When I started recruiting for summer internships, I often felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.
Laura Gao’s guide, Recruiting in Tech for Non-Technical Students, was very helpful in making me feel more comfortable recruiting for tech. I recently had the chance to answer some questions for an underclassman at Penn thinking about recruiting for product management. Here are their questions and my answers, in the hopes that they will help you feel more prepared and less overwhelmed about recruiting for product management at Penn.
I recruited for product management internships as a junior from January to March of 2020. When I started recruiting in January, I was overwhelmed by everything I needed to do to recruit. My resume was okay - largely thanks to my freshman year writing seminar - but I didn’t understand how to put together a cover letter, and I didn’t know how to customize a cover letter for a particular industry or position.
A few months ago, an underclassman at Penn wrote to me about recruiting for product management. The answers I wrote to their questions may be useful to other Penn students too, so I have written them here. Ideally, this post will help you get a better idea of what your experience will look like if you recruit for product management and help make you feel less overwhelmed by this process.
I strongly recommend that you also read Laura Gao’s guide to Recruiting in Tech for Non-Technical Students. Her guide is a more complete collection of information, advice, and resources for non-technical students interesed in recruiting for tech.
As you read, please keep in mind that the following is a reflection of my personal experience recruiting in the spring of my junior year, right before COVID-19 started impacting internship programs in the United States. I avoided recruiting in the fall, and I am an undergraduate student at Wharton majoring in statistics with a minor in computer science.
Questions and Answers
Are the number of open roles more limited for nontechnical PMs?
From online research and talking to people, it seems to me that all PMs don’t need a technical / CIS background. For non-technical PMs (who don’t plan on getting super involved in the code and development behind products), are the number of open roles generally more limited?
Naturally, having a non-technical background will limit the number of product management roles available to you. However, there are many product management positions that require fluency with software engineering or data science tools and jargon (like Agile development, machine learning, or APIs) but don’t require you to have technical skills. The role of a product manager varies significantly by company. In some companies I applied to, PMs have a strong design focus and work closely with UI/UX researchers and front-end developers. In other companies, PMs have a strong focus on generating insights from data analytics and quantitative research. For some, PMs handle more strategic decision-making and customer-facing work closer to marketing and sales. There are plenty of open roles, and you can pick and choose the companies and positions that complement your strengths or could help you improve on your weaknesses or gaps in your resume.
How do interviews for PM roles compare to SWE roles in terms of technical depth?
All but one of the interviews I had were for small and medium-sized companies, and none of them had technical questions in the style of a SWE interview. I had to do some design challenges, answer a lot of behavioral questions about working in teams or in a cross-functional role, and I had to answer questions about product and company strategy (marketing and management type material).
How helpful is connecting with recruiters on LinkedIn and talking to them before applying?
I don’t know. I didn’t try it, but the recruiters I’ve spoken with have all been friendly and very helpful. If you ever have trouble with an application, they’ll be happy to help you out.
Is it helpful to talk to recent Penn grads working at companies you’re interested in?
For example, during recruiting for consulting roles it’s usually useful to talk to recent Penn grads at the company you’re interested in since they read resumes and are involved in the recruiting process - is it similar for tech companies?
I don’t know whether Penn grads are involved in the recruiting process for tech companies. I’ve heard that a recommendation from a Penn grad can get you an interview, but I have no personal experience with that and I cannot confirm that that is accurate. I would strongly recommend reaching out to recent Penn grads to get a better idea of what the role is that you’re applying for. Some companies offer reference bonuses if an employee refers an applicant who becomes a full-time hire, so Penn grads may be incentivized to meet you and refer you to the company.
Like I wrote before, the role of a product manager differs strongly by company. Use your network to understand what it is that you’re applying for and what that company looks for in its product managers. And, beyond that, using your network is always useful to understand the company culture, whether you’d like to work there, and whether you’d be a good fit!
