Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) shares advice for folks from a non-PM background looking to break into PM roles.
As an international student from India with a prior background as a management consultant, I was unprepared to deal with the recruiting market in the US. Previously, recruiting was more predictable in the sense that if you worked hard and networked well, you would organically be able to craft pathways for yourself. However, in a current climate that is ridden with unpredictability, hiring freezes, and an oversupply of tenured and recently laid-off PM talent, it pays to have a nuanced and deliberate recruiting strategy. Especially as students making sectoral, geographical, and functional jumps. Over time, with the help of CPD, ECs, my peers, friends in the market, and some of my research, I have collected the pointers below that I think will be helpful in figuring out when to apply, who to apply to, and how to best position yourself.
Curating a list of companies – Adopt a macro-to-micro approach
In a job-constrained market, people say that ‘volume is key’ and it is important to ‘cast a wide net’. While it is important to be open in a job-constrained market and relax some of your criteria, I found that casting a wide net was often a sign of being unclear about what you want and what value you can drive for the employer. Take me as an example – I upgraded to LinkedIn premium, switched on LinkedIn alerts, and applied to 150+ companies over a period of two months. On LinkedIn, I got zero hits. I found this endeavor to be a massive time sink because, in mature markets like the US, relevant work experience trumps previous marquee employers and fancy degrees, even if it is an MBA from HBS. Employers will only shortlist you if they believe you have value to add and therefore it is important to approach employers in areas of your interest that intersect with your capabilities.
Oftentimes, coaches will recommend using databases like Pitchbook and Crunchbase to filter out companies to apply to. However, if you are someone with varied interests or have been a generalist without sectoral alignment (as is often the case with consultants and bankers), you will find Pitchbook to be pretty overwhelming. When I entered ‘digital health’ and ‘future of work’ as potential sectors, ‘Series C and D’ for the company stage, and funding rounds in the past 12 months in the greater NY region, Pitchbook served me a list of 13,000+ companies that I could not humanly parse through.
Instead, my recommendation is to adopt a two-pronged macro-to-micro approach. At the macro level, put down the sectors you are interested in (e.g., retail) and the functions/skills that you are looking to gain more exposure to (e..g, monetization, fulfillment). Then go micro. Speak to second-year students and your friends in neighboring schools to quickly curate a list of employers that either came to HBS in the past 1-2 years or folks who are currently hiring. Match that list to the macro interests you laid out in order to create a short list I call ‘low-hanging fruit’. Then add on companies that come highly recommended by your peers and professors (Jeff Bussgang is an HBS professor who annually puts out a list of up-and-coming startups on his LinkedIn page). Finally, add on top the companies that you have always wanted to work for that define your aspiration.
Landing an interview – Rapidity and Referrals
There are two ways to really stand out in the application process – one is to go incredibly fast, and the second is to go via referrals. It is not, funnily enough, your resume. If you are like me, you would probably spend days perfecting your resume. The honest truth is that most of the time resumes are never read by a human. Especially for large companies, resume reading solutions scan resumes and pick out top candidates based on keyword matching. This is gameable and can strip you of your unique advantage. Instead, build a ‘scannable’ resume with the right keywords (e.g., product roadmap, KPI design, data analyses, etc.) and then focus on sending the resume out to the companies on your shortlist. I cannot overstate the importance of getting in early. Some of the best PM offers that went to the current first-year batch at HBS went to folks who started applying in August and September of RC year. Hiring is painful for employers. Employers also recognize that job readiness comes largely from being on the job and therefore look only for intrinsics in the interview process. No tech company will hold out for HBS students if they see a qualified enterprising candidate from another school early on in the journey. It is also important to note that employers in the US don’t really have quotas by school so they fill up the positions based on the first set of applicants who seem qualified. In that sense, being at HBS tends to put applicants at a natural disadvantage as our semester runs a little late and the academic pressures here end up reducing the degree of work we put into recruiting. While school is about a lot more than getting the perfect summer job, it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that employers are not as discerning between schools as they once used to be.
