Season 9 - Episode 3

The Many Paths to Product: Transitions & Pivots by Lyft Senior PM

Welcome back to another episode of the Product Podcast, where Lyft Senior PM Lilly Shi walks us through an exercise that she did early in her product journey. This exercise will help identify what product skills you already have (even if you’ve never worked in product before!) and how to use the information to excel in PM interviews.

Lyft Senior PM Lilly Shi

Currently I’m a Product Manager at Lyft. I work on next-generation scooters, on their bikes and scooters team. But my background is actually in mechanical engineering and architecture, so I remember back when I was first understanding what product was and trying to get my foot in the door.

Here’s a secret: you’ve been a Product Manager already. To quote a Director I work with at Roblox, “Product Management is the art of life.” Whether you’ve planned a family vacation or bought a gift for someone you love, or written down a to-do list, you’ve exercised product skills. You’ve thought about user needs, you’ve considered a budget and timeline, you’ve weighed stakeholder input, you’ve executed and iterate.

Let’s take a universal example. Think about a time you got a gift for someone you really cared about. What was the process like? If we break it down, we’ll actually see nuggets of core PM skills. So user empathy and research, who is the person, what do they like and dislike? Have they told you about a pain point or something they want?

Road-mapping and prioritization. You know that they would love an all-expenses paid trip to Europe, but you can’t afford that. In fact, it might not be an appropriate gift for you to be giving. So what’s your budget? Alternatively, you found the perfect item, but it won’t get here in time. So you ask yourself, what’s your timeline?

Execution. So you’ve got the gift and now it’s time to wrap it and actually give it to them. Iteration. You ask yourself, did they like it? Is it the right size? Does it fit them? Do they like the color? What could you improve on for their next birthday anniversary, Christmas, whatever the occasion was?

Of course, I’m not saying that you have the skills to be a PM just because you’ve bought someone a gift. But more often than not, I’ve noticed that people come to me with years of experience building their own company, or working an adjacent field like marketing or design. But they still don’t feel qualified to be a PM. In most cases, they think they need to start from ground zero and work their way up. When in reality, they already have the skills to make a lateral move and enter product as a mid-level if not Senior PM.

So how? What you want to do is essentially take your existing experience and highlight the product skills that are baked into it. Ask yourself, where have you demonstrated long-term thinking and strategy? Have you worked with users or data to deliver business impact? When have you had to make trade-offs in a constrained environment?

Every field has their own framework or lingo, but I’d hazard to guess that for many of you, it’s just a matter of reframing the experience that you already have. And more than just tailoring your skills for the roles that you want, I also want you to remember to be selective about the roles that you are looking for.

At the most basic level, product is the intersection of UX, tech, and business with each component weighed differently at different companies. Find the roles that fit your skills. Another thing I’ve noticed is that most often people are trying to tailor themselves too much to fit what they think the role wants of them, rather than doing the other way around and trying to find the roles that fit them.

For example, I don’t have an MBA or a CS degree. When I was looking for my first product role, I didn’t apply for anything that required one, because I knew that they weren’t going to be what I was looking for. And vice versa. You don’t want to have to apologize or make up for experience that you don’t have. You want to be valued for the experience you do have, even if you don’t feel like you’re ready.

Because here’s another secret: you may never feel like you’re ready. Even now I struggle with imposter syndrome and honestly I’ve never felt a hundred percent qualified for a single job I’ve had. I’ve leaned on my community, my peers, my mentors. Instead of waiting to feel like I’m enough, with enough experience, enough skills, enough practice, I promise myself that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn as I go.

But I didn’t come here just to give you a pep talk. I also want to leave you with some actionable steps. So how do you find the flavor of product that fits your skills while also using your product muscles to break down the problem? So when scoping a problem or a market opportunity, you often start with a mix of top-down and bottoms up analysis.

Top-down you would start broad, define vision and goals, and then drill deeper from there. Bottoms up, you would start with existing constraints and resources and see what you are uniquely positioned to address.

