I recently had a conversation with a team member who is hiring product managers for their team. Since they’re a first-time hiring manager, we sat down to discuss what I look for in product manager resumes, and why. I wanted to share some of these ideas in the hopes that they’ll be helpful for others who are building PM teams.
What I Look For
The two primary dimensions that I look for in product manager resumes are Relevance and Quality.
- Relevance means experience that is relevant for the job of being a PM
- Quality means a track record of excellence
When I screen resumes, I’m looking for indications of both of these traits. I don’t need proof – proof comes from interviews, references, and ultimately performance on the job. If I’m satisfied that I’ve seen a sufficient amount of both for a particular role, we’ll reach out to candidates and begin the hiring process.
I look for Relevance because the PM role varies widely across companies – there are many people with the title Product Manager whose experience is completely irrelevant to our team. For us, product management is a role that aims to set and hit business goals using our technology. The core PM job is devising and executing on a roadmap for the area of our product that you own. That means that our PMs are primarily builders / technologists, and are trusted to be strategic decision-makers (as opposed to project managers or a translation layer between engineering and “the business”).
In broad strokes, I generally see 3 types of product management roles, not all of which are actually relevant to the work that we do:
- The product management model that we prefer (technologists who devise & execute on product roadmaps) is common at companies that build and sell software. These companies range from very large (Google, Amazon) to tiny startups. At these companies, PMs are strategic counterparts to engineering and design teams, and guide the roadmap for products they own. The closer a company’s business model is to building and selling software, the better the fit.
- A distant second choice is an internal product management function. Many companies such as large banks employ product managers to build internal applications for their employees. This is an important job, but it’s quite different from what we need because the customers that these product managers are building for can’t say no or go elsewhere.
- Lastly, there are product managers who don’t have ownership over products that they build. Many of these PMs exist to take requirements from a single paying client and translate them into requirements for an engineering team. Others are consultants who are mercenaries with respect to their products; their companies are ultimately selling people’s time, not technology, and the product manager is just a fancy form of that product. Yet others are glorified project managers. These profiles are a bad fit for our team and typically don’t meet the relevance test.
When reviewing resumes, I’ll look for evidence that had roles inline with the first category above when seeking an experienced hire.
Note that there are several types of experiences that simulate the long-term product ownership that we care about without actually having the PM title – the most common are being the founder of a tech company or an early engineer / designer. Our relevancy requirements are also much lower for junior roles (eg Associate PMs) than for senior ones.
Once I know that a candidate has the right level of relevant experience for the job, I look for at least one clear sign of Quality – evidence that the candidate will be excellent in a very general sense. The job of a PM is varied; it’s hard to forecast precisely what PMs will work on. As a result, it’s critical that PMs can get hard stuff done in general, as I know that we’ll throw undetermined hard problems at them in the future.
At the resume review stage, I look for positive signals that candidates are capable of notably valuable output, and I’m open to many ways that a candidate can demonstrate excellence. There are three main signs of quality that I look for: trajectory, intensity, and brand.
One of my favorite signals of high-quality candidates is a fast growth trajectory. Being rapidly promoted into positions of increasingly higher impact and responsibility is a strong indicator that someone was trusted and valued at other organizations. There are exceptions here but the signal of notably fast career growth is usually sufficiently positive for a candidate to pass a resume screen.
Leadership through growth is an additional bonus. If a startup grows fast, you need to improve quickly just to keep your seat at the table. I usually weigh startup experience by both the strength of the company and the strategic value of someone’s role. So I might view being the founding CEO of a company that got acquired at 8 people as roughly equivalent to someone who was a VP Product at a 30 person startup or someone who was a senior PM at a company that grew from 50 to 300 people.
Role transfers are another positive indicator – if you switched from Role A to a new Role B that you didn’t have experience with on paper, that usually means that the leaders of Department B thought you had a lot of raw talent.
Some jobs or activities are just harder than others. Startups are an endurance sport and the ability to work hard in a sustainable way over a long period of time is precious. Indicators of intensity include:
- Building a real company (ie actually starting it, trying to hit product/market fit, and hustling – not doing something on the side while in school so that you can put Startup Founder on LinkedIn). This includes everything from “traditional” venture-backed tech startups to furniture stores or food trucks
- Helping to nurture a startup through hypergrowth. Thriving in these types of high-intensity environments is a great indicator of candidate quality
- The military
- Working second jobs / needing to work second jobs while employed or in school
- Being a full or part-time caretaker
- Excellence at hobbies that require work or dedication – being the best hobbyist welder, being an international origami star, climbing Mt. Everest
- Working in an industry known to be challenging or fairly intense (consulting, investment banking
- Athletics at a high level – inline with the stereotype, great athletes can almost all work hard, and I say that as someone who is about as athletic as a newborn giraffe myself
Home video of me at my 3rd grade gym class
I also like college or grad school majors that are known to be challenging – something like engineering, physics, applied math, computer science. Architecture particularly fits the bill here as it’s typically an especially grueling course of study. This is especially valuable when you studied at a college that is known to be challenging and not just a place to perfect your beer pong shot.
If all else fails, for better or worse brand-related resume signals can have value.
There are a variety of technology companies that are known to have strong product management functions – coming from one of those programs is undoubtedly a plus. Taking a step back, working at the top company in an industry or being at the top of a given profession are both positive quality signals. If you’re a journalist, better to be at the NYTimes or WSJ than a local newspaper. If you’re in the military, flying F22s is better than being the person who changed truck tires.
The same can be true for academic achievement – for example, getting into IIT is really hard. But I only ever use academic-related signals as a positive indicator rather than a requirement, given how intertwined college admissions and life circumstances can be. That is, I’ll give you points for being top of your class at
insert_fancy_name_here, but I won’t knock candidates for having gone to
other_place_with_less_prestige, or for that matter not having any form of higher education at all.
Finally, there are a few red flags that I worry about during resume screens.
Job hopping every now and then is fine, but I don’t like to see resumes where someone has never worked at a job for a meaningful amount of time. There are innumerable reasons that one might switch a single job after a short amount of time. But if you always switch jobs after 6 months, then I know that whatever the underlying reason is, it’s probably something to do with you.
I also get mildly worried when I see a profile in which someone has worked at a single company for a really long time. For example, if you’ve been at the first company you worked at after college for 15 years, do you really want to leave now? If someone’s background is relevant enough this typically isn’t an issue but I’ll usually flag this for review during interviews.