, there are legitimate reasons why companies wouldn’t hire you at the same level/role/title in a totally new domain. You need to learn how the industry works.

It’s a rare thing to pull off a totally horizontal transition like this. Going backward to move forwards can help a lot. And to help yourself sleep, remember that your career is very long—multiple decades. So taking a step back for a couple of years to get settled on the right thing is a worthwhile investment in my opinion.

You might also be interested in: Transitioning to Product Management From ANY Background

I’m starting a new PM role next week. What advice do you have for the first 30 days?

As best you can, establish yourself as the “new person,” and use these 30 days to listen as much as you can and say as little as possible. Focus on the company’s priorities, the key decision-makers, and the things they care about. Build an understanding of what makes your key stakeholders tick—be a very observant fly on the wall.

Ensure you have an org chart, and really get to know your colleagues as humans, not just as employees. Understand any key deadlines that are coming up and be very clear with your manager about your roles and responsibilities as well as what the expectations for you are and over what time scale.

Read next: Interviewing John Franck, Author of Every Product Manager’s First 90 Days

woman and man sat by a laptop. the man is using the laptop and the woman is taking analog notes.

Which skillset do you see PMs needing to grow to keep up with tech’s pace?

Invest in mental models! Learn computational logic and try and get a basic level of competency across a couple of different domains. Try and cultivate experiences that enable you to see any particular problem from a bunch of different angles, which is what’s required of you almost constantly as a PM.

Check this out: The Tech Behind Product Management Processes

What has been a surprising skill that has helped you in your Product Management journey?

Development of flexible mental models to address a wide variety of different problem-solving abilities. “Mental models” is vague—I mean that you have good frameworks for thinking through a number of different issues, and have a strong basis in logic.

What tools and techniques do you use to collect user feedback and understand user problems? 

We use a ton of different tools and techniques. Most of our products have support for filing user feedback, and that is scrutinized a lot internally. We collect information across a bunch of different granularity levels—sometimes we do 1:1 in-person interviewing (not during COVID) to get really granular and detailed. Other times, we run very large surveys that ask users to answer a number of multiple-choice questions.

group of people sitting in a circle talking and listening

When making a roadmap for breaking down subjective and objective wellness, what type of data was important to you at the onset? And what challenges did you have in prioritization and implementation?

Responding at a high level but could talk about this for some time. It depends a lot on where you are. At Google, we are facing a lot of scrutiny (all big tech companies are) because tech is starting to touch on a number of issues that we haven’t figured out the answer to as a society yet.

At big tech companies facing these types of issues, it’s important to test the waters carefully to manage brand perception. We have big big ambitions and everyone I work with wants to get after the stuff that has the biggest impact, but some people aren’t ready for us to do that, so we want to start with wellness because it has broad applicability and is generally less “creepy.” If that goes well, we think more about how we can move into the more acute space of clinical impact. At smaller companies without some of these hurdles, often you go straight for the clinical/more serious pieces of health.

Read next: What is a Product Roadmap?

How do you navigate when the Product Team disagrees with leadership direction?

This is a biggie, and I have struggled with it myself. It’s important to understand what pressure and problems your leadership is trying to solve. It can be very difficult to “turn the neck” so to speak when leaders are under immense pressure to deliver upwards and downwards on short time scales. I haven’t found a good solution for that yet :/

At Google, our research divisions have some fantastic leaders who are really focused on 3 & 5 year initiatives. In other parts of the company, the needs are more acutely focused on the next quarter or two. So the best advice I can give is to understand where you are in the organization and what that part of the org’s priorities are. If you’re in the wrong place for what you’re trying to do, see if you can move to the right place! Ask questions to your middle management/leadership openly to understand the time horizon they will prioritize. When you find alignment, settle in and get to work 🙂

How do you go about prioritizing features to build into your product roadmap at Google?

It depends a lot on the situation, but generally you want to focus on the user, the business, and society at large.

You’re looking for things that will deliver high impact (however you measure that—health, dollars, scale) with the lowest lift (spend, tech investment, sign-off timelines). That intersection of hitting your goals with the lowest cost investment is a good guide. 

