Acceptance Criteria: from MBA to product manager

(Originally published on Medium on November 30, 2017)

TL;DR: I got here mostly by accident, but you don’t have to. Read top to bottom for the narrative backstory. To cut to the actionable advice, scroll to the end.

Over the last year and especially over the last week getting involved as a host for a MIT Sloan January internship program in product management, I’ve had a number of MBA students in the Boston area reach out to me to ask about my career backstory and my post-B-school experience in product.

While I love helping people, I tend toward introversion, hate scheduling and am very frugal when it comes to giving people my time. Luckily, whenever anyone reaches out to me asking to talk about business school and the application process, I offer them links of blog posts I wrote when I was a student and tell them, “Read these posts and if you have any further questions, we can set up a call.” I still end up speaking to a few people on the phone, but in most cases, the posts give people what they need — or they’re too scared to ask for the follow-up.

I haven’t had the same point of reference I could offer with regard to Product Management, so I’ve spent many hours talking to people on the phone or in person about how I got to where I am and what I’ve learned being a PM. Instead of continuing to tell people the exact same story and advice, I’m documenting it.

For the next MBA who wants to know about my life in product (so far!), I hope you’ll find starting here helpful. If this proves useful to you, when we speak, we can get to a more nuanced conversation of why you want to be a product manager and where I can help you. For anyone reading this who doesn’t have a MBA, you can do all of this, too and you’re likely saving a lot of money in the process.

Just remember : I’ve only been a full-time PM since July 2016. Take my “one woman’s perspective” as you will and for whatever it’s worth as I write this in November 2017.

How I ended up in business school to begin with

I graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature, which didn’t make me eminently employable, but I got one of the few jobs where my skills in writing and foreign languages could be useful. I clocked in two years a Research Associate at Harvard Business School for a professor whose focus was business in China and spent the time writing case studies for the HBS MBA program and helping my professor run his spring course, ‘Doing Business in China in the 21st Century.’

I’d planned on getting my MBA since I decided on a humanities degree in college, and working at HBS reinforced that I wanted to be the person on the other side of the classroom —the one reading and discussing the cases with her peers, not the one writing them. That said, I didn’t have a real reason for wanting to earn the degree until, a year into working at HBS, I started an allergy-free food business in Cambridge. I decided to apply to MBA programs that cared about entrepreneurship and hoped to learn the skills that would help me turn my little, crowdfunding-backed baking startup into a health and wellness empire. Somehow, I convinced MIT that I was a horse worth betting on and got into Sloan.

My internship recruiting scramble

I applied to Sloan with the pitch of growing my business, but by the time I got to school, I moved a little bit away from the startup hustle: I decided that in order to really understand how to build a brand and scale in the food and broader consumer goods industry, the best use of my time would be to seek out a summer internship at a food giant and soak up best practices from one of the big guys instead of learning strictly on the fly (and stumbling a lot). Unlike Kellogg, Sloan isn’t exactly known as a recruiting hub for retail or CPG (consumer packed goods), so my search for internships in Brand Management was a struggle. Companies have their feeder schools for interns and the odds are low of getting to be the one intern who comes from a non-feeder school. After hundreds of companies refused to give me the time of day, I managed to get into talks with Pepsi, far along into interviews with Nestle, L’Oreal, and Ocean Spray, and eventually received an offer for Brand Management with Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG).

Since I’m writing this in Boston, not Plano, it’s clear I didn’t end up at selling soda or Snapple. The day I flew down to Texas do final-round interviews at DPSG, I also got an offer from Sephora out in California. The Sephora offer surprised many of my classmates — I’m not especially appearance-conscious, I don’t wear much makeup, I’m generally closeted about my love of the beauty industry. As much as it surprised them, it surprised me even more: How did I end up in a tech job?

The fortuitous fall into Product

That summer, Sephora had 8 open roles for a MBA internship program that no longer exists. The job I got at Sephora was not for Brand Management or International Strategy, the roles to which I’d initially applied, but for Product Management, which a girl from Sloan had done the previous summer. I have to believe she paved the way for me to get my foot in the door — I had a passion for beauty, and a willingness to work hard, for sure, but no applicable experience. I was relying on MIT’s brand to lend me any credibility in technology. Something worked.

