My Journey into Product Management

How a mecha-robot anime led me to becoming a product manager

Andy Zhang
5 min readSep 30, 2020

My journey into tech and product management started with an anime about robots called Gundam Seed. After every high school summer, I indulged myself with a rewatch of the series. I was obsessed with “Coordinators”, an advanced race with the ability to pilot mecha-robots. My obsession eventually led me to join my school’s robotics team as a programmer. I wanted to be a robot programmer.

After a couple of physics courses that explained the impossibilities of mecha-robots and some humbling bugs, I shifted my focus into software engineering.

University of Waterloo opened my eyes to the world of tech

That fall, I started as a freshman at the University of Waterloo’s Software Engineering program. My college was known for its unique co-op program that required students to complete internships as a part of their degree. In my case, we were expected to complete six internships. This meant that students would graduate with two years of work experience across up to six different companies.

I started my stint in the tech industry as a software engineering intern at Facebook. I was lucky enough to land an internship after getting a foot in the door as the Waterloo Facebook Hackathon winner in 2014.

Following Facebook, I continued to work as a software engineer by interning at Google and then Coursera. Throughout these internships, I was exposed to various types of problems. For example, at Facebook, I focused on increasing user engagement with Facebook Pages. At Google, I built an internal tool to analyze Chrome usage dat to understand how Google Chrome was being used which helped inform a redesign. At Coursera, I implemented Android designs for new product called specializations and improved the translation processes.

At the end of the day, something felt missing. I didn’t feel as fulfilled with the work that I was doing. At the end of the day, I got fulfillment by solving user problems.

In freshman year, I always craved pizza but didn’t want to spend money. So I wrote a script to pull all of the campus’ employer info sessions into my calendar so I knew where to get free pizza. To me, eating that free pizza was fulfilling because it meant I had solved the user’s problem i.e. I craved pizza.

How do I get more “free pizza”?

Problem solving through mini side projects was my first step into product. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant to “get into product”. The path towards product felt nebulous. At the time, I thought the closest role to a user was a product designer because it had “product” in the title. My brute force approach to getting into product led me into the world of product design.

I spent most of my leisure time trying to understand product design and exposing myself to it. In my junior year, I designed for Hack the North and interned as an engineer at Figma. Figma was just over 10 people at the time and filled with incredibly smart and interesting people. Closely working with the Figma team was a transformative experience. It taught me how to be a better teammate, how to work with designers, how products are designed and how important culture is.

After Figma, I wrapped up my school’s co-op requirements with a product design internship at Quora and a PM internship at Microsoft. Getting my feet wet with product throughout these internships helped me understand gave me a sense of how designers and PMs fit into a cross-functional tech team. However, since product lifecycles frequently outlast an internship, I merely scratched the tip of the iceberg.

As I ended my six internships, a lingering interest in product pushed me into interview prep for product manager. I was excited about the prospect of solving difficult problems that could improve people’s lives, whether it was through giving people free pizza or helping them get from point A to point B.

Landing a product manager job

Working full-time is daunting. The idea of trying to get a full-time job is daunting. I wanted to be a product manager but it wasn’t clear how I could make the leap into a full-time product management role. I still struggled to answer the question “what does a product manager do?”

My background in software engineering led me to believe that I just needed to find the LeetCode equivalent for PMs. Spoiler alert, there’s no LeetCode equivalent. However, there is a Cracking the Coding book equivalent.

Cracking the PM interview, a book also authored by Gayle Laakmann, is a great book to get started with PM interviews. Its contents reflect the books title: it teaches you what to expect from PM interviews and how to prepare for them.

However, I’ve found that PM interviews feel a lot less predictable than coding interviews. In coding interviews, problems revolve around systems that have deterministic outputs. In PM interviews, there are a lot more unpredictable factors such as people, businesses, competitors, and much more.

In addition, the solution an interviewer looks for is also much broader than a coding interview. In other words, there’s no such thing as a perfect answer in PM interviews.

Exposure is the best way to becoming better at PM interviews

PM interviews are a bit more of an art than a science. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to get away with a hash map equivalent for PMs and call it a wrap.

To improve, one just needs exposure, practice, and feedback. Practice can be done with friends and feedback can be done with self-retrospectives. Exposure is a piece that’s always been difficult to get. The first time I was exposed to how other people approach PM interviews was when I was assisting another interviewer.

After conducting several interviews, I realized that a lot can be learned from observing other people approach interviews. Similar to how you can learn years of experience through a book, it’s possible to learn new ways of thinking from years of problem solving in a matter of minutes.

I recently worked with ProductAlliance to help provide content that can hopefully help people interested in product management become PMs. One thing that makes their course stands out is that they provide an inside scoop into how many veteran PMs approach classic interview problems that most aspiring PMs will face. If you’re an aspiring PM, ProductAlliance will not only provide a structured approach to cracking the PM interview, but it will also upgrade your problem solving toolkit to nail your next PM gig.

Any non-PM experience is valuable as a PM

What makes PM super exciting is that it’s a discipline that involves bringing a unique problem solving perspective. People don’t learn how to become PMs, they learn how to apply their perspectives into PM. That’s the reason why most PMs come from so many different backgrounds.

My past experience as an engineer and designer has offered me a unique perspective on each problem I solve. That makes me a better PM for certain types of teams, but not necessarily a bad PM for other teams.

If you’re an aspiring PM and you have a coding background, great! PM is just around the corner! If you’re an aspiring PM but don’t have a coding background, the road is far from being closed off! You’ll need to get slightly creative and take a detour, but it’s not much harder than starting off with a coding background.

My personal journey into product management was challenging. The detours along the way were bumpy but they’ve made me a better product manager because of the perspectives they’ve given me. If you’re interested in learning more about product management, come chat with me here. Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my journey!

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