We talk to Sid Panjwani, an Exponent alumni, on his journey through various internships, spanning Engineering, Growth, and Product Management. Sid is currently a senior at Vanderbilt University, finishing his degree in Computer Science.
Q: How would you answer the “Tell me about yourself” question?
I’ve been interested in working in technology since the time I was a kid. I recall building a Hackintosh in Middle School, where I put together a computer and hacked a version of macOS on it. Technically, this wasn’t allowed (and pretty highly discouraged), but the crashes and reboots forced me to dig deep into the computer, and I learned to love doing so (at least I had to if I wanted to surf the web 😃).
Through these experiences, I learned I loved working with and thinking about technology - but that’s an enormous thing to “love.” Through the past few years, I’ve made an active effort to get a diverse set of experiences and be earnest with myself about my likes/dislikes. Doing four internships is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to grow exponentially.
After my freshman year, I was lucky enough to get a SWE internship at MicroStrategy, where I helped build out their telemetry pipeline. I was fortunate to get this - I met one of their software engineers at a hackathon, chatted with him for a few minutes before requesting a mock interview. At the end of it, he insisted on pushing my resume through the black hole so I would get the onsite interview.
From there, I found I was craving something a little more fast-paced. I reached out to the founders of Timber.io, a logging startup in Brooklyn, NY. I discovered that I had an understanding (albeit relatively surface-level) of the problem area and an interest in learning more about their technology stack. It was here that I found a more profound interest in working in product. Though I enjoyed building software, I discovered that I derived that happiness from finding and understanding the “why.” My mentor at Microsoft spelled it out for me: a PM an expert in the what and the why, while a SWE is an expert in the what and the how.
As a PM, you’re not the expert in how the technology works or how to market it, but instead why it must be built, what jobs it solves for the user, and why it’s the most important thing for you and the team to work on given the constraints.
It was these experiences I had early in my college career that allowed me to understand what motivated myself. Knowing this, I took a much more focused attempt at my internship search. I landed product roles at Tesla, where I worked on their outbound logistics technology, and at Microsoft, where I worked on privacy features for Edge.
Q: How did you first hear about Exponent?
I found Exponent on ProductHunt. I’ve been beyond pleased with the value.
Q: What was the most difficult thing when you were recruiting for product roles and how did you overcome it?
Until I was a junior, and even at that point, it was challenging to get companies to notice me. It felt like everyone was looking for juniors/seniors who they can convert to full-time employees. Makes sense - internships are just an extended interview for a full-time position. Sought-after companies are bombarded with people, and it was easy to get lost in the crowd.
I spent a lot of time outside of classes running informational interviews at companies I was interested in. I would try to find a mutual connection between the person, spent a lot of time reaching out to people on Twitter or recent alumni from my university and found that most were willing to help college students. I would ask them about the work they did, the culture at the company, and their satisfaction with the job. Sometimes, if I was lucky, they would offer to put in a good word for me with the recruiter at the company. It's not necessarily an easy process for anyone, but if you know that entering product is something you want, it's well worth it to put in the effort.
The best advice I can give here is to remember: your goal during the interview is not just to show that you’re smart, but also that you’re a person they would enjoy working with and someone they’d like to see on their team.
Q: How did Exponent help with your interview process? Were there specific things that you learned from the course materials, coaching sessions, and the community?
Exponent is an incredible course. The quality and quantity of information are unparalleled. Stephen has a non-traditional, but effective strategy where he encourages candidates to avoid using frameworks. Rather than coming off as robotic in front of the interviewer, Stephen encourages candidates to think critically about the problem and show "structured thinking" (which interviewers look for!), without a predefined structure.
I found Exponent's Slack channel to be as valuable as the course. Here, I found plenty of people, both potential APMs and those with years of experience who wanted to practice mock interviews. As expected, becoming comfortable doing PM interviews is essential, and practice makes perfect. What I didn't expect was the value I would derive from watching other candidates with their interviews. Explicitly focusing your energy on finding and nitpicking common mistakes made during PM interviews helps you catch them when you’re later in the hot seat.
Q: Any advice for aspiring PMs applying, interviewing, and considering offers?
- Don't just apply through the online portal (aka black hole)
Nearly everyone I know who successfully got an internship at a “top” company had a person on the inside rooting for them. That could be the person you met at the career center, an alum from your school, or a friend who previously interned/worked there. Use The Third Door!
- Optimize for learning and growth
Internships are a unique opportunity to try something for 12 weeks and rapidly learn. Try to find a diverse set of experiences.
- Know yourself
After completing a few internships, I found that I was much more interested in completing a structured PM program that would pair me with a Senior PM who "knows the ropes." I took a more careful approach looking for internships in my junior year that fit my learning goals.
Q: From Software Engineering to Growth to Product Management, you’ve managed to intern at various companies in diverse roles before graduating college. What was the most helpful in your internship search?
