Path to PM is a series of interviews with product leaders about breaking into product management. In this session, we interview Ryan Hill, founder of APMList.
1. Tell us about your current PM career.
I’m currently an APM at Oath, which is the parent company for Yahoo. I work on various aspects of yahoo.com, and spend most of my time in the Sunnyvale office. Occasionally I work in SF, but it’s usually more effective to spend time with the larger team down in the south bay.
2. How did you break into product management?
I had a very interdisciplinary background before getting into product management. I’ve previously done work in marketing, UX design, software engineering, and consulting. I also made a startup with a few friends that had a small amount of traction (few thousand in revenue) and later ran a nonprofit that had roughly a half million a year in revenue. This mix helped me transition into my first PM internship. I had two PM internships before I landed my first full-time PM offer. This PM role was my first full-time job after graduating from undergrad at UC San Diego.
3. How many companies did you apply to? How many did you hear back from?
I applied to roughly 15 or so companies for product roles straight out of college. I heard back from roughly 10, and made through the final rounds at Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and a few smaller companies.
4. What was your most successful interview question?
That’s a good question – I’m not sure what my most successful interview question was.
I would say in general I get good feedback/results from interviews where I am able to:
- Get very specific about my product suggestions, down to the wireframe and technical implementation level.
- Talk about why I think this particularly decision is a good move, especially in comparison to other decisions I am choosing to not pursue instead.
If you can manage to demonstrate that you are both obsessed with details but a strategic high level thinker, you are generally in a very good position.
5. What was the most challenging interview question you faced?
The most challenging questions I received actually ended up being behavioral questions. When you are being interviewed by a director or very senior product manager, they usually pry deep and can sniff out BS or non-answers. Questions like “what are your 5 biggest weaknesses” get very challenging when your interviewer challenges your answers. It’s hard to know yourself that well. It’s easy to make answers that sound good, but interviewers can pick those types of answers apart. I wish I gave myself a lot more self reflection before I started interviewing. It would have helped in a number of places.
6. How do you answer the “what’s your favorite product” question?
I often default to some of the physical products I own, such as my backpack or skateboard. Physical items just seem so rarely discussed nowadays, but are often the clearest examples of understanding priorities and designing for specific user needs.
For many candidates, if you try talking about a common app or service in an interview, inevitably instead of focusing on scoping the product to match a set of user needs, you can avoid important questions. By assuming that AB tests can substitute for making a strategic decision, or by glossing over the details of how a feature works by saying machine learning will find the best post/song/video/content for every user type, you shrug off opportunities to demonstrate critical thought and instead give cop out answers that play into the iterative, customizable nature of software.
Focus on being opinionated and having good justification. Pick a product that forces you to make strategic product trade-offs to help some users and not others, and ruthlessly justify yourself. That shows real thought.
7. If you were applying for product management careers all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
There’s a quote I like – “practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” If you try practicing PM interviews with people also looking for APM roles, you probably won’t be helping yourself much, if at all. Many people actually might hinder your growth, because they don’t know how to ask meaningful questions and give you misleading feedback because your answers didn’t match their skewed and inaccurate vision of what makes a “good answer.”
Seriously, so many people out there like to pretend they have perfect clarity on what makes a good product answer when judging others, but in reality they are failing their own PM interviews because they have absolutely no idea what makes a good product interview answer. Don’t get caught up in the noise of ignorant feedback.
Find a mentor as early on as you can. Don’t be aggressive or annoying about it, and realize that the smartest and most talented people usually have the least amount of time. Look for people who are currently where you want to be in 2-3 years, and take them out for coffee. Learn from them. Don’t spend too much time listening to your peers who are confused just as much or more than you are – focus on advice from people who are more experienced and follow their footsteps.
8. What’s your favorite blog post, book, or website that you’d recommend to a current PM interviewee?
I actually made a website that includes this info: apmlist.com. It has a list of resources I’d recommend PMs read, and I plan on adding more to it. I mainly made APM List to have a list of APM roles that are available, so that’s another great reason to check it out.
One book I’ve had on the list that some people have asked me about is The Design of Everyday Things. It’s not traditionally considered a product management book, and certainly doesn’t have practice interview questions. That being said Don Norman is the grand-daddy of the design world, and his thoughts on human centered design are very useful for a product manager’s toolkit. From reading his book and being a student of his, I feel that I have a great formula for tackling product design questions (both in interviews and in real life.)
9. Any last comments you’d like to mention?
Getting into product management, especially right out of college, is very hard. Across all companies that offer APM roles, I’d estimate that there’s about 100 spots open every year. That number might actually be on the higher end. The odds are not in your favor.
When there are too many applicants for the number of spots available, often times companies filter resumes by school, GPA, and other factors. This can make it even harder for those who might be first generation college students or part-time workers to stand up to sweeping generalizations that companies use to simplify their pipelines.
It’s unfortunate, but life is both competitive as hell and incredibly unfair. Take this into account when applying.
In an ideal world, lots of aspiring PMs could get the chance to try out product management. In the real world, you probably have student debt and rent to pay. Please don’t bet your livelihood on winning the APM lottery. I encourage anyone and everyone to apply for PM roles, but do so with realism. You don’t have to “break” into product management quickly. Many people slowly transition into product within a company where they official play a non-PM role as a result of demonstrating initiative and well thought out product direction.
If you get an APM offer, congrats! If you don’t, it’s not the end of the road. Keep trying and keep learning. “Luck is the crossroads of preparation and opportunity” – eventually luck is bound to strike!
For more great product management prep, visit Exponent's PM Interview Course.