The second way to stand out is to go via referrals. There are levels of referrals in some companies where the person referring you is asked to rate or classify you, so the better the referral, the higher the likelihood of getting shortlisted. Having said that, any referral is good, and don’t slow down your application process at the expense of getting a better referral. Both sending in-mails and cold messages to people on LinkedIn and finding second-degree connections in target companies through your network are good strategies to get referrals in.
Preparing for an interview – Build intuition
This part of the process is the most straightforward and most in control for any applicant. The randomness and variability that impact all other elements of the job search start to fade once you land an interview call. Use CPD extensively for HR and behavioral interviews. For technical cases, Xponent, along with a few books, is more than sufficient. The only added advice I would give here is to not treat PM case interviews as consulting interviews.
When I started interview prep, I was told not to worry given my background in consulting and exposure to extensive case prep. While case prep is definitely helpful in the sense that you can quickly size TAMs and build a structure around ambiguous problem statements, PMs are fundamentally tested on different skills. A consultant is typically a generalist – they are not expected to have tons of industry depth and therefore, it is important for them to be structured and MECE such that they don’t miss anything important. PMs however are not supposed to be generalists. They are supposed to have intuition and judgment about the answer. Therefore their interviews are more blue-sky, idea-generation-heavy, prioritization-heavy, and intuition-focused. My advice would be to consistently build intuition by reading up as much as possible on different companies, going through different UI/UXs of apps on your phones, and practicing a few cases on the side.
Identifying if the role is right for you – Visualize the job
Unlike investing, consulting, and banking, where post-MBA roles are well-defined and predictable, product management jobs are much murkier. Their scope and relevance have expanded tremendously in the past few years. Every second company has product managers now, be it J&J, where the product is a physical household item; Lyra, where the product is remote therapy; or even McKinsey & Company, where the product is a software tool sitting in the digital transformation division. The conventional wisdom has been that PM jobs in tech companies (e.g., Apple, Microsoft, Facebook) are more ‘techy’ and therefore offer higher quality exposure than those in tech-driven companies (e.g., Uber), tech-enabled companies (e.g., e-commerce marketplaces), or non-tech companies such as McKinsey. However, the reality is that all companies now need to be tech-enabled in order to stay competitive and the distinctions between traditional tech and non-tech spheres are increasingly blurring. One could even argue that with the proliferation of chatGPT, no-code tools, and commoditization of marketplace models, tech-enabled business transformation is perhaps more exciting. In any case, the framework that I found most helpful in identifying the right PM roles to apply for is two-fold:
- Identify where the action is and how far the role is from that spot. Think of drawing concentric circles radiating outwards from the spot of action and see which kernel you fall on. This helps you understand how crucial you are to the success of the company. On the Apple Watch team, for instance, idea generation for both product strategy and product performance enhancement is done largely by engineers and the in-house doctors. A company like Verkada (a cybersecurity company) which houses a great hardware and software product team is currently looking to double down on international sales of its existing product line-up for the next three to four years. The way to do this is to speak to the interviewers about the six to nine month strategy, go through the 10k filing/earnings calls, and get feedback from current and ex-employees and interns.
- Visualize the job. This helps identify if the role really is a PM role or if product strategy and project management roles are masquerading as PM roles. Interestingly in companies like Palantir (they build software for B2B clients), the consultant deployed at the client site has an amazingly enterprising role like that of a product manager, even though they don’t hold the title. Exposure sits in many hidden places and it is our job to find it. The way to make sure you get a sound grasp of the job is to ask the interviewer questions about the day-to-day, get a sense of the projects you could be working on, and understand what projects previous interns completed.
Finally, I would say that the product manager job-hunt process is a lot less structured and more individualized relative to other fields. It is also for that same reason, incredibly educational and informative. Start early, be thoughtful, and you will be fine!
Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) is from New Delhi, India. She did her bachelor’s in Economics from Delhi University. She then spent 3 years at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant and then as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence responsible for setting up new businesses for a mid-stage tech venture, UrbanCompany. She loves to dance and watch Korean dramas.