Folks often want to know how to optimize their resume to get a PM job. But that’s not the right framing. Instead, you should focus on crafting a resume to get that initial recruiter phone screen. If you can pass that phone screen to get to the interview stage, your resume actually becomes less important.
Many companies, especially large ones, use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) in their recruiting and hiring processes. These tools automatically scan resumes for keywords and terms as a way to manage the influx of job applicants. So it’s important to include these keywords in your resume. Here’s a few that you should consider when applying to a PM position:
Backlog management, prioritization, roadmap, vision, agile project management, collaboration, leadership, customer support, engineering, data analysis, user research, UX design
As a reference, look at resumes and LinkedIn profiles of other senior PMs to see their keywords. Of course, you shouldn’t include keywords if they are not justified in your resume. But do consider how you can include them honestly as you plan your career. For example, take that opportunity to work with a designer, so that you can say you’ve collaborated with design folks on your resume. Shadow a customer support rep a few times a month, so that you can honestly say you’ve done at least some nominal support. It may seem superficial to optimize your resume on keywords, but it’s a simple first step to shift your mindset to the intended audience’s perspective, and the first audience here is a robot scanning your resume.
Match the job requisition
Customize your resume to the job requisition (or job description/listing). Despite many job reqs being outdated boilerplate text cobbled together by different stakeholders in a company, it’s the best chance you have at understanding the needs of the company with respect to this open role. So match your resume to it, as best as you can. You should also review the company website, the team page, and other public materials you can get your hands on. But chances are, you’re applying to multiple jobs. So scale your efforts accordingly. At a minimum, you should maintain a generic, base version of your resume. And then spend a little bit of time tweaking it to match each company you are applying at.
Aspiring and new PMs often make the mistake of focusing on things they’ve done when crafting their resume. Experience quantity is certainly important, but ultimately demonstrated business success is critical. A manager likely wants someone who can effect business impact, when hiring for a PM. So your resume should make that clear, focusing on business metrics as much as possible. Did you lead a project that tripled the revenue of a product line? Did you improve signups by 50%? Even if you weren’t the main project lead, still mention the collective business success of your team. Product management is a business discipline. Emphasize business results.
Work experience, projects, and shipping
PM roles are usually very focused on execution. (More senior product roles are about strategy and vision.) Even if your feature launch was not successful in gaining more users, you should have learned a lot about your customer and target market along the way. So it’s important to communicate that you have experience leading projects, shipping product, and ultimately connecting with and learning from customers. A “failed” entrepreneur who tried to scale their own business but didn’t succeed, often make for fantastic PM candidates, because they’ve gone through the entire process of shipping a product to customers. So be sure to include as many projects in your resume as you can, ideally where you played a key role in at least one of customer research, design, implementation, and launch. In fact, consider including projects outside of your “official” work history too. Maybe your weekend coding project resulted in a free mobile app that got 500 downloads over 2 months. Or maybe you took a few no code tools and cobbled together a streamlined registration flow for your community soccer tournament, and got lots of good reviews for your efforts. Frame these projects as shipping delightful experiences to demanding customers, and include them in your resume, since these very much demonstrate tangible PM skills!
In particular, consider calling out specific projects in each work experience section of your resume. Especially if a past company you’ve worked at is not well-known, specifying the project helps guide the audience to understand how that job really contributed to your professional growth as a PM candidate.
Certifications and education
Product management is a not a very established field. So despite there being a handful of reputable product certifications out there, you shouldn’t go out of your way to get a particular certification, especially if it is prohibitively expensive. Hiring managers are more interested in your past project experience. So instead of spending a few months taking classes and studying for a product certification, consider grabbing a few friends to work on a side hustle as an alternative to beef up your resume.
A formal undergraduate education forms more of a baseline ticket for entry, more so than being a particular competitive advantage in a resume. It bears repeating: If you were involved in interesting projects while in school, be sure to highlight those in your resume. But saying you got this particular degree with this GPA is less relevant, and can be placed lower down in your resume. However, if you pursued a graduate degree or even an MBA, consider how you can craft a story of these being intentional decisions to pursue a PM career, in your resume.
Product management is a very new field. There are many good ideas and best practices, but they aren’t widely recognized and formalized yet. In fact, hiring managers and companies are often looking for very different skillsets. So position your certification and education qualifications accordingly in your resume, rather than trusting that they will have value by standing on their own.
Write your resume for individuals, not a company
Often folks try to optimize their resume for a particular company, or a set of companies that they are applying to. But know that individuals read your resume, not companies. And so be sure to have certain personas in mind when crafting your resume. Here are a few of these individuals and under what circumstances they read your resume.
A robot typically parses your resume when you first submit it. Especially with ATS tools, there is likely some AI that is reading and actioning on it. For example, the rejection email you received could actually be the result of an ATS parsing your resume and determining that you are not a good fit.
A recruiter may be skimming through resumes (filtered from the ATS), and even browsing through LinkedIn profiles of interesting candidates. A recruiter themself is often not very familiar with the discipline of product management, and may be recruiting for multiple roles, whether they are an employee of the company you are applying for, or part of a third-party agency. It’s their job to filter out the noise and find feasible candidates to bring to the hiring manager and the team. They may do a phone screen with candidates as part of this filtering process.
A hiring manager is seeking to fill the PM position. Typically they will be the reporting manager of the potentially hired candidate. They look at candidates referred by the recruiter, reviewing their resumes, and select a subset to be interviewed.
An interview panel likely consists of potential future team members of a candidate, as well as other folks in the organization. An interviewer looks at your resume on three occasions, and only glances at it superficially at all those times. They look at it when they are first assigned to interview you. They look at it right before the interview and during it. And they may look at it again when making job offer decisions with the interview panel.
Your resume is a marketing tool
Notice that your resume increasingly becomes less important as the job application process proceeds. It’s an important vehicle to communicate with robots and recruiters early on. But once you’ve passed that stage and are talking to the hiring manager and the team, they very much understand what is a good PM and the role they are seeking for. And so it’s in their interest and your interest to have high-bandwidth communications to see if you are a match. That’s precisely the interview process itself. Once the team has interviewed you and spoken to you in person, they don’t need to rely on the resume anymore, which is just a very low fidelity representation of yourself.
Consider yourself and your capabilities as a product. You are offering your professional services (as an employee) to a single customer (assuming you are looking for full-time work at a single company). And so that initial personas who engage with you as a product, is the robot AI and the recruiter. And the marketing material you are serving to them is your resume. As the “sales process” proceeds, the buyer persona, i.e. the hiring manager, engages with you the product directly. Think of the interview process as you presenting the “features” of yourself as a product. The marketing material isn’t important anymore.
If your resume is marketing material for your product, then LinkedIn is a way to distribute that marketing content. Especially as you grow in your career, you should be open to conversations and networking opportunities in general. Maintaining a LinkedIn profile is a very low-cost way to do this. Just copy your resume content to your LinkedIn profile.
Getting that first PM job
In getting your first PM job, you need to be successful in both the initial marketing-to-robots-and-recruiters stage and the latter interview stage. This newsletter issue just focuses on the first. (I’ll write about the second if there’s interest!) Fortunately, you need to be successful in both stages only once with the same “customer” to secure a job.
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I’m Victor Wu, Head of Product at Tilt Dev. I’ve been creating digital products for over 15 years, and mentoring folks for much of that time. Subscribe, and reply to email updates with questions you’d ask in a real-life mentoring session. I’ll answer them in future issues.