Job hunting framework for product managers

I've been talking to a few friends recently about jobs. Some are searching for new ones. Some are 'assessing their options' and others have just accepted offers. The issue is figuring out what you want is hard.

Really hard. 

There is just so much to consider, and it can seem overwhelming. 

But jobs are worth deeply thinking about. Your job will have a profound impact on your life. Your happiness. Your sense of purpose. Your daily routine. What you think about. Who you interact with. The good news is you can make it easier on yourself. Half the battle is doing the hard work beforehand and developing a framework to think through each career decision.

This active thinking is critical early in your career. The opportunity cost is high. Spending one or two years in a job that isn't moving you forward will cost more to your future than you might appreciate. If you're not moving forwards, you are likely moving backwards. 

With your working career likely to span almost seventy years, you will have fifteen plus jobs. You will want to get off to a good start. The exciting part is that you will get to experience so many industries, solve many problems and work with a diverse and global set of people along the way. 

So, enough chat. Here are a few mental models that I hope will help you on your job search.

  1. Think career not job 
  2. Choose a growing market 
  3. Work with teams with high intelligence, energy and integrity
  4. Be guided by your principles 
  5. Find great managers 
  6. Understand product manager market fit 
  7. Really commit 

1. Think career not job 

A job is a decision about your career.

Jobs are like lego blocks that you connect to build something of meaning. Each job will give you something different, but it will ultimately add value to your career's overall sum. This means when assessing each job, you have to ensure it holds value on its own. Be critical of each role and evaluate it on its own merits. What does it add to your lego masterpiece? What does it give you that might be unique? Where is it likely to fall down? 

Jobs also compound. 

One job will layer on top of another, allowing you to bring new skills, experiences and people across to the next. You are operating on an archipelago of linked islands, not a marooned shoreline. Each job you take will act as a vote in the direction you want your career to go. It's a stepping stone to your next adventure. 

By the way this doesn't mean that it has to make perfect sense along the way. It likely won't. As Steve Jobs said, "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards". However, you can influence which dots you collect by developing your long term thinking.  

Long term thinking is your competitive advantage that will increase the likelihood of all the dots connecting even if you can't see how they will in the present day. What does long term thinking mean in practice? It means not getting distracted by the noise that can exist. 

Job noise comes in many forms.

High salary but toxic environments, working in industries that you have no interest in but seem 'hot', working on problems you don't care about, joining teams that you know are not customer-centric etc. I could go on, but you get the idea… Any job that will not give you any benefit to your future self is not worth it.

Inversely, long-term thinking in jobs optimises for opportunities with strong skill development, working on problems you care about, working in places where you can build strong industry connections and gain specific knowledge and importantly having fun at the same time. 

2. Choose a growing market 

"Sorry, the market is just too small for us to consider investing".

The response of multiple entrepreneurs trying to raise VC funds for their next upstart. 

Deciding on a job is similar to investing. You are likely investing far more into a job decision; then you are with your average investment. Accepting a job is like buying a share in a company. (And the good ones are likely to give you a couple as well when you join) 

You are vested in its future and want it to do well. By moving into a market with strong growth prospects, you are not fighting against the tide.

It's far more comfortable operating in a rapidly growing market as a product manager. Just like it's easier to be a good surfer when you have perfect wave conditions. More is going on. More opportunities will become available to you. Exciting projects will crop up all the time as the company is likely to be less risk-averse. You become luckier when the environment around you is on your side.

So how do you identify these types of companies? The same way you would if you were deciding whether to buy a share in a company. You review a job in the context of the broader company and market. Do your strategic analysis, look at its fundamentals,  look at its market position, review competitors, get familiar with the product, talk to customers etc. 

Do anything that will get you closer to answering the question - Is this a good investment opportunity?

3. Work with teams with high intelligence, energy and integrity

I've stolen this from the wise Naval Ravikan, but I feel it's particularly relevant to product teams. 

The quality of the people you work with will significantly impact your success within an organisation. You are joining a product team, after all. Not as a solo operator.

You want smart product teams that will be able to lead you in the right direction. High energy teams that will be able to pivot when the times get tough. But most importantly, high integrity teams that allow you to thrive and build long term relationships with. 

If you don't choose integrity as Naval says you will end up with a 'hard-working, smart crook who will cheat you'. It's the same with companies. 

How can you objectively assess this? The same way you would with any relationship. By getting to know them. Spend time with the company. When interviewing, don't be afraid to ask difficult questions. Figure out what values they hold and how they work. How do they resolve conflict? How do they make difficult decisions? 

4. Be guided by your principles 

Develop strong personal principles. Individual rules that you care about will help you understand and ultimately decide on what product opportunities to pursue. By doing the upfront work, you can better understand why a role might seem more appealing to you. You will become more objective.

It's unlikely that you will find a job that is one hundred per cent fit. However, with principles, you can understand why certain jobs are more appealing. Don't compromise on your core principles but be willing to overlook your smaller ones.

It's a balancing act.

5. Great managers 

The old saying that people leave managers, not companies, is true, but I want to take it further. We need to look at the inverse

Sure, poor managers make people leave, but more importantly, great managers make people stay - And thrive! Great managers mentor, coach and develop people to become better product managers and leaders in their own right. 

Depriving yourself of a great manager is stacking the odds against yourself. If you have a great manager, you will have hundreds of opportunities to learn and develop. Great managers will be invested in your future, meaning that they care about you and your development.

It will come across in their actions from day one. You want to find managers who make you better. They will help onboard you and provide strategic context around the organisation, they will run impactful 1 -1 meetings and help you identify development areas to progress in.

So I can hear you saying… Sounds great but how do you ensure you get a great manager? Fair question. Getting a great manager is not entirely in your control, but you can increase your chances.

Later stage companies are likely to offer more comprehensive training and support to managers. So if you know this is important to you, then you can factor this in.  However, the easiest way to assess any company is to be direct. During the interviews ask questions about how your future manager likes to operate, how they invest in training in their teams, and how they run 1-1s, how they approach development etc. 

6. Understand "product manager market fit"

Product market fit describes the state where the product can sufficiently satisfy the market need.

'Product manager market fit' is a similar idea, but you are the product, and the company is the market. You need to ensure that you can satisfy the needs of the company. Different companies are at various stages of their growth, and you need to be conscious of this.

How will you fit into the company? Will you provide the skills needed for a different growth stage? During the interview, they will be assessing you for these skills, but you also want to understand this as well. 

You don't want a role where you are too comfortable and not learning, but equally, you don't want a role where you are completely drowning and a poor fit for the organisation at that point in time. It's a balance of being ambitious about a new position and understanding what value you can immediately deliver.

7. Really Commit

Making a career decision is hard. Even after you have thought through all of these different areas, you might be still thinking… Did I make the right choice? It's totally normal.

But you have to commit. Committing means trusting yourself that you made the best decision you could, with the information you had. 

It takes time to learn a new role, but you need to trust your decision. It will allow you to onboard quickly and make progress. If you are committed to a new position, you will get familiar with new colleagues, learn the new processes, and make an impact. It just will take a little time. 

Keep looking forward and be patient. Good luck!