How to Evaluate Associate Product Manager Programs

Associate Product Manager (APM) programs are well known in Silicon Valley as rotational, mentorship-focused programs designed to accelerate the careers of young aspiring product managers. Typically, they feature perks like rotations on various teams, face-time with leadership at the company, and strong alumni communities with robust networks. Getting APM offers is difficult, but once you have them, how do you decide which one to take? Do you choose the program at the biggest company? Does the number of rotations matter?

There are five key qualities to assess from any APM program: maturity, mentorship, scale, ability to rotate, and location.

Note on pay: Although compensation is another huge consideration for taking a job, I’d recommend against using pay as a primary index, if possible financially. A 10-20% delta between offers is often not worth a tradeoff in network quality or growth as a PM, both of which are things that can vary greatly across APM programs and have a significantly greater return on investment over a career.

Maturity

Google’s APM program is the oldest and most well known program that exists today. Started by Marissa Mayer when Google was in hyper-growth, the APM program at Google is incredibly mature, churning out dozens of APM alumni every year all over the world. These alumni have gone on to become VCs, founders, and product leaders, in addition to starting APM programs at companies like Salesforce.

The maturity of a program determines the size and quality of its community. In general, programs that have been around longer will have more graduated cohorts, creating a wider sense of community and facilitating networking both in and out of the company.

In addition, mature programs have passed the filter of corporate budgeting. If a program has been around for years, the company is signaling that it believes hiring entry-level PMs is worth allocating budget to year after year. Nascent programs may or may not survive this filter, which means that the first few cohorts have an increased risk of also being the last class to go through the program.

On the other hand, being a part of a fledgling APM program gives you the chance to build something new. If you have views on on-boarding, shaping, and training young product managers, you can effectively mold these programs to fit your vision. Stakeholders at the company may be more willing to take your advice and let you set the tone for the program, and you can have a direct impact on future APMs. Your manager and organization structure may spend extra time with you, because you are one of their first APM hires. The increased 1:1 time with leadership could be instrumental in generating increased career growth and learning.

Questions to ask your recruiter or APM coordinator:

  1. How long has the APM program been around?
  2. How many cohorts have graduated from it?
  3. How big is the average cohort?
  4. What kind of investment does the company put into the APM program?
  5. How does the company focus on growing their APM community?

Ultimately, you have to decide whether you want to help build a new program (and be a guinea pig), or join a more established program (that might be less flexible).

Note on Brand: A strong, well-known brand name can provide more and better exit opportunities when you decide it’s time to look for your next role. It is not a necessary prerequisite to landing a great role after your tenure at the company, but it can definitely help in getting interviews and being given the benefit of the doubt. However, fast growing small and medium sized companies could have great brand names by the time you decide to leave. Going with the more well-known brand is a low risk decision that will often pay off in the long run, but be sure to not underestimate the growth of a less well known company.

Mentorship

Image result for manager dilbert

The most important thing to look for from your first job is a great manager. A people leader that puts your growth at the top of their priorities is worth their weight in gold, both as a mentor and an ally within the company.

Before you accept an offer, schedule a phone call with whoever your direct manager would be. If this is tough, especially since you haven’t chosen a rotation yet, ask the recruiter to set up chats with multiple potential managers. It’s extremely important to find managers that will advocate for you and help you build a personal brand within the company.

In addition to having a great manager, try to figure out what kind of mentorship you want from the company, and whether that aligns with the type of mentorship the company is willing to provide. For instance, if you want mentorship in analytics, be sure there are product leaders that are competent in that topic.

Finally, try to gauge the willingness of product managers at the company to spend time with and coach APMs. There are two key ways to do this.

  1. Company culture is a great way to assess the quality and ease of being mentored. If the recruiter is willing to set up chats with multiple people, that’s generally a good sign. If culture precludes more junior product managers from reaching out to more senior product managers, that will manifest in the phone calls and is a big red flag.
  2. Find out if there are recurring chats with product leaders at the company by asking past APMs or people that the recruiter introduces you to. Do more experienced PMs take the time to get to know APMs? Does this happen on a regular basis? This is a good indicator to gauge executive buy-in for the program.

Questions to ask your recruiter or an APM at the company:

  1. Could you connect me to 2 or 3 potential APM managers?
  2. Can I speak with a current APM about their experience?
  3. What kind of involvement does leadership have with the APM program?
  4. Do you feel like it’s easy to meet with people at the company, regardless of their level?
  5. Do you think your manager prioritizes your career growth? How so?
  6. How would you characterize your relationship with your manager?

Scale

There are two types of scale to consider: 1) the company's scale, and 2) how invested the company is in your product.

Scale of the Company

This is the classic big company vs. small company question. Big companies tend to move slower, have process in place for shipping product, and have already figured out product-market fit, which means you wouldn’t necessarily be building those skills by working there. Smaller companies, predictably, tend to move faster, have less process, and are still working out product-market fit to some degree.

The comparison can also be reversed in favor of big companies, which enjoy vast resources at their disposal, tremendous brand recognition that can aid future recruiting efforts, and mature products that people know and love. Smaller companies are usually fighting an uphill battle all the time, and have to carefully carve niches where they excel to have a competitive advantage.

There is no definitive answer on which is better to start your career at. From an earnings perspective, a large company will probably pay more at the outset, but equity can be much more meaningful in a smaller company over the long run. From a learning perspective, you would gain unique insights both PMing a product with 2B active users and PMing a product with 1k users.

Evaluate company size based on your personality and the skills you want to acquire from your first job. Scrappy PMs should generally go to a smaller company, which would be more open to new ways of doing things and shipping product fast. PMs interested in scale, organizational dynamics, and having a huge impact would do well at large companies with massive user/customer bases. There is no clear benchmark for which category a given company falls into.