Even with the good karma, I still don’t know how I got this job — I made a huge gaffe as I began my interview with my would-be manager talking about a completely different position than the one I was actually interviewing for. “I thought this was the Product interview for Payments?” “No, this is the one for Store Digital.” “Oh, okay. I’m sorry about that. Can you tell me more about this role?” If I were in her shoes, I’m not sure I’d have been as forgiving to me as Andrea was, but at this point, I don’t question it anymore. I had a lot of fun working on her team that summer.

So that was how I first got into Product: because I wanted to be a brand manager but didn’t want to sell soda, because someone from my school paved the way for me by doing a good job the previous summer at a company I liked, and because my manager else took a chance on me.

When I asked my manager at Sephora about it later, she said she believed that I might actually like Product or at least be smart enough to figure it out. She also said that she didn’t like anyone else she talked to on her applicant list and her two top picks signed offers at other companies. (If I had to guess, those other company were willing to pay their interns a better salary. My Sephora summer paycheck went nowhere in San Francisco. To make things work, I lived in a bunkbed for three months in an Airbnb “Hacker House”: in reality, a condo loft meant for two people that I was sharing with five other people).

Finding the full-time product job

I came out of my summer at Sephora with a new focus: after graduation, I wanted to do a job in e-commerce product management at a retailer or a brand. (In the span of one year, I’ve gone from wanting to graduate from b-school as a food business founder, as a consumer goods brand manager, and now as a tech product manager).

Unfortunately, my ten weeks in product at Sephora wasn’t enough for any companies to take a second look at my resume. I considered going back to Sephora, but would have had to wait until the spring before I’d be able to apply to an open positions (unless I wanted to apply in September and drop out of school to start working in October). I also considered working at a startup, but knowing they tend to hire ad hoc, I’d have had to wait until April or May to start applying and interviewing.

Business school makes you forget that the real world of job hunting does not obey an academic calendar and spoil you with luxuries like on-campus recruiting where jobs literally come to you. Business school also makes waiting until the spring to find work — as all your friends sign full-time offers with fat bonuses with the companies they worked for over the summer —inordinately stressful. It’s hard to tune out the noise and feel at ease about your employment situation when you’re surrounded by hordes of people who have their near-term post-graduation s*** together (even if some crazy high percentage of MBAs leave their post-graduation jobs after just one year). I wish I could say I had the courage and conviction to hold out and not take the first thing that fell in my lap, but the truth is I took the first thing that fell in my lap, even though I knew it was probably wrong for me on a number of counts.

That first thing that fell in my lap was a job at Wayfair that I gleaned through the on-campus recruiting cycle in Fall 2015. It was the only company that came on campus for Product that humored me into a final round. Amazon memorably side-eyed me out of the room.

I got the offer from Wayfair in November and it would expire in January. Nothing about the salary or benefits were competitive, especially for product and especially for me, since they brought me in at a lower level, salary, and title than every other MBA who received an offer from my school (which was immensely frustrating during my time at Wayfair).

With the holiday season approaching, it was impossible for me to drum up another offer from a company that was more interesting to me — or even just to counter — before January. I wanted the security of having an offer in my pocket and knowing what I was doing when I threw my cap up in the air at Commencement in June.

I had connected with my future manager at a recruiting event and he was also my last interviewer in my on-site final rounds. He promised me I’d learn everything I said I wanted to learn on the job, and he said it was okay if I hated furniture.

In the end, no other company had given me the time of day, so the promise of learning, and the comfort of staying in Boston a little longer made the offer appealing enough for me to take it. Believing that no one else would want to take a chance on me, I figured this offer was the best I could do for now. At the time, it probably was.

Taking what I got— and making it work

Wayfair was rough in a lot of ways that I can’t write about but am happy to talk about offline. My year at Wayfair also coincided with a lot of rough stuff in my personal life, which didn’t make work feel any more manageable. I’m still thankful for getting the project of a lifetime in Perigold and for the friends I made while working there.

While it was exceptionally demanding and left me no room for having a personal life, Wayfair’s aggressive pace meant I worked on years’ worth of projects in 11 months, arming me with enough experiences to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” when it comes to product.

