An inside look at product management at IBM and the interview process.
Kevin Wei is an Offering Manager at IBM managing Watson Knowledge Catalog and DataStage. In this Path to PM blog post, Kevin shares his journey breaking into a product role as a new grad hire at IBM.
Disclaimer: The following are opinions of Kevin and not the views of IBM.
Tell us about yourself.
Hi I'm Kevin Wei, a product manager (aka an offering manager -- I can get into that in a bit) on IBM's data + AI team. I studied mathematics at UCLA, worked 2 summers as a software engineering intern at a Series E AdTech startup, and advised Metta World Peace (Ron Artest) as the product manager for his social basketball app, Gradelo.
I'm excited to shed some light on product management at IBM.
What is an IBM offering manager?
You may see that IBM is hiring not product managers, but offering managers. At IBM, the product management role is being revamped. For several years now, product managers here have been transitioning into what's being called an "offering management" (OM) role.
At its core, offering managers at IBM perform the same tasks as traditional product managers. But instead of managing products we manage offerings, which are described as products or services designed for a market of users who will value the end-to-end experience.
According to IBM's careers page, offering managers are "responsible for the full lifecycle of an offering: from validating need to determining the business model and defining the solution requirements."
What was your IBM offering management interview process like?
My experience is specific to getting hired through the associate offering manager program (AOM). Through the AOM program, IBM hires both fresh graduates (undergraduate and graduate school grads) as well as those with industry experience. AOMs spend several weeks in IBM's Austin design studios learning about offering management and design thinking principles. We also use that time to work on an incubator project in small teams comprised of offering managers, developers, designers, and researchers.
The AOM position is one of the most popular and sought after roles; many people with competitive backgrounds apply each year. IBM hires for the AOM program twice a year: in the summer and in the winter. I submitted my application directly on the IBM careers page.
Due to the number of applicants, making it past the resume screen may rely on a bit of luck. I recommend showing you have some sort of product management experience, whether that be from a prior internship or even from a personal project. If it is from a personal project, show that you have already been doing product management duties (talking to users for a startup idea you had, doing market research for a school project, etc.) and you're ready to take on the role in a professional setting.
Technical experience is not required. However I do believe it's important to show you can be a good partner to engineering. For example, you should be able to weigh the pros and cons to make tradeoffs in prioritizing tasks.
What happens after IBM receives your resume?
If the recruiters deem you to be a good fit, you'll receive a digital video exercise. This is a timed exercise where you will log onto an online portal to complete some questions (similar to take-home assignments for some other APM roles).
Some of the questions will be provided ahead of time, and some will not. What's unique about this step is that you'll be expected to record yourself speaking aloud answers for some of the prompts.
My advice here is to be well versed in behavioral questions. Review your resume and be able to expound on your experience and personal projects.
How did it go after you submitted your digital exercise?
The next step is a video interview with an experienced offering manager. Expect your typical PM interview questions: product design, analytics, and estimation. If you've been studying for other APM roles, you should be well-prepared. Interviewing is a two way street. Use this opportunity to also see if you think you would be a good fit at IBM.
What happens after the video interview?
After the video interview is an onsite, which is broken up into two days. My interview was held in Austin, Texas, but the site may vary. IBM will fly in multiple candidates together who are likely to be starting in the same cohort
On day one, I flew in from Los Angeles, checked into my hotel, and rested for a bit. In the evening, the recruiters held a happy hour with offering managers from the previous AOM cohort. We had bites to eat and some drinks. I don't believe any of the conversations here were used to evaluate me as a candidate so I used this opportunity to learn more about the role. I had some nice, genuine conversations here.
On day two, I checked out of the hotel and was shuttled to IBM's design studios. Here, we had two interviews and a group exercise.
The two interviews were with current offering managers, similar to the video interview round.
In the group exercise, we were broken up into smaller groups and presented with a problem in the real world. The goal here is to work collaboratively and show that you'll be a great offering manager.
From the video exercise to getting my offer, the process took roughly two months. IBM moved pretty swiftly. As the company hires for multiple locations, the recruiters worked to match me to a location I preferred.
Any resources you would recommend to prepare for these interviews?
I recommend Exponent’s PM Interview course. It has excellent practice questions, sample answers, and 1:1 coaching offerings. Practice answering some of the practice questions out loud with a friend as if you’re in an actual interview. If you need more in-depth feedback and interview expertise from experienced PMs, consider taking a few interview coaching sessions.
Which products/offerings do you manage?
I work on Watson Knowledge Catalog and DataStage.
As coined by British mathematician Clive Humby, "data is the new oil." Like oil, data is valuable but it must be refined in order to provide value. This is exactly what our tools do. We help organizations collect, organize and analyze their data. For many organizations, it is a struggle to deal with the amount and complexity of the data in their companies.
This is where we jump in. With our products, our customers can find, understand, trust, and share their data.
Within these products, I specifically own the connectivity work. My mission is to enable our customers to connect to a diverse set of data sources: on-premise, cloud, file systems, NoSQL, Hadoop, etc. After all, if organizations do not have a unified way of accessing their data, many business critical operations will be in jeopardy (eg. their machine learning algorithms will not have the data they require).
What is a day in the life of your job like?
In my day to day role, I wear many hats as I work cross-functionally across engineering, design, sales, marketing, and finance. As cliche as it sounds, no two days are alike. But a common theme is meetings, meetings, and more meetings!
With engineering, I regularly sync up with our engineering managers and technical architects to discuss work that needs to be done. I may use this time to bring up a problem a customer recently had. We may brainstorm solutions and pick one based on trade-offs we discuss. Or, someone from the engineering team may have a question on some requirements I had presented for a feature to be built. In that case, I would provide clarity or add insight as to why we're building this particular feature—whether that may be a customer request or something we need in order to remain a leader in the competitive data integration space.
I would say working with the engineering team comprises two-thirds of my time. The other one-third is working to help our customers succeed. I run a customer advisory board where we get together with our most valuable customers and share insights and future work. I may also use this time to monitor our team's Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and investigate why a particular metric is underperforming and how we can address that.
Finally, I always take a little time each week to stay up to date. I may either parse through Gartner reports or do some self-learning (eg. online courses or reading books).
What's a lesson you've learned on the job?
It is easy to get lost working in a big company. For example, many seasoned professionals will use initialisms for business terms that to them is second nature, but to you is just a strange pairing of letters. If there is something you do not understand—whether that's a new initiative/strategic direction or whether that's a technology you haven't heard of before—ask for clarification. Many are afraid they'll sound dumb by not speaking up. But more often than not, I'll hear a few of my co-workers pipe up and add "yes I have that same question as well!"
That's a wrap! Thank you so much for reading.
You can find more about Kevin on his LinkedIn.