Get a pen and paper or a Google doc ready, because we’re going to do an exercise that really helped me get my feet under me when I was first breaking into product. For this exercise, I found it easier to do with bottoms up. We’ll start with your strengths and determine your values and skills. This is where you should get ready to be a little active. It’s a very simple exercise but can very grounding and something that you can return to as you pivot into product.

Step one, define your strengths. Ask yourself, what are you proud of? It doesn’t have to be work-related. It can be in any part of your life, but it needs to be concrete. So for example, one of my was assembling a mechatronics team in grad school that was not only great at finishing the project, but also really fun to work with. So now I want you to use that pen and paper, or Google docs, and take a minute to write down a few. Three is a good start. But the more, the better. Take about a minute to do this.

Off the top of your head, you should have been able to think of a couple of things that stick out as things that you’re really proud of. Keep those in mind.

Next step: you want to use these examples to define your values and your skills. So for each thing that you’re proud of, ask yourself why are you proud of that. In my example, I was proud of assembling my team because I’m extremely people-driven and it showed me that I have a knack for identifying people with diverse and complimentary skills and personalities and getting them to work together.

Once you’ve understood the why, you can often link it to a skill or a value. For example, working cross-functionally with a diverse team points towards stakeholder management, which is a key product skill. Go down your list of things that you’re proud of, and for one, write a few reasons why you think you’re proud of it.

Now that we have this basic list of things that you’re proud of, skills, and the values that they represent, you can take that and actually find the roles that meet your values and need your strengths. For example, all of my roles have had a heavy component of stakeholder management, both internally and externally. I’m extremely people-driven, to the point where the people that I work with are oftentimes more important to me than the specifics of the day-to-day, at least very early in my career. I’ve been lucky that in both of my primary product roles, I’ve been able to interact directly with the end-user and the customers.

Once you’ve laid the foundation of what drives you and what value you bring to an organization, you can dig deeper into the mechanics of the PM interview process, and practice pitching yourself. In this case, you are the product. How you would frame a product is how you frame your experience.

Finding the product-market fit becomes finding the right role for you. Knowing yourself helps you know what you want, and everything downstream becomes a little bit easier. From writing cover letters, to determining what aspects of a potential role are Need-to-have versus Nice-to-have, to making that at first genuine connection that leads to an offer.

My advice would be to cast a wide net, but also keep your values and your strengths as your North Star. In particular, make sure that your strengths and values come through in your resume and your post-interview questions. For your resume, even if your job title isn’t explicitly Product Manager, describe the product aspects of your role.

Very early in my career before I knew really what Product Management was, I was teasing out the product-focused aspects of jobs on my CV. Working with users and stakeholders, follow-through of execution with end-to-end development, and showing the diversity of my skills.

As for your post-interview questions, I’ve realized that this time is just as valuable as the product sense and interview portion of each interview. So make good use of it. It’s your opportunity to gauge whether the role is the right fit for you. Take the chance to drive the conversation, show that you are thoughtful about your choices and showcase what your values and your needs are.

I would bring in stakeholder management explicitly because it’s something that I’ve shown aptitude in, and it’s something that I know I’m good at. So this is an iterative process. Don’t be afraid to go back to your North Stars as you learn more about yourself and the opportunities out there. This was a very simple walkthrough, but it was actually one of the most valuable and grounding exercises for me when I first moved into product.

Q. How would you answer in an interview when they ask how you would handle a particular situation (like a sprint)?

When figuring out how to answer an interview question, it depends on what the question is trying to get at and how they’re phrasing it.There’s a type of interview review question where they just want to know that you understand the mechanics of Product Management, right? Like, you know what a sprint is, you know how to prioritize. But then there’s the other type of question where they’re trying to understand what your philosophy is. What frameworks would you use, or how would you prioritize, how would you make trade-offs?

In the mechanics there’s generally there are a couple of standard answers. Because it’s not a philosophical thing. In the other one, though, you’re basically answering based on how you would take the problem and break it to down, or take a list of possible opportunities and prioritize it, and what you would evaluate. So whether it’s time to execution, impact on the user, etc.

Q. Would you normally answer with a previous non-product experience and explain why it was relevant there, or would you understand the context of the current company that interviewing for, and then tailor it to their requirements?

