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How I found my product manager job in the year of layoffs
A detailed account of all the companies I applied to, conversion rates, and whether my advice actually worked.
When I look back, this newsletter has been quiet for a while, the last posts coinciding with the time last year when I officially became a product manager. I kept telling myself, oh I’m just busy, I’m just gonna take a break, and