To assess where you’d be more likely to succeed, ask these questions:

  1. Where do ideas for new products come from? Are they top-down, bottom-up, or laterally generated?
  2. What’s the process for managing and leveraging customer feedback?
  3. What was the most unexpected thing you had to do to ship a product on time?
  4. What are your biggest worries when it comes to managing new product managers?

Scale of Investment

An understated metric to assessing whether or not you want to work on a team is determining the level of investment the company is making in that team. For example, Azure or Teams at Microsoft are two great examples of products that the company is investing heavily in. On the other hand, internal tooling for frameworks that may or may not be adopted by a company’s engineering team are de-risked lighter investments, from the company’s point of view.

Working on a product that is tied to a company-level OKR, that matters to the organization as a whole, is meaningful work and increases the likelihood that you’ll have a few product wins under your belt at a very early point in your career. In addition, a company is likely to put its best people on its most important investments, which means you would be surrounded by high quality talent that you can grow from.

How do you gauge how invested the company is in your product? Ask these questions:

  1. How big is that team?
  2. How long has it been active?
  3. How does it contribute to the company’s overall mission? Is there a high level OKR tied to it?
  4. What kind of traction has the team been seeing?

You should ask engineers, designers, marketers, product people, and your recruiter what they think of the team and its work. Asking a broad audience ensures that you get a (more) unbiased view of the team from an external point of view, and gauging how people speak about it will give you a sense of how important it is to the company.

At a bigger company, it’s hard to assess the unique impact of any one team out of thousands of teams. Mitigate this by reading about team leaders at all levels on LinkedIn. Do you admire them? Do they seem like people you’re excited to work for and with?

Ability to rotate

The number and length of rotations is a tradeoff between breadth and depth. Programs with multiple rotations (like Uber APM, which does 3 rotations) allow APMs to get a more holistic view of product building at the company. APMs develop large breadth over different types of problems, products, and target markets, which can be awesome for picking a team to commit to once the program has completed.

On the other hand, rotating quickly and often means that an APM isn’t able to ship a product as fully developed as they would otherwise, and that they’re forced to context switch multiple times instead of knowing one set of problems deeply. A program that matches rotation length to product lifecycle would mitigate this. For example, Android has a yearly release cycle, so it makes sense to have a yearly rotation on Android since an APM would still be able to ship features during her rotation.

The fear I most often hear from aspiring product managers is that they don’t know what kinds of products they want to work on, so rotating is a way to avoid the possibility of being stuck on a team or product they don’t resonate with. This is a fair perspective, but the downside is that many of these PMs end up loving their first team and don’t want to rotate to a second one.

Non-rotational programs, like Microsoft’s Program Manager role, implicitly allow new PMs to get to know one problem really deeply, which results in them having shipped more features over the same amount of time since they don’t have to pay the ramp-up cost associated with switching teams repeatedly.

However, at worst, an APM that doesn’t want to rotate will build context on a different set of problems, and then can come back to the rotation she likes better. In addition, by focusing on maturity, mentorship, and scale, you can minimize the ramp-up cost by choosing a company that invests heavily in its APMs to make them as productive and impactful as possible.

I’d recommend choosing a rotational program over a non-rotational one because a) you get to experience different verticals. Ordinarily this type of switch would mandate switching companies or going through another interview process which is time-consuming and a significant investment, and b) you reserve the right to join a team that resonates with you more after the APM program.

How do you figure out if a rotational program is the right fit? Ask these questions:

  1. Do APMs typically ship impactful features during their tenure with a given team?
  2. What’s the release cycle for this team?
  3. Does that line up with the rotation cycle for the program?
  4. What happens after the program? Do I go to a new team or can I choose one of my old teams?

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want a program that rotates quickly to focus on breadth and introduce you to different types of problems and products, or if you want to dive deeper in a program with fewer rotations.

Location

Finally, if the companies you’re looking at have multiple offices, be sure you know what the options are in the office that your offer is assigned to. Unless you have personal reasons that come first in choosing a location, I would recommend going wherever the product leaders and decision makers are.

Typically, these groups will be found within HQ. Ensuring that more experienced folks are around you will aid your growth as a PM and increase the likelihood that your work gets seen by more people. In addition, you’ll be able to network more effectively internally at an HQ location than you would at a satellite location.

Finally, try to understand the tech ecosystem in that location, external to the company. If there is a strong product presence throughout the city, such as in Silicon Valley or NYC, it’ll be easier to build relationships outside work and find a new job when the time comes. Career mobility will also be higher, since these markets tend to be more competitive in the hunt for good product talent.

How do you figure out where the decision-makers are? Ask these questions:

  1. Would my manager be in the same office as me?
  2. What about her manager?
  3. Who is the top-level leader for this organization and where do they sit?
  4. Which teams does my team collaborate with most frequently?
  5. Are they in the same office as me? What about their leaders?

Conclusion

Choosing your first PM offer is a hard and incredibly important decision, but breaking it down into 5 key assessments of maturity, mentorship, scale, ability to rotate, and location were incredibly helpful to me when I had to make this decision. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to make sure you ask your recruiter and anyone they connect you with lots of questions. In the end, the company isn't just interviewing you – you're also interviewing them to see if they are a right fit for your personality and goals.


Visit PMLesson's Online Course for more great product management interview prep.

Rak Garg

Rak Garg

Atlassian APM, previously PM @ Redfin, VC @ Contrary. Studied CS at UCLA and passionate about SaaS.

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