Interview with Kenton Kivestu, CEO of RocketBlocks [Show Summary]
Kenton Kivestu is CEO of RocketBlocks, a firm that provides tools to help you prepare for and nail your Product Manager interviews at high tech firms. In today’s episode, he and Linda discuss the unique challenges of breaking into a product management career in high tech, and how to overcome them. He provides the inside scoop on big name companies like Amazon and Google.
Kenton Kivestu describes the role of a product manager, and offers insight on how to break into this exciting field [Show Notes]
I’d like to welcome back to AST Kenton Kivestu, who was previously a guest on Admissions Straight Talk in episode 188 a little over two years ago. Kenton graduated from UVA with a BA in economics and history in 2006. Upon graduating he joined Google in product development and worked there for 3 years until he moved to Hanover New Hampshire to attend the Tuck School of Business and earn his MBA. He interned at BCG, but returned to mobile product development when he graduated from Tuck in 2011, working in product management at both Zynga and Flurry following his MBA. For the last several years, he has been full-time CEO of RocketBlocks, which has helped applicants land consulting jobs and has expanded into prepping applicants for product management positions.
Since our last interview focused on landing a consulting job, this show is going to focus on product management positions in high tech.
What are the key qualifications in terms of work experience and personal qualities that high tech companies are looking for in PM candidates? [2:32]
Candidates for a PM role tend to run the gamut – could be someone with a computer science degree straight out of undergrad, or an English major coming into the role. Ultimately when you look at what tech companies like Google, Amazon, or Facebook want from a PM, they tend to look at the same set of skills. They want to know that people have a good product sense, and passion and excitement for a product. You need to be excited about what a product looks and feels like, and that you can think about deeply. Some level of tech fluency is important as well since you are working day in and day out with tech people – you need to be able to communicate effectively with them. Some firms like to hire people already with a tech background, but a lot of companies have realized that just because someone has a great tech background doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a great PM. You just need to be able to communicate effectively with software engineers. The third thing is similar to what a lot of companies are looking for. They want people who have strong leadership skills and know how to lead a team, and who can collaborate.
You had a degree in history. How did you prepare for this role? Did you take classes? [5:52]
The Project Manager role has really come into being in the last 20 years. If you did a study of job titles, a small amount would have been PM before then, but now there are thousands of PMs at places like Amazon or Google. I didn’t even know what a PM was until just before my 4th year at UVA – I found out about it from some friends. The job sounded incredible, and what I learned was that to get that job you needed to have a computer science degree. I was bummed that I couldn’t do that with the time remaining, but I wondered if there was another way to make the transition. I had a friend at UVA whose older sister was an early PM at Google. She said if you don’t have a CS degree it’s a nonstarter. However, she encouraged me to join another team and get my foot in the door at Google. So I looked at some other teams that hired people without CS degrees. I joined an operations-focused team and then transitioned.
What was so exciting about the product management role to you? [8:32]
I think product management was really appealing because it felt like it had a really good mix of skill sets that you could apply and be able to see and help something develop from concept stage all the way through building and launching it. The full lifecycle experience was really compelling to me. I had an early inkling that I would like to run my own business someday, and this seemed to have certain aspects of that.
What kind of education is required for a PM position? What’s recommended or preferred? [10:17]
A bunch of different routes are feasible. An MBA is a really good route. Amazon is the most salient example. I think they are the largest hirer of MBAs in the U.S. It’s a good route if you are coming to PM without a tech background. Obviously individuals with a technical background are valued because they understand the basis of how things fit together and how things work, and presumably can learn the more subtle softer skills to succeed in PM. MBAs have the broader business perspective. The majority of people use the “foot in the door” strategy like I did. Take a role that gives you some exposure to PM, build some credibility, and then make the transition within the company.
What is the product management hiring process typically like? [15:09]
It is almost always a three-round process. With bigger companies they start with a phone screen with a recruiter, not someone within the PM staff. They will screen candidates for credibility – do you have the right type of experience on your resume, will you fit into the company culture, and if they send you on to the next person will they think so too. Round 2 is usually two phone interviews or video interviews, and those will be more content-focused, so a place like Amazon will ask about leadership principles. They will be more product-oriented questions to see if you have good natural intuition. The interviews are typically about 45 minutes to an hour specifically with PMs. The final round is on-site, and with maybe 4-6 interviews. You will get a spectrum of folks to talk to – a glance across the core team – talking to PMs, engineers, designers, evaluating how you would interface with people in these functional areas. They will be checking for your product sense, product strategy, and whether you can back that up with analytics, your tech skills, and culture fit.
You’ve used the term “product sense” several times. Can you explain what that is? [20:06]
Someone will say, “Tell me what Google’s strategy is for chat applications.” It is essentially having strong intuition with product but also business strategy. There is typically a product-oriented question, where they want to suss out if people like thinking about products and thinking about them in an intuitive way – do they understand the consumer, design, colors used, are there too many buttons, or not enough buttons. Essentially, do they have a “Spidey-sense” of what a good product is. Steve Jobs is the quintessential example of this.