I learned how to do the “meat and potatoes” pieces of Product: writing stories, planning a sprint, running a retrospective. I learned the “soft skills” pieces of the job: talking to tons of stakeholders, figuring out what they care about, and aligning them toward a common goal. I began to understand all the jokes about designers and engineers and product managers and why they don’t always get along.

In terms of having a complete Product skill set, I could be better-rounded: I’m not a data analysis junkie and I don’t have much experience doing customer interviews. Becoming more technical is a constant quest — working in software, a lot of the architecture discussions go over my head. I don’t know how you get better at product “visioning.” I’d like to improve at everything I just mentioned, but for now, I’m confident in my abilities of execution, which is arguably the most important thing a product manager can do — actually GSD. The rest will come with more experience in more companies.

Even though I only ended up interviewing at Hybris, where I work now, had I gone through a more comprehensive job search, if given an interview, I have to believe that I could convince companies who wouldn’t ever consider me a year ago that I can now do this job in product.

Grains of wisdom: things I wish I’d known then and what I know now

  1. The responsibilities and scope of work for a product manager differ from company to company and can even change month to month as a company grows and scales (this was definitely true for me at Wayfair). From a development perspective, as well, there’s no single approach: whether you’re in hardware or software, agile or waterfall, B2B or B2C, the demands of the PM role change. When looking at product jobs, it’s critical to understand what Product Management means at the company and where PMs fit into the development process and the overall business.
  2. Any MBAs who go into product thinking they’re going to be doing something sexy and were marketed the line of “As a Product Manager, you get to be the CEO of the Product!” has a lot of unsexiness ahead — and more meetings on their calendars than anyone should ever have to attend.
  3. If your background is unconventional but you really want to be in product (or any other career for that matter), first figure out a way to spin up your background and story so that it sounds more “product-y.” Did you plan a 6-month strategy for something in your previous role? Call it a “roadmap” on your resume. Work a lot with customers? Speak to your experiences understanding their wants and prioritizing their needs.
  4. Once you’ve got your Product story straight, your best bet is increasing your odds of finding someone who will take a chance on you. It could be through a networking event in real life or cold on Linkedin (incidentally, how my current manager recruited me). Tech communities — no surprise — are heavily connected and even if you talk to someone who can’t help you, they might know someone who can and would be willing to make an introduction for you.
  5. School isn’t always the answer — There’s no question my degree made me look good, but in the end, I’d say the MIT part of my graduate degree ended up being more marketable than the Sloan or MBA part. No one looks at me the way they did when I was interviewing for jobs after college and I said my degree was in Comparative Literature. That was always the plan — to get out from the shadow of being the literature student who still needed credibility to handle the business stuff. But you don’t need your MBA or other remedial courses to become a product manager. They can help you skip a few steps here and there, but nothing helps you become a product manager like getting your foot in the door and getting that first job in product.

Newsletters and Resources I find useful (somewhat Boston-centric)

  1. AmericanInno: I subscribe to the Boston edition of this Newsletter, BostInno, and get their daily updates of what’s going on in the local tech community.
  2. Silicon Valley Product Group (SPVG): Marty Cagan is the man, and the blog has some of the best free advice on the internet.
  3. Entering StartupLand: this was written by Jeff Bussgang, a VC at Flybridge Capital Partners. I know Jeff because he teaches second year MBAs during the spring at HBS. I cross-registered for his course “Launching Tech Ventures” in 2016 and being the odd kid out as a Sloanie in a swarm of Harvard MBAs in his class was worth it. This book effectively breaks down the key roles at a technology startup and helps you understand what you’re getting yourself into, whether you’ve signed on in product management, business development, or something else
  4. VentureFizz — similar to AmericanInno, run by Keith Cline, this site features stories on what’s happening in tech in the Boston metro area, interviews of local tech leaders, and a robust job board with solid company profiles and office tours of established as well as up-and-coming tech companies in Boston.
  5. Tech Ladies — obviously targeted towards those who identify as female, this is also more of a job board for engineering, UX, and Product, but a good way of scoping out opportunities in tech hubs like NYC, Boston, and SF.

Like reading this? Clap or comment below, follow me here on Medium, or subscribe for updates.