Product Management: Startup vs Big Company with fmr Microsoft PM

This week, Product School hosted Alfred Sin, fmr Product Leader at Microsoft for a special #AskMeAnything session. Alfred talks about the differences working in Product Management at a startup vs an established company, and gives tips for the PM job search process.

Meet Alfred

Alfred Sin, fmr Product Leader at Microsoft

Alfred is a Product Leader that uses his previous knowledge of computer science and background in business to unify product strategy, technical requirements, and customer data to make products that matter.

He is currently a PM at Amperity, a customer data platform startup. Previously, he worked on Azure Automanage at Microsoft. He also worked on the Azure Linux + workloads team, built the Azure Hybrid Benefit for Linux, and owned the Azure Serial Console service. Prior to joining Microsoft, he was a Business Technology Analyst for Deloitte Canada.

What do you enjoy most about working at a start up vs a well-established company? How does the hiring process differ for these two type of companies?

I definitely enjoy the speed and focus of a startup. It’s incredible to see how laser-focused and agile a team of people working on one common goal can be, especially when comparing that against a massive company that contains so many different products.

I’d say one interesting challenge I’ve noticed here at Amperity (albeit not 100% product-related) is the pace of hiring – we’re growing super quickly and it feels like we’re constantly bringing people on board. 6 months from now this will be a much larger company and keeping the company culture consistent will be a much larger challenge.

group of people gathered around table with laptops and laughing

In terms of hiring process – while you can find tons of info on Microsoft’s PM hiring processes available online, you probably won’t find much about Amperity’s (or any other smaller startup’s) hiring processes available online. However, there are some common themes, such as technical knowledge, product sense, communication, etc that are generally transferable. Another general tip – if you can’t find much company-specific interview info online, go check out their “About” page and see if they have info on their culture/values there. Culture fit is a big part of a hiring decision.

What do you consider to be the most challenging part of your job?

I’ll give you two answers since I’m coming from my role in Microsoft and currently coming up to speed at Amperity.

At Microsoft, it would be trying to balance the sheer volume of customer feedback with building a scalable platform – there is some inherent inertia involved in building out a global-scale cloud, which takes time to overcome. And that meant having to say no customers’ feature requests without churning them.

At Amperity, it would be coming up to speed with how we’re dealing with data end-to-end. There’s a lot of AI and ML under the hood and I’m slowly putting together how it all works. I’d say in general ramping up quickly is a great skill to have but easier said than done :sonrisa:

Read next: The Difference: Being a PM at a Small company vs a Large Company

When creating requirements and user stories for APIs, is it required to list all request/response Params, or does tech lead pick that up?

I’d probably work closely with my tech lead/dev counterpart to ensure they understand exactly what my requirements as a PM are for request/response functionality. But I’d expect it to be a two-way conversation as we figure out exactly what details match both customer requirements and dev constraints. One thing I’ve learned is communication is key!

two people sitting at desktop with code on it

How would you go about automizing functional testing?

I’m not too experienced with functional testing myself. I used the Selenium framework for JavaScript-based functional tests several years ago, but I imagine there may be other frameworks available now that are also good. I would imagine if you’re currently doing it manually today, there would be some work to be done to prepare the codebase for adding in a test framework, and then some cycles that need to be set aside for engineers to actually do the initial heavy lift to build those tests in.

How do you maximize your experience and background in tech for Product Management and development?

In general, one thing that’s stood out to me over the years is the notion of customer-centricity or customer obsession (different companies will call it different things).

Being able to understand customer use cases and translate that to an engineering team is a good general PM skill, and one worth practicing. Another good PM skill (and one that is often easier said than done) is coming up with metrics for tracking how well a product is doing, and keeping in touch with those metrics over time. There’s a ton of online content about how to come up with metrics, but when push comes to shove, I find that it’s an area often easily overlooked by product teams – despite how often the topic of metrics comes up in interviews.

Check out: Customer Focused Product Management: A Winning Business Strategy

Have you ever been a part of a hiring process where a candidate was an ex-founder? What’s your perspective on that?

A candidate being an ex-founder is always pretty interesting IMO. Founding a company brings you a set of skills that is very very difficult to get otherwise, and shows you likely have a high degree of business acumen and resilience – both of which translate very well to a PM role if that’s what you’re interested in.

While other candidates may have pursued more “traditional” career paths to get to where they are today, an ex-founder would pique my curiosity in terms of what challenges they’ve faced and how they made their decisions along the way. I would say if you’re an ex-founder, play that up and come into any interviews prepared with your own stories since the interviewer on the other side is probably very curious to hear about them and possibly even learn from you!

laptop with coffee

What tech skills are required to be a PM at Microsoft Mesh? I am excited about AR/VR but dont have hands-on experience leading anything.

Yeah, Microsoft Mesh would be in a different org than the org I was in (Azure) so I probably won’t be too familiar with it. Since it’s such a new area, I’d say domain-specific knowledge and experience would be more of a nice-to-have, and a willingness to learn about the space would be very important. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hiring manager in the Mesh area was also new to the space.

I’d say definitely show off your passion for the area and keep that as a theme throughout your resume/interview process. One thing to keep in mind is the purpose of your resume is to get you an interview. So if you’re super excited about AR/VR, make sure your resume shows that! Then once you’ve got the interview, demonstrate your excitement for AR/VR there as well.

Any final thoughts?

A final thought from me would be to practice thinking out loud in interviews! Interviewing is a two-way street, and it’s so much more engaging for the interviewer and interviewee when it’s a conversation as opposed to the interviewee putting stuff on a whiteboard.

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