What 62 Program Manager Interviews in 5 Weeks Taught Me
I went through 62 individual job interviews at 35 different companies in five weeks; every single one was a Technical Program Manager role. I submitted 90 job applications in total. That comes out to an average of 12.4 interviews per week and 2.48 interviews per business day. I interviewed at them all: small, medium, large, and gigantic. On some days I’d start interviews at 9 am and end at 4 pm. Here’s what I learned.
I recently departed my hardware startup of 2 ½ years — a veritable lifetime in startup years. I was employee number 3 and saw everything from the beginning. I sank heart and soul into that company but felt it was time to move on. So I packed my box of desk ornaments I had accumulated and pilfered as many snacks as I could before leaving. My backpack was filled to the brim with beef jerky and cheese sticks that afternoon. I quickly shoved all the nostalgia into a corner of my head and wasted no time gearing up for interviews.
Previously, most of my job searches were haphazard, lazy attempts derived from boredom or complacency. This time, however, I was “funemployed.” I wanted to try something a little different. I told myself I wanted to find a position I liked as fast as possible. I decided to throw myself into a full force, beef jerky fueled job search. I wanted to see what kind of jobs I could land and what kind of limits I could push. Little did I know that this challenge would result in one of the most amusing and fulfilling experiences of my life.
Track Your Applications
When you apply to 90 positions at companies you are guaranteed to lose track unless you have something helping you. A simple spreadsheet does wonders in keeping yourself accountable for following up with recruiters, tracking all the jobs at once, and managing your schedule and visibility. I used the following columns in my spreadsheet:
LinkedIn contact or Internal Referral
Apply to many at once
Remember, I wanted offers as fast as possible. This meant I had to apply to many jobs at once. I would break up my days into 3 parts: searching, updating, and interviewing. To optimize for time and reduce the price of context switching, I would find multiple job postings, save their links to the spreadsheet and search for any LinkedIn contacts I may have for those companies. Also, applying to many at once keeps your self-esteem high. After all, it feels nice to be wanted when you get multiple interview screenings at once, heh.
I managed to get a lot farther in companies where I was provided an internal referral. I got these referrals by reaching out to my personal network through LinkedIn. It felt awkward at first, but as long as I didn’t burn those bridges initially, they were always open to providing an internal referral. In addition, they had a vested interest as well. If I get hired, they get a referral bonus. There was nearly nothing to lose by reaching out. In certain situations, you may only have secondary contacts that can provide a referral. Ask your 1st contact to provide an introduction. They’re just as open to providing an introduction and if not, well, find another contact to introduce you!
Create an elevator pitch
I quickly realized that interviewing is effectively selling yourself and convincing someone why they should buy your snake oil. About 10 to 15 interviews in, I had pretty much perfected my elevator pitch. I liked to use the one below:
“My name is Rion. I’ve been a Technical Program Manager for the past two years at Cobalt Robotics. I started off as employee number three and scaled them up, all the way to nearly 100 employees. As a TPM I mainly built around refining and developing processes, growing teams to inherit those processes, and liaising with various teams to ensure progress. Before that, I was an individual contributor at various startups and larger companies functioning as a solutions engineer/consultant interfacing with different stakeholders and customers and delivering solutions.”
The first few interviews are “Throw-Aways”
I hadn’t interviewed in a while so I expected to be rusty. I’m sure I sounded awkward and fumbled around with my stories, talk-tracks to those first few recruiters. I made up for this by intentionally scheduling the interviews with companies I was willing to sacrifice. I called these interviews “throwaways.” These interviews were with companies I was not excited about, possibly overqualified for, or just didn’t care for. The sole purpose of these companies’ interviews was to calibrate my interview skills and raise my confidence. This ensured I brought my A-game to the interviews with companies I truly wanted.
Some Companies Just Aren’t A Fit
Bold, I know, but hear me out. Some companies are just not a great fit. Based on some of my wants that I listed earlier, I decided to discontinue my interview process with a few companies. Usually, I’d spot these companies right after the first interview with the recruiter. If I finished the call unenthused about the responsibilities, challenges, and work culture, that was usually enough of a sign for me to cut that interview process and not waste their time or mine.
I ended an interview early because the recruiter told me that working from home is not allowed, ever. I “noped” out of that interview real fast. Looking back on their company profile, it was an easy decision — old industry, not much disruption, lack of innovation, older company history, stable — yes, exciting — no. That company was not a fit for me.
When you apply to a great number of jobs, you have the luxury of doing this. Obviously, results may vary so use best judgment and take into consideration your current set of life circumstances. This is why I find it important to apply to many, many positions at once.
Answers to questions are “experiences”
This typically doesn’t apply to domain expertise questions but are very relevant to behavior questions. All of the interviewers’ questions can easily be answered by an “experience” I had in my previous positions. To make sure I didn’t choke during these behavioral questions, I created an experience log. This experience log was just a list of short stories and situations that happened in my previous job. To ensure they were succinct and clear, I also structured them in PARADE style format. I also made sure to “internalize” the experiences and not “memorize.” By internalizing them, it was easier and more natural to deliver the story.
All Their Questions Are The Same
About 25 interviews in, my confidence was at an all-time high. There was no recruiter interview that could intimidate me — hiring manager interviews were still scary though, heh. Once you hit 25 interviews, you’re typically calibrated. I was definitely calibrated. I had my elevator pitch down and could rattle that off without any bumps. I had a long list of well-internalized (not memorized) stories I could pick and choose from or modify to my needs that could answer any variation or permutation of their behavioral questions.
At some point, that’s all it boiled down to. With the exception of industry-specific or domain expertise questions, a large subset of behavioral questions are simply variations of each other. I used my well-refined list of experiences to pick, choose, and mold my answers quickly. If the question is about friction? I’ll elaborate on how I successfully pushed back on Product managers. What’s another way of describing friction? Opposing viewpoints, differing opinions, etc. You get the point, you can use the same answer or “experience” for all of those questions.
Take breaks. You will burn out.
It’s real, I swear. At around 40 interviews or so, at about the 4th week, I burned out. I burned out hard. I woke up in the morning, luckily only had 1 interview, but had to schedule upcoming interviews. Worse yet, was that on-sites were becoming a reality. I was tired, unfocused, and generally apathetic. I knew this would not bode well for the high-worth interviews like on-sites. Take breaks, play video games, hit the gym, go on dates, sleep, drink water, and push back interviews if you have to. At this point, no interview was a “throwaway.” They all mattered.
You should try it
If you’ve never tried an interview marathon, you’re missing out. It was one of the most nerve-wracking, confidence-building thrill rides I’ve done in my nascent career. I would encourage anyone to try their luck at what I now affectionately refer to as my own “manic interview marathon.” I took away much from this entire journey — their cultures, their interview processes, and most importantly, what I wanted. After 90 applications, 62 interviews, 5 on-sites, and 3 offers, I ultimately accepted an amusing position at Salesforce as a Technical Program Manager. When I eventually depart, I’m down to do it all over again.