What do you think is key to successfully navigating this hiring process, other than what we have already discussed in terms of education, experience, and qualities? [22:24]
The biggest thing aside from the demonstrated core skills is that industry-specific knowledge expected goes up the smaller the company is. With Google, Amazon, or Facebook, they want to hire generalists that will rotate around. If you are interviewing at a smaller company like AirBnB, though, you can’t show up to an interview for a PM and not have much interest in the travel space or hotels/lodging. Those areas are so core to the AirBnB business that it would be a red flag.
What kind of interviews can a job applicant expect for a PM position? [24:58]
You see three types of interviews. The first is a product case interview, similar to consulting, but the orientation and depth is more around building/launching a specific product vs high level business strategy. For example, “We are thinking about bringing Lyft scooters to the Austin market. How would you do it?” The second type is a fit interview, trying to suss out the fuzzier skills – leadership, team, behavioral, and fit questions. The third type is a hybrid of fit and mini-product questions, like, “What is your favorite mobile app and why?” They want to test you lightly.
What are the most common mistakes wannabe product managers make in the application process in general and in the interviews specifically? [27:39]
In the recruiting process recruiters are looking for people who are going to be able to navigate the weird vagaries and challenges of going through this whole life cycle – good at high level strategy and tactical execution. You should see that in the resume, but instead you often see someone trying to prove super deep ability in a technical sense.
Among the leading tech firms, on a high level, how does hiring differ at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Netflix? [31:34]
There are a few big differences. Google has the most technical bias in their process. One of the first PMs they hired was not an engineer, and it didn’t work out. They saw the issue as the lack of a technical background, and so decided to stick with tech people. It has changed a bit, but the bias is still there. Facebook used to care more about technical stuff, then they officially said it’s not a key requirement. They tend to hire people with an entrepreneurial mindset. If you don’t have demonstrated experience in that type of area it will be really tough to get a job.
Amazon is the most MBA-friendly of the large tech companies. They approach a lot of problems with here’s a business opportunity, how do we market it, how do we approach it, and then other things fit in below that. If you look at Google’s current product strategy, a lot of it will be around how will we take strengths in AI learning and bake it in. With Amazon, we were a book store, now we have movies, and we do infrastructure for startups – they find a market and see if they can make something work. I am exaggerating a bit, but I think you know what I am saying.
Netflix, has a bias against newer talent. They generally hire folks who already have industry experience, as they believe it leads to a more mature, confident talent base they don’t have to spend time training.
Companies like AirBnB, newer consumer-focused companies, care that PMs have a stronger design sense and can make a product that looks and feels intuitive.
For a long time Apple didn’t have the role of PM. They had people building the product and people selling the product, and the PM is in between, so what is the PM really doing. Historically they had engineering managers and marketing managers. Only recently have they had true product managers.
What is RocketBlocks and how can it help an applicant for a product management position? [38:44]
It is a platform to help people build and hone skills they need to succeed in job interviews. We have a management consulting vertical and product manager vertical. We take the skills companies are testing for and build drills around them to allow students to come in and practice. The whole idea is to be basically a digital gym preparing for your interviews. The driving force is interactive drills, like, “Here is an interview scenario, how would you react,” “Prioritize a roadmap,” or, “Here are two competing user interfaces, compare them, what is good, what’s not.” The idea is to provide organic scenarios you would face in the interview and on the job.
We also facilitate a market of expert coaches who can run you through an hour-long mock interview. We vet and curate that list of experts.
Rocketblocks is a subscription model like a gym. You pay $35/month to use the resource as long as you need it to prepare.
What are your plans for RocketBlocks going forward? [44:56]
We are always adding and curating existing drills on the platform to make better scenarios to prepare. Eventually we will add some new verticals. Other work we will do is refining and going deeper on the type of content and how you interact with the content. The core of what’s there is really helpful to students and we can augment it to provide an even better user experience. The platform can now be used on a tablet or mobile so you can study on the go.
It’s now 8 years since you earned your MBA at Tuck. How has your perspective on that experience evolved? Are you still glad you did it? [47:18]
High level answer is still the same (yes). The value of the network compounds over time as your classmates progress in their careers, and the amount of great people you have access to and can help you out is incredible.
What do you wish I would have asked? [48:01]
Maybe, “What is the most interesting product management interview question you’ve ever heard?” Best I’ve heard recently, is a Google PM walked in with a duffle bag full of physical products and the candidate would have to reach into the bag, pull one out at random and critique it, the deficiencies, how you could make it better. It’s a great test of overall product sense, but maybe a bit intimidating with someone walking in with a giant duffle bag!
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