There’s a balance between valuing your own experience but also recognizing what the gaps are. If they’re asking you for something and you straight up do not have experience there, you can say that and say, “Hmm, I’m not sure.” Or, “that’s a good question. If I had to think about it right now, this is what I would do, based on my understanding.” You can also sometimes turn the question back around on them and say, “What is your current process? And what are the areas of improvements that you want to see with the person that would fill this role?”

Q. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get a PM position in a FAANG company?

I think that there’s another really valuable component of looking for jobs that has nothing to do with interviewing and looking at job postings. And that’s reaching out to set up informational interviews where you’re asking another Product Manager to just take a look at your resume and let them know, “this is what I’m looking for.”

Or not even preface it and just say, “Hey, would you be willing to take a look at my resume and give me your 30 second impression of it? Because realistically recruiters and hiring managers only take a quick glance at your resume and it’s meant to just get your foot in the door. And then once you’re talking with someone that’s directly tied to an interview process, that can also maybe open the door to having practice interviews and getting that direct feedback. Because right now it sounds like you’re not getting any feedback on what people’s impressions are of your experience in your resume.

Q. Would it make sense to reach out on LinkedIn to senior product folks in the company I’m targeting?

I don’t know about senior product folks in the company that you’re targeting because oftentimes they’ll be inundated with my messages. This is another place where you can really leverage your network or you can leverage something like Product School, where you can reach out to a speaker like me or other people in Product School who are in their first role and ask each other for advice. I know for women, there’s a women in product group, and that was really helpful for me to get low-stakes feedback.

Q. Could you please tell us if it was difficult for you to pivot to Product Management?

Yeah, definitely. It depends on what you define as difficult. I think that the reason why this exercise was so valuable for me was because it gave me clarity on what I was looking for when I was pivoting into product. There was an element of like, I think I might be good at this, but I’m not sure. And I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for. And so my first resume was very scattered. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. You do want to show the breadth of your experience and make sure that it represents who you are holistically. But you also want to you want to guide the person that’s looking at your resume in assessing whether or not you are a good candidate.

Guide them to the highlights to show yes, I do know what product is. I do know what I’m looking for and these are my strengths. I actually took a bit of time off before my first product role. I was switching from being a mechanical engineer at General Motors. And then the next role that I had was being a Product Manager at Roblox. In that time, I did a lot of introspecting to figure out what my values are, what my strengths are. And then I also did a lot of informational interviews with other PMs and people in other industries, because at that time I wasn’t a hundred percent committed to product being the right path for me.

Informational interviews are super helpful. Understanding, for example, that I probably shouldn’t apply for roles that require an MBA and a CS degree. That took me a while to understand and came out of a conversation with a friend who was a PM who had a similar background to me. She walked me through what her process was, where she was like, “Yeah, I found it really hard to get traction in anything that required skills that I didn’t have. And so I really leveraged my UI/UX focus.”

Q. How do you prepare for a question like, “what’s your idea to improve a product?” How do we prepare for that kind of question?

When you’re interviewing at a company, absolutely make sure you understand what their market is and what their products are. But when you’re answering a question like that, you don’t necessarily have to pick a product that’s within their suite.

In fact, I think in some ways it almost puts you at a disadvantage because you’re not going to know, the ins and outs of their products and why things are the way they are as deeply as your interviewer will know. It’s actually more important to pick something that you are passionate about, that you can apply a framework to. Where you can say, “This is the product, this is the problem it’s trying to solve.” Who are the users, what is the experience of using it?

And then kind of drilling down level by level because those questions are about product sense. One of the things that I love about product is that product sense can be applied across different industries, across different products. So you don’t need to tailor-fit your answer for the specific company that you’re interviewing at. They’re just looking to make sure that, you can take an ambiguous problem and break it down into individual components and have a structured way of thinking and walk them through that. Not that you have a really deep understanding of their suite of products.

Q. Any final advice?

Yeah, as cheesy as it: believe in yourself, trust yourself, lean on your network. Because those are going to be the things that pull you through.

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