Not long ago, we’d spend hours a day scanning job boards for new entry-level Associate Product Manager (APM) postings, firing off LinkedIn DMs and referring to our sticky-noted copies of Cracking the PM Interview. Product management is a highly coveted and broadly defined role. When you are on the outside looking in, it can be hard to imagine exactly what you’ll be doing, let alone how to find a company that’s a strong fit for your talents and needs.
Having just gone through the search process, we are now experiencing life on the other side, and we have found that three criteria can define the quality of the experience you will have as an APM: mentorship, responsibility, and variety. By focusing your search on a role that meets these three criteria, you’ll have positioned yourself to learn maximally, drive real impact, and find work that interests you. Here are our tips to evaluate an APM role to help you break into the field.
Mentorship: Find teams that’ll lift you up
As an APM, your time in product management is just beginning and you’ll likely want to optimize for growth. In order to grow, you need to learn. In our view, one of the best ways you can learn is to be surrounded by mentors and a product culture that values your development.
Having guidance from others who are more experienced than you can help you avoid unnecessary pitfalls, build your confidence to take on new challenges, enhance the quality of your work, and provide the support and stability you need to stay afloat when you are struggling. Mentorship does not have to be overly commanding; instead, it can be an opportunity to integrate the informed viewpoints of others as you continue to develop your own. In the end, it accelerates your growth toward becoming a knowledgeable and adept Product Manager (PM).
There are the seemingly obvious indicators of strong mentorship, like formal mentorship “programs” or being slotted to work directly under a high-ranking PM. However, there are more nuanced and helpful indicators of whether or not you will find quality mentorship.
A great place to start is by assessing the experience of your potential mentors. Beyond their job title or the past companies they’ve worked for, it is important to understand what these people have tangibly accomplished. Did they lead the launch of a successful or interesting product? Did they grow or improve an existing product management department? Did they scale an entrepreneurial venture? People who have accomplished work that you admire are great prospects to be mentors.
However, not every team of knowledgeable and experienced PMs is a great fit for mentorship. Two other key factors determine the quality of mentorship opportunities at companies: availability and intention.
Not every great PM has enough time to dedicate to someone else, especially if you are scoping out a role at a scrappy startup. Other PMs might be too busy putting out their own fires to worry about yours. Investigate whether or not PMs at a particular company actually have time to help you: Is the company’s work healthily distributed across a sufficient number of PMs? Does the company deliberately build in time for supporting others? This leads to perhaps the most important indicator for mentorship: intention.
You’ve probably heard the adage, “If something is important to someone, they will make time for it.” This is true of PM team cultures too.
If a PM team has a culture of mutual support, knowledge sharing, and genuine passion for the discipline of product, then this is likely an environment where PMs will be excited to help an APM grow. If the culture is competitive or expects output at hyper speed, then no one will likely care enough to set aside time to help you, and mentorship might look more like “telling you what to do.”
Great mentorship is about genuine care, providing guide rails, and giving the mentee space to learn and grow themselves. So, to assess a PM team’s mentorship culture, look for indicators of product passion and knowledge sharing: company blogs, product podcasts, or internal product documentation. Ask whether they have meetings as a product team to discuss product concepts, whether employees are competitive or collaborative, whether contributions to the internal team are rewarded by management, and whether mentorship is a priority. You want to know if this product team values the growth of its members. The more collaborative, engaged, and genuine the product culture, the better the mentorship.
Responsibility: Own what you do
Along with mentorship, one of the best ways to grow as a PM is to get your hands dirty and work on something that matters, to you, the company, or even the world.
Ownership is the name of the game here. You don’t want to be solving petty problems, nor do you want to simply be thinking about important problems. Instead, you want to be solving important problems. Something special happens when you run a process end-to-end and need to own the results, positive or negative. This is especially true when the results matter. Doing this will help you learn, improve your candidacy for future opportunities, and provide you an opportunity to discover real meaning or interest in the work you are doing.
It’s important to recognize that not all APM roles are defined equally. At some companies, you’ll be taking on a very narrow slice of what product managers actually do. This can be okay if you’re interested in that slice, but be careful. Without fully realizing it, you can become slotted as a QA assistant or data analyst, when really you want to flex your muscles across a broader product spectrum. So read the job description carefully but also go deeper. Ask the recruiter or someone on the product team why they are hiring an APM, or what value they foresee the APM bringing to the organization. You can ask specifically, “What ownership do you foresee the person in this role having?”