You're right, I've been very fortunate with the opportunities presented in front of me.
There's this theory that I follow when choosing a job: Climbing the Wrong Hill. To paraphrase:
Imagine you're dropped on a hilly terrain, which represents the spectrum of career opportunities. Your goal is to hit your absolute maxima (money, power, work-life balance, success to you). What feels most natural is to climb your relative maxima (the highest slope). You'll feel like you're improving and are always moving higher.
In reality, sometimes the closest place you can grow fast will not be the best long-term growth opportunity. If you’re honest about growth opportunities, you can set yourself up for greater long-term success than many of your peers. As long as you're honest with yourself about likes/dislikes, you'll understand yourself at an incredibly accelerated rate.
I've tried to follow a similar philosophy with my internships. Though I've stayed in tech, I've worked at companies as small as a five-person startup to companies that have over 100,000 employees and in different roles.
Q: Could you explain what you set out to learn from each internship and what you ended up learning from each experience?
One of the things I do before every internship is sit in front of a blank journal for an hour and ask myself – what do you want to learn over the next three months. Then, I re-read this at the midway point and reflect upon it once I'm finished.
It's impossible to plan for everything, but as a new grad, it's imperative that you take control of your learning and explicitly seek out specific experiences.
Working at Timber was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. After my summer at MicroStrategy, I was hoping to move to a smaller company. I reached out to Zach Sherman, a recent alum from Vanderbilt, and spoke to him and his co-founder. I left each conversation more excited than before and was optimistic about the problem they were trying to solving.
Here, I worked with incredible engineers, where I wore many hats and did work from software engineering to marketing/growth and everything in between. I wanted to learn what it was like working at a small, but rapidly growing startup.
What I discovered is that I don’t yet feel comfortable as the sole owner of projects in which I have zero experience. After this experience, I realized some of the fundamental frameworks and workflows that other members of the team had were developed with help from mentors. At my next role, I wanted to look for those formal mentorship opportunities.
At Tesla, I worked on a new, but quickly growing team. It was an exciting challenge because our team was under-resourced. This was also my first product management internship.
Going into Tesla, I wanted to learn the frameworks and workflows I realized I was missing at Timber. While I did have mentorship that helped me learn a lot about how to think about product within a problem-solving context, the work my team was doing wasn’t anything I was particularly passionate about.
After 3 months on the job, I felt like I had learned a lot about how to think about products, how to work within a mature organization, and had worked with a group of incredible people. I had two weeks before I moved to Seattle to start my Microsoft internship.
After my experience at Tesla, I was excited to see some of the processes and experience at one of the most important companies in technology —a company where 100,000 users is considered small.
I worked on Microsoft Edge, which I was relatively unfamiliar with before the internship. During my time, I did my best to meet as many people as possible, and ended up meeting dozens of incredible engineers and PMs. I found that my peers are Microsoft were incredibly thoughtful. Before responding a question, they would fully think through a solution and the implications of doing so.
What consistently amazed me at Microsoft were the resources they had available to juniors. It felt like the company could take in untrained new-grads and transform them into effective PMs in a few years.
Q: How do these intern experiences add up and translate into your long-term career trajectory after college?
Though I look back at Timber extremely positively, I’ll likely return to a larger company after graduating because of the opportunity for mentorship and the ability to learn the best practices. Much of this is to the chagrin of high-school me, who was always more interested in working at a startup.
I found that working at a big company, you have access to Senior PMs, who would take the time to mentor you.
Here, it’s expected to ask questions like:
- What would you do in this situation?
- What am I likely to miss?
In a few years, I hope to move back to smaller companies, but I want to “learn the ropes” before doing so.
Q: Do you have any advice on how to make the most out of internship experiences?
- Explicitly write down what you want to learn
Before any important period in my life, I spend an hour in front of a piece of paper and force myself to outline what I want to gain from it.
- Keep an open mind
You may not be working on exactly what you expected, but internships are temporary so take every experience and run with it, trying to learn everything that you can.
- Internalize that you aren’t perfect—all feedback is good feedback
When I start any internship, I go to my manager / mentor and tell them: “I don’t take negative feedback personally. I’m trying to grow as quickly as possible; please don’t hold anything back.”
Ask for negative feedback from your peers and superiors often. If you’re like me, you’ll find that they notice things you never thought of, and will grow rapidly if you take some of it to heart.
- Network and hustle
Good companies are filled with incredibly smart, hard-working people. Go out of your way to get coffee with some and soak in their knowledge. Having an internal email and being an intern, most are happy to take 20 minutes out of their day to mentor you.
You’ll be surprised by the people that respond to you -- I reached out to the Technical Advisor to the CEO of Microsoft, who I followed on Twitter, and he was happy to let me pick his brain for half an hour.
Q: What is your favorite product and why?
You can see a mock interview from Stephen and I where I spoke about my favorite product – Slack.
That's a wrap! Thank you so much for reading.