What You Need to Know When Recruiting for PM for the First Time | MBA Core Fellows Series

by Yong-Min Ree, MBA ’23 | MBA Core Fellow

Have you worked as a PM or product designer before? Do you have an engineering background? If your answers are no to both questions, you are not very different from many other classmates who are recruiting for PM. PM is one of the most popular job functions among MBA students, and one of the fiercest job markets to compete in. This post provides guidance to those who do not have PM experience prior to coming to MIT Sloan.

Please note that this is my personal opinion about what could be helpful to students recruiting for PM. People may have different views and opinions, and it is up to you to decide how to use this information.

Reality check

If you have decided to pivot your career to PM, great! So have many other people in MBA program. Your competitors are not only those who have similar backgrounds to yours, but also those who already have PM or equivalent experience.

What makes PM recruiting even harder is that the job scope of a PM is different in every company. For example, a PM in Company A may work more closely with engineers running daily scrums, while a PM in Company B is closer to business development side and barely engage in development process. The services and products covered by those companies are also diverse, which requires a lot more time to understand each company’s business. The PM recruiting process can be very different from recruiting for other industries, like Consulting and Investment Banking, which have similar recruiting processes across companies, and where you can apply the common skills and knowledge across different firms.

But does that mean that you don’t stand a chance? No. It just means that you need to plan your recruiting strategy more carefully and invest more effort. The following sections explain what you need to know to better strategize your recruiting journey.

What Companies Look For: Large Companies vs SMEs

The great military strategist Sun Tsu wrote in his famous book The Art of War that ‘if you know the enemy and know yourself, you will never be in peril.’ You are not exactly going into a war with the companies, but it is crucial to understand what they are looking for in recruiting PMs. The needs of the companies are usually different depending on the size of the companies.

Large companies usually look for those who are a fit for the company’s philosophy and culture. These companies tend to believe that the skills can be nurtured at the workplace as long as the employees have the right cultural fit. The recruiting process is therefore centralized and standardized. New hires are assigned to the teams where the recruiting team sees a fit. It will be the recruiters on the HR team, not the PMs who will first read your resume. You may be assigned to a team under a manager that you have not met during your interview process. The interviews are often heavily focused on behavioral questions.

Smaller companies and startups have slightly different needs. They do not have as abundant resources as big firms to train people. They need people who can contribute to the business right away. They also cannot plan headcount years ahead, so the job openings are much more ad hoc. Because they want people who can be an immediate help to the team, they tend to look for people that have experience in similar functions or industries. The HR team will also help, but hiring managers have more power in the recruiting process and it is more likely that the hiring managers will read your resume first. A professional recommendation is one of the most important resources that these companies rely on, as they do not have a giant HR team that can do the job on behalf of them. This is why networking is pivotal when you recruit for the smaller-sized companies, especially startups.

As a caveat, this does not mean that you do not need to know anything about becoming a PM when recruiting for big firms. You still need to demonstrate that you have all the core skills to become a PM in your resume, interviews, and networking.

Networking for What?

The purpose of networking is different depending on which path you take – highway, dirt road, and jungle. For the highway, networking does not usually have a huge impact on recruiting because big companies have a centralized process. It is not impossible but even if you network with someone in a certain team, it is very likely that you will not meet that person during the interview and it is even less likely that you will be assigned to the team. For dirt road and jungle paths, as mentioned earlier, networking is more critical.

But there is a common benefit that you can take from networking regardless of your path: information. Especially if you are unfamiliar with PM jobs. Start talking with your classmates or Sloanies from other class years who have PM experience to learn what it’s like to be a PM. The more you talk to them, the clearer it will get what a PM does and what skills you need. This will also help you realize whether you would really like to become a PM.

Gaining PM Experience While at School

It is always more advantageous if somewhere in your resume says the job title ‘product manager.’ If conditions allow, try to gain some PM experience while at school. You may get a part-time job before the new year starts or during the semester through networking. If you do not have any visa issues, then you are fortunate because it is much easier for you to explore these opportunities. Don’t take it for granted. Talk to your classmates and alumni who may be able to connect you those opportunities. There are many Sloanies who run their own startups while at school. Approach them to seek any PM opportunities.

You may also leverage Action Learning labs such as the PM Lab. Even if you are taking the highway path, where you would have already submitted your resume to various companies by the time you do the PM Lab during IAP, you will still have something to talk about during the interviews at least. This is especially a good opportunity for international students who cannot work part time until the second year starts.

Learning the Product and Company

During the recruiting process, you will be expected to know about the products the companies offer. This is even more important when it comes to smaller companies. I recommend two resources besides networking to learn about companies and their products: 10K reports and product documents/demos. 10K reports have a great overview of the business lines of a company and their strategic initiatives. If you are looking into a giant company, they usually have hundreds of products and services and their website will only confuse you. However, 10K reports provide a clean outline of the company’s products and business. If the company you are interested is not yet public, look for pitch decks, IR resources, or startup resources such as crunch base.

Product documents are the best resource you can leverage to study the product offerings of companies. They sometimes may be very technical, but product documents include the high-level overview in the beginning section which can help you understand better. Product documents are usually easily accessible through the company websites. If you are not ready to read the documents yet, then start with watching the demo videos of the products. Demo videos tell a lot about the products, including the competitive advantage as well as their target customers. You may also request for a free trial of the product and use the product yourself following the demo videos and product documents.

Since there are so many companies and products, you will not be able to do this research for every single company you apply for. However, at least do this research for the companies in which you have a high level of interest.

Still Interested in Recruiting for PM?

Now you know a few things about what to expect when you recruit for PM. Both the CDO and industry clubs have great resources available to you, and most important of all you are part of the MIT Sloan community. Reach out to those who have experience without hesitation, and Sloanies will help Sloanies. You may not have experience as a PM yet, but if you push hard enough to demonstrate that you have all the skills needed for a PM role and that you have passion for a product/company, the doors will open for you.

Ready for a Career in PM?

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By MIT Sloan CDO