Ask Women in Product: What can I do to get an interview after applying for a job?

Sonali Kothari offers practical tips that can help you land that interview.

Photo by Indypendenz via Twenty20

Answer from Sonali Kothari, COO at Kiva.org, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, JFFLabs

If you aren’t getting calls for interviews, it’s easy to feel discouraged and assume no one is looking at your resume. That might be true! But, you really don’t know.

You might think, “But, I do know! I applied to dozens and dozens of PM roles, I networked my way into great coffee dates with employees, and my resume quantifies all the results I’ve had.”

Let’s be clear: Product Management, at any level, is a popular career choice. You are seeking a coveted position, so give yourself some time to get an interview. The good news is that there is so much variation in both product managers and PM roles, so if you are a strong match for a specific position, you will likely stand out.

There’s no shortage of advice (e.g., tailor your resume to the job, work on your skill gaps, etc.) when it comes to job hunting, so rather than repeat what’s already widely covered elsewhere, I’ll share some things you can do to get an interview. In fact, many of these ideas are inspired by Product Management practices, so you can enhance your process and sharpen these skills along the way!

  1. Understand the “persona” for the position. While many PM job descriptions are generic, the actual PM roles are not. Instead of waiting for the interview, research individuals who work at the company online to create a more comprehensive picture of the ideal candidate. What experience do they have previous to this company? Is there information about the individual who held the position before you? Do all the people in the group do a lot of public speaking or write blogs? Use this new insight into the company’s important hiring attributes as a way to follow-up or add new information to your application.
  2. Interact with the company as a power user. Write into the Customer Success team and develop an understanding of how they work. You can ask questions about something you legitimately don’t understand about the product and make suggestions or feature requests. You never know, your ideas could get to the product team! If the company has a social media presence that is active, comment or engage with the posts as a way to get to know the marketing team. These teams will be some of your stakeholders if you land the job. In addition to obtaining some potentially practical and valuable information, you’ll be developing a professional relationship and establishing name recognition before you even step through the door.
  3. Do informational interviews with people from related companies. Use your network or sites like LinkedIn to set up several informal meetings with a few PMs at partner, competing, or related companies. Ask how they came to interview for their current position; they may have hints that are particular to the field or the network of companies. The added benefit is that the world is small and these contacts may be an unexpected door to your target company. One more thing — I always wonder why more people don’t directly ask me to review their resume and cover letter during an informational interview. It’s like user testing where you see how a similar hiring manager thinks while also making them a more capable advocate for you. People want to help, and a resume review is a clear and direct ask.
  4. Create your own interviews within the company. Given how PMs work across the company, aim to meet a wide variety of people on different teams that would provide valuable insight into the role. More importantly, the company will now have a perspective on you beyond the impersonal application. Even with people on other teams, make your case. I always tell applicants to hit me over the head with the reason you’ll be successful — don’t expect I’ll make a case better than you can. The message will get to the hiring manager. You can also ask direct questions without putting your new connection on the spot, e.g., “I’m excited about a role here — do you have advice on how I can get my foot in the door?
  5. Meet them where they are. Look for in-person opportunities to meet people from the company aside from recruiting events. Speaking engagements are common for a variety of people at a company. Or, if there’s a conference with a topic closely aligned with the product or where the company is a sponsor, it’s likely many employees will be attending. In fact, I know a company that hires a significant number of people that they meet informally at a conference that happens every year close to their headquarters. These are not highly marketed or recruiting-focused events, which will make it easier for you to make a personal connection.

Make your case. I always tell applicants to hit me over the head with the reason you’ll be successful — don’t expect I’ll make a case better than you can.

A final tip: set up job alerts and apply early to increase your chances of being interviewed. Hiring managers have a full inbox and a rapidly growing stack of exceptional applicants. One at a time, an application is opened, reviewed, and commented on. In my hiring process, I look at every resume… until I have a strong enough pool from which I can move into phone screens and interviews. Most sites that list open positions will have an option for you to get emails as soon as a position is listed. Don’t wait; the earlier you apply for a position, the more likely your resume will be seen. If it has been a while since the job was posted, you will need to try even harder to appropriately let them know that you are highly qualified and interested.

Many years ago, I had my eye on switching into the social good space. It was tough to find a role where the technology, the mission, the company, and all the other pieces were the right fit. I finally identified an organization that matched my ideals completely, and after some research and calls, I talked to the founder… only to learn they had just one Product Management role, and he was in it!

As time passed, we kept in touch from a distance. I worked in other industries in Product Management or Business Development roles and developed a strength in revenue and growth. However, when people asked me what I wanted to do long-term, I would describe exactly a PM role in that other organization as an example. Every time I talked about it, I became clearer about what I could do there and why it was important.

When I ran into the founder six years later, I immediately told him that I wanted to work for his company. As it happens, they had been searching for a PM lead for months but hadn’t yet found someone with both a passion for the organization and a focus on growth. Now, with my additional experience, I was in a position to be a strong candidate. I interviewed two days later and had the job within the week.

Yes, there was some serendipity there. But, I had also built up interview practice from talking about this position to so many people over a long period of time. I did so because I had not let go of this idea of my ideal role, which kept me focused and growing in the right direction.

Stay persistent and open to different paths that can lead to your ultimate destination. If you know yourself and know what you want, you will grow in a positive direction. As long as you keep learning and stay true to yourself, your energy will build, and you will be ready when the door to that dream job opens!

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