When the product is YOU
by Steve Johnson
"If it's not fun, don't do it; it's time to get another job."Alan Webber, Fast Company
Have you been out there lately? Hunting for that perfect job is both easier and harder than ever before. You don’t have to be restricted to your nearest big city... but other candidates don’t either. Networking is easier but, alas, everyone’s network is bigger than before.
Maybe you’re disenchanted with your role. Or you’re ready to move up to the next level. Or you’re just looking for something new.
Or maybe you’ve been laid off.
For some (most?), getting laid-off comes as a complete surprise—which, let’s be honest, is a poor reflection of the manager’s abilities. You should always know where you stand in the company or else your manager is not doing his or her job. That said, if you don’t know how you’re perceived by your boss and your executives, that’s probably bad. Certainly make every effort to repair the relationship but it may be time to start looking around.
No matter your situation, I suggest you go on a job interview at least once a year—even if you’re not looking. [tweet this] You may find a great new opportunity or you may find that you really have a pretty good gig with your current employer. Either way, it’s good to experience the process so it’s not so frightening when you start looking seriously.
A typical approach is to update your resume and LinkedIn page, and then start emailing resumes to everyone you know. However, “spray and pray” is never the best strategy.
Here’s the key: It seems many don’t really understand the basics of economics.
Employers do not hire you because you need a job; employers hire you to solve their problems. [tweet this]
You are a product.
And that’s good news. As a product manager, you’re already expert in defining and delivering products. Stop thinking about job hunting as a mysterious concept; it’s just product definition and delivery.
You already know how to do it.
Get out your product playbook and follow the steps that you’d follow for any product.
DEFINE your target market
You don’t want to look for just any job; you want to find a gig with a company where you can feel passionate about the product, your colleagues, and your customers.
You want to find a target market of employers (customers) that have a problem that you can solve. You’re looking for problem/solution fit.
Review your last three jobs and think about which you preferred and why.
What kind of people do you prefer? Would you say you worked better with the sales and marketing people or the developers and support team? Do you enjoy working with technical folks? Do you enjoy working with customer-facing folks?
What kind of company do you prefer? Think about company size. In a big company, product managers tend to be specialized; in a small one, a product manager gets involved in many different aspects from customer discovery to defining strategy to writing marketing copy and supporting individual sales people.
If you’ve only worked for large companies, it may be time to try a startup to see if you like a broader set of responsibilities. An independent business unit within a larger company may be the ideal middle ground between large and small.
What type of domain areas do you prefer? Beyond company size, think about company specialties. Are you interested in geo-fencing? See what’s happening at Life360 or Lo-Jack’s SafetyNet. Fascinated by new directions in life sciences? Search for “hot startups in medical” in your geographic area or professional specialty. Companies innovating in your area of interest are good targets for you.
What kind of work activities do you prefer? What type of work do you love? What do you hate? After all, people tend to work better on things they like doing.
Here’s a extensive set of product artifacts based on my planning canvas. Highlight those that represent areas of your strengths and preferences. Focus on these in developing your resume and personal narrative. For that matter, consider which of these activities you enjoy and which you really prefer to avoid.
(Or If you're familiar with the Lean Product and Business Model Canvases, try defining yourself with Business Model You.)
Where do you want to be in 3 years?
Just as you have a roadmap for your product, you should consider your intended career path. Do you want to move into management or stay as an individual contributor? Do you want to move up the ranks or take some side trips to related departments?
One friend became the go-to problem solver for her company. She created the playbook for the product management team and then was asked to do the same for product marketing. Some time later she was asked to head up the services group and apply product management principles to turn their ad hoc services into repeatable solutions. Over the space of a few years, she had run every group except sales and was the obvious choice to take over as president when the founder stepped out of the daily operations of the business.
Many times, you get caught up in achieving the company’s goals—which is laudable—but forget to achieve your goals as well. You can look to add to your own skillset even if you’re in a bad situation.
A product manager was concerned about all the changes in the company, particularly constant changes of the executive team. Instead of worrying about the company’s future, she focused on the product’s future. She did the best work she could do, despite the changing strategic priorities, and delivered results for her product. Remember, product results are key elements of a good product management resume.
Being known as a problem-solver is certainly a good reputation to have.
Thinking about your skills and interests as well as the types of companies and teams you prefer will help define your target segment.
DEVELOP your solution
It seems many employers are looking for candidates who are already doing the job for a similar product at a similar company. In some cases, they’re looking for “purple squirrels”—candidates with the perfect combination of skills, education and experience, who will work for peanuts.