If possible, you likely want to be involved in the full scope of what you are working on. Investigate whether you will get to see a full product process from ideation to launch and maintenance, and whether you will work with designers and engineers, interview users, write documentation, and run engineering ops. This certainly will not always be the case, and that’s okay. However, APM roles like this do exist, and it’s always a good rule of thumb to consider how much of the process you will run.
Another important piece to recognize here is that ownership is not always 100%. Sometimes as an APM, you might own a product-process end-to-end, but you share ownership with someone more senior than you. The more senior PM might ultimately call the shots, but, depending on how much autonomy they give you, you can still get excellent experience from a setup like this.
One final thing to consider is that not all products are created equal. For ownership to matter, there are a few questions to ask yourself and your company. What product or part of the product might I work on? How does this product drive real value for the company or for users? Am I personally interested in the product, whether because it’s intellectually exciting, impactful, or a great way to learn? So do your due diligence.
Another great resource to tap into besides recruiters and current PMs are former APMs, whether they are still at the company or not. You can look at their LinkedIn, or reach out to them to discover what they have worked on as an APM. Also, think about how well staffed the company is. If there are many PMs for only one or two primary products, chances are you might not be owning something that is important to the company’s bottom line. However, if there are many important product lines, or if the company isn’t overflowing with PMs, you might get a big chunk of ownership.
At the end of the day, owning something that drives real value and that people care about will teach you so much of what you need to grow as an APM.
Variety: Don’t go chasing monotony
Your first APM role is an opportunity to help identify your current strengths, future areas of opportunity, and long-term career interests. The key to making the most of this experience is variety in the types of projects you work on, disciplines you engage with, and industries you get an authentic insight into. Rotational programs and agencies are a strong place to start, as both are intrinsically structured upon changing the products and industries your work touches. However, variety exists under many guises, and you can seek it out by taking a deeper dive into the company’s suite of products, mission and values, benefits, projects, and culture.
Variety is important for two reasons: getting product experience by soaking up as many insights as you can, and learning what interests you and what doesn’t. The outcome we wanted to drive in our first product position was to learn by exploration, plain and simple.
Being in a role conducive to variety allows you to figure out what makes you tick. You can explore different projects, features, and industries, then establish what you do or don’t care about. You’ll gain valuable self-knowledge, picking up on your strengths and areas of opportunity. Ultimately, gaining that knowledge will allow you to become your own self-advocate and steer your work in the direction you desire, choosing projects and goals that will foster your career growth.
Change and unique opportunities can sometimes be uncomfortable, but throwing your net wide at the beginning of your career will help you sift through the good, not-as-good, and real growth opportunities.
Look for roles that will empower you to explore and try your hand at different things. This could mean joining a company that has strong diversity in its product line and a receptive attitude toward shifting your focus across that product line over time. Or, it could be a culture of autonomy, where you are often able to dive into whatever interests you, bringing value to the company via self-directed exploration. This can include companies that encourage side projects, or scrappier organizations that enable you to choose how your work will deliver value. Moreover, companies that allow APMs to have end-to-end ownership of features will give you experience across the broader product lifecycle.
Another key factor to look for is a dedication to a cross-functional culture. Do PMs remain relatively siloed, or do they interface deeply with engineering, design, business development, and company leadership? The more exposure you can get across the company, the greater your learning will be. Participating in conversations across the company will not only make you a more holistic product manager, but it will also help identify which disciplines (and projects) you’re most interested in.
Go forth and conquer
Making the decision to pursue a career in product management can be intimidating, and assessing which company or organization to join can be even more challenging. However, if you’re discovering signs of strong mentorship, responsibility, and variety, chances are you’re on the right path. Go with your gut. You got this. Give us a shout at Weller.firstname.lastname@example.org and Seth.email@example.com, and we’d be happy to help.
Seth Wernick (he/him) is an Associate Product Manager at Postlight. Weller Hlinomaz (he/him) is an Associate Product Manager at Postlight. Ready to make the move into product management? We’re hiring.