As someone in the moonshot department, how do you set up a good engine for capturing ideas from internal teams?

Start with the basics—set up a spreadsheet to capture this feedback, make sure the people whose feedback you want to capture know it exists and know how to enter their feedback, and if you have the capacity, assign someone to check in regularly. Once you have the feedback, review it at some regular cadence with decision-makers to help your team build consensus around what to prioritize and actually do.

three people gathered around a laptop, one sitting, two standing. one of the people standing is pointing to the screen with a pencil as if making an observation

What are some key skills/mindset shifts PMs need to learn when going from an individual contributor (IC) to manager role?

Not sure yet because I’m still an IC. Make sure you focus on your report’s well-being as a human overall, not just as an employee. Find the right balance between your new time commitments to help your reports flourish, and your business commitments, so you can manage in a sustainable way. Don’t take on too many reports, otherwise you can’t attend to their needs as well.

Read next: Managing Product Managers by Spotify Sr Product Manager

How in-depth do you go into research benchmarking a product before you start working on it?

Set yourself a time limit and before you do any research on a device, get a pen and paper and come up with the top 3 – 5 questions you are trying to actually answer. What are the numbers you need? Are there particular companies/trends you want to benchmark against?

As you settle into a particular domain, this becomes more automatic—you learn about what matters. In health care, we focus on improving health outcomes, reducing healthcare spend and improving the patient/provider experience. So those are the metrics I look for and they help me focus my research.

What do you think would be the most essential skills a PM role would require, both technical and non technical?

  • Technical. Basic understanding of systems, client-server relationships (Model View Controller is an excellent paradigm), data structures and abstractions are key, basic understanding of algorithms (time complexity) and databases.
  • Non-Technical. It’s all about people management, influence and persuasion. It helps if you have analytical/quantitative oomph you can throw behind this, but at most places, things happen because of the relationships between people. Don’t underestimate this: you can have all the data in the world, and be absolutely correct, but if the person who controls your resources / investment doesn’t buy it, trust you or want you to succeed, quantitative information will not help you.

More on this: Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

Or: Characteristics of Exceptional Product Managers

Any final advice?

Your career is long. Please remember that. Humans at large are terrible at long-term planning (beyond a month or a year), but careers are multi-decade enterprises. Make sure you can walk before you run. 2 or 5-year investments at the beginning of your career are trivial investments to make for the latter 3.5 decades.

long path down highway

If you’re not fulfilled in your industry, take some time to explore what motivates you and makes you passionate, and if you need to take 2 or so years to set up the right skills and experience, that’s okay. Obviously, this depends a lot on privilege and opportunity—I don’t mean to ignore that. But the point still stands: your career is long…much longer than you probably imagine.

Check out: Decoding Job Titles: The Different Types of Product Manager

Invest in mental models. Invest in mental models. Invest in mental models. Look at problems from 2 or 3 different lenses (computational, economic, philosophical, psychological, sociological, ethical) and try to develop systems and frameworks for evaluating multiple different considerations. As a PM, you span the full gamut of a business, which means you probably should be thinking about all of these things.

Read Atomic Habits and reflect deeply on the difference between goals and systems. Goals are temporary and aspirational. When we are highly motivated, we rise to the level of our goals. No one is highly motivated all the time. In fact, most of the time, most people aren’t. When we are not highly motivated, we fall to the level of our systems. Build systems, stop pursuing goals when you get highly motivated.

Here’s a concrete example. Suppose you get really jazzed up to improve your physical fitness, so you start working out like a total fiend, because you are highly motivated. But then, a couple days/weeks later, you aren’t motivated anymore, so you stop. Instead, buy a home gym, or move your shoe rack next to your bed so it’s really easy to put your sneakers/trainers on in the morning. Make it permanently easier for yourself to workout, even when you’re NOT motivated.

The same applies for your career as a PM. Instead of building a sizing spreadsheet for one project, for example, build a sizing spreadsheet template that you can use on any project.

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