You’ll want to be able to explain how you’re an ideal fit for the job because you’ve already done it. And can talk about your results.
What problems can you solve for employers? After all, you have experience and expertise and passion. When looking at product/market fit, you’ll likely to find your domain expertise plays an important role. Your experience with similar products will also be a plus.
Create your positioning
As with a product, you’ll want to be able to explain your unique value proposition. What makes you you? How are you different from others?
Many product managers are familiar with the vision statement format created by Regis McKenna and popularized in Geoff Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm:
- For [target customer]
- Who [statement of need or opportunity]
- The [product name] is a [product category]
- with [statement of key benefit, a compelling reason to buy]
- Unlike [primary competitive alternative or approach]
- Our product [statement of primary differentiation]
Adapt this to yourself:
- For [software vendors in Virginia focused on education]
- Who [are creating a new product management team]
- I am a [technology product manager]
- with [years of experience as a product manager in education]
- Unlike [former teachers]
- My resume shows [I have teaching experience as well as product management expertise]
This structure is a little stilted but with some wordsmithing it might make a nice summary paragraph at the top of your resume. Also use what you’ve learned about yourself to clean up your LinkedIn info. This positioning should be the top-most think on your LinkedIn profile.
In The One Thing Every Employer Wants to See On Your Resume, Brian de Haaff of Aha! writes:
You could say that you “successfully trained the customer success team to improve customer communications.” Or, you “created 25 template responses and trained the customer success team, reducing average response time to under two hours.” See how the details can make all the difference?
As with product positioning, you want to focus on the problems you are able to solve and the results you’ve achieved in similar product situations rather than specifications and capabilities.
PROMOTE your solution
By now you have the information for a basic business plan: target segment, product definition, positioning, and business results.
You’ve identified your ideal employer type and developed messaging for your solution. Now it’s time to launch—build the pipeline, set up some appointments, and start promoting your solution.
How are you going to connect with potential employers in your target market?
The best source for job leads is your personal network. Your friends and colleagues often learn about job openings long before they’re posted publically. For many groups, teamwork is critical so employers embrace bringing in people who have worked together previously.
If you’re not already doing so, get involved with local product management associations, meetups, and product camps. These groups get together periodically to share techniques and stories, often with an outside speaker providing some education.
I have friends tell me they’ve had great luck with LinkedIn as a job-hunting tool. However, they don’t recommend submitting your resume to jobs via the service. Instead look for a connection in your network and contact that person directly for a recommendation or a phone chat or an introduction.
Unfortunately, many people only network when they’re hunting for a job. One colleague calls me periodically “just to check in”—that’s when I know he’s looking for a job.
There’s a job-hunting maxim: “Dig the well before you’re thirsty.” You want to be networking all the time, making connections, helping out others, being a friend.
Generate awareness via social media
Twitter and LinkedIn are additional places to network but are also great for creating personal awareness. Nowadays, you can post articles on LinkedIn to share your product experience with a broader audience. If you already have a blog, repost your content on Medium—it’s super-easy to import blog posts.
I’m told that Slideshare is the best leadgen source for most job-seekers. You’ve probably created a presentation for a local industry group—post it on Slideshare.
Interviewing when there’s no opening
Smart employers are always on the lookout for strong candidates, even when they aren’t actively recruiting. They keep a resume folder or a phone list of people they’ve met personally who seem to be good potential employees. (As far as I can tell, few companies actually “keep your resume on file” but I may be wrong.)
One product manager attended a tech conference and one of the speakers gave a brilliant presentation. He gave the speaker’s contact information to the VP of his group and suggested they set up an interview. The VP was so impressed by the candidate that she made a job offer on the spot. For a position that hadn’t existed the day before.
You might be surprised—your ideal employer may create a position for the right person.
If you haven’t done a good job of networking, you may need to outsource your sales channel. That’s right, recruiters are sales people. And like sales people, some are good; some are bad. Some sincerely want to find a great connection between employer and employee. Others make just a cursory effort: “I see you want to work for a software vendor. I have an opening here for a janitor at a software vendor. Seems like a perfect match!”
You’ll learn quickly which recruiters are best. But don’t rely only on one recruiter (sales channel); keep looking for jobs in your network.