Are there any resources like interview prep guides or company notes that you recommend?
For example, I’ve heard Cracking the Coding Interview is a good resource, but I don’t know of any PM specific resources.
Yes. I used Laura Gao’s non-tech recruiting guide and I read “Decode and Conquer: Answers to Product Management Interviews” by Lewis Lin. Those were useful for interview prep and overall building my familiarity with the interview process. However, a prerequisite to interviewing is having the appropriate background to interview. I think my work experience as a TA, a research assistant, and an intern made me a more competitive applicant when I recruited in the spring. This is an awesome example of something you could put on a resume or portfolio when applying for more design-oriented PM positions or UI/UX designer positions.
Interviewing is also great prep for interviewing! Laura writes about this in her nontech recruiting guide that I linked above: you should always try to schedule your interviews such that you interview last for the companies you are most interested in. That allows you to practice with real behavioral and technical interview questions with the companies or positions you are less invested in. Personally, I also think this adds value by exposing you to a variety of different companies, definitions of product management, and company cultures, which will help you make a better decision about which offer to accept.
Finally, Career Services has some genuinely useful advice, especially regarding how to prepare for an interview. I find their in-person events to move at a slow pace, so I prefer to prep on my own with their online material. These are some notes that I copied over from one of the Career Services prep guides, and they were really useful in helping me structure my approach to writing cover letters. Recruiting can be stressful and overwhelming, especially at first. Finding structure and approaching the task with a learning mindset helped me stay calm and pick up the pace quickly.
I recommend OIDD 245 for data visualization skills in Tableau and an overall introduction to the idea of analytics-driven decision-making. I recommend OIDD 415 for learning the structure of product design in practice (identifying customer needs, developing prototypes, iteration, etc), although it is a non-technical class. I recommend MKTG 101, MGMT 101, and MGMT 230 for learning about how to think strategically about products, companies, and industries. If you have an internship, definitely also take that opportunity to think about how your company or its products are under-performing and out-performing their competitors! I do not recommend OIDD 314 for PMs; it has more of an entrepreneurial and venture capital focus. For an extracurricular experience, I recommend PennLabs. I recommend any design-, business-, or software-related activity where you work with a small, cross-functional team.
Timeline-wise, I only recruited in the spring and I found more than enough positions to keep me busy applying throughout the spring. Large companies (Google, Facebook, etc) recruit in the fall, but many start-ups and small and medium-sized companies start their interviewing in the spring. I started recruiting in the spring because I thought only large companies interviewed in the fall, and I didn’t want to work for a large social media company. However, if I were to do it again I would start in the fall anyway. I would have had more time to spread out my recruiting, more opportunities to interview, and more time to become a better applicant.
Should I use Handshake to apply for jobs or apply directly to company job sites?
I used Handshake for the past recruitment cycle, I often noticed that it had delayed responses from recruiters and sometimes didn’t submit applications directly to the company site. I was wondering if I should use a job listing type platform to hear about PM roles in small/medium size companies or keep an eye on their individual company careers page.
I found Handshake useful for finding positions, but whenever possible I submitted my applications directly to the company’s Careers or Jobs portal. I do not know how Handshake communicates with employers or whether employers regularly check Handshake, so I prefer to apply directly. As for small and medium-sized companies, it would be difficult to find and regularly monitor their sites for full-time or internship positions. Instead, I find that many post their positions on city-specific ‘Built In’ sites (like Built In Chicago, Built In NYC, etc) or on sites with large reach, like LinkedIn’s Jobs page or Glassdoor. Sometimes a simple Google search for some keywords can bring up a lot of positions that seem to not pop up on the larger sites.
I hope these questions and answers gave you some useful context and information about recruiting for product management at Penn. If this was useful to you, I strongly recommend that you read Laura Gao’s guide to Recruiting in Tech for Non-Technical Students. Her guide is a more complete collection of information, advice, and resources for non-technical students interested in recruiting for tech.
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