Generate leads by doing work on spec
In Recruiting Advice No One Tells You, David Rogier explained his approach:
After graduate school, I wanted to work in Product Management. I was super-impressed by Evernote. I decided to show them what I could do. I focused on the new user on boarding experience. I interviewed 23 users about it, came up with a few ideas, and wrote 10 slides about it. I emailed those to the CEO. He emailed me back in 30 mins and asked me to come in.
I’ve heard some companies ask candidates to develop a product plan or detailed business case for one of their products. I think 10 slides as output is reasonable; I think expecting an 80-page document is taking advantage (and also ridiculous. Who writes or reads long documents any more?)
DELIVER your solution
I’ve found that every product organization is unique. One company wants technical people; others want business people. What you think of as product management may be called product marketing in another company. Focus on activities and artifacts; titles can be confusing.
Use the planning canvas activities above in your discussions with employers—you’ll quickly see whether the job aligns with your skills and preferences. And you may find it helps the employers define what they’re looking for as well.
Interview for problems
Once you’ve found an opportunity, resist the urge to send a resume until you’ve had a chance to get more details about the opportunity. If possible, schedule a phone interview to understand the employer challenges as well as their business stuff.
What questions would you ask a prospective customer about your product? Those are the same types of questions of your potential employer: What are some of the top issues your company (or product) is facing today? What recent changes drove the decision to recruit for this position? How do my skills compare to those you already have on staff?
If you can’t set up a phone interview, try to get as much information as you can about the opportunity from the job posting and from their web site. You’re looking for a way to write a proposal that speaks to the hiring manager’s problems, not just the job posting.
Also, try to get an understanding of what they consider product management—some think it’s a business role, some technical, some go-to-market, and some think it’s all of that and more. See my free ebook "Expertise in Product Management" for more on the widely disparate views on the role of product management.
Another tip: one half of the interview is about them getting to know you; the other half is about you getting to know them. Be prepared to answer questions about yourself and also have some ready-to-use questions about the company, its direction, and its people.
Propose a solution
Your resume is a spec sheet. Yes, it describes your capabilities but it’s not a very good promotional piece. Just like a product spec sheet, the resume is used to find proof, usually by the HR person, that you have the capabilities that you claim. But, as with a product spec sheet, it’s not very interesting.
This is how your resume looks to a recruiter:
Your cover letter is a different beast. The cover letter tells your story, explaining your experience in the context of the job opening. The job posting said, “3 years of education experience required” so your cover letter should say something like, “I spent 5 years as a teacher in the Virginia school system before becoming an education consultant for Ed-R-Us.” Your cover letter is a story about your ability to solve the problem while your resume is proof of specific qualifications.
(By the way, no one cares that you hike or fish or race cars—save that for a personal discussion or an ice-breaker. And they don’t care if you’re proficient with Microsoft Office because you should be. If you don’t know how to use pivot tables, learn it right now.)
The goal of an interview is a job offer, not necessarily a job. You can choose to take it or not.
Nowadays it’s not too hard to find the current salary range for your skill level and geography. Pragmatic Marketing has been running an annual salary survey since 2000. Also check salary.com, glassdoor.com, or just ask a few friends in similar positons.
A job offer may be firm and it may not be. So be sure to make a counter-offer. I don’t know of anyone who was rejected because they made a counter-offer. If your potential employer can’t offer more money, ask for a better title or an additional week of vacation.
It helps to know what you’re looking for: Is money more important or title? Move to a smaller company for a better title; move to a bigger company for better money.
Rule: You don’t get 100% of the things you don’t ask for. [tweet this]
After each interaction, email a quick thank-you note to the hiring manager and inquire about the next step, if any.
If you didn’t get an offer, request a follow-up phone interview. You want to understand any missing capabilities you should develop and get tips on how to promote and sell yourself better in the future. (You might recognize this as Win/Loss Analysis). You’re not trying to revive the deal; you want to get his or her advice on how you can do better in the future.
Just like a product
How do you develop and deliver a product when the product is you? The same way you’d develop and deliver any other product or service. Choose a target market. Identify the personas and their problems. Develop a unique value proposition. Work the funnel from leads to presentation to close.
Searching for a job can be fun and often frustrating but remember, it’s something you already know how to do. You’re a product manager. And you’re a product.
Don’t worry; you’ve got this.
More to explore
Check out What Hiring Managers Expect on Resumes Now at https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/what-hiring-managers-expect-on-resumes-now/
Hubspot's Meg Prater answers the question, Should I Quit My Job? 9 Signs It's Time.
See Darian Spicer's product management recommendations for Uber Instant, a great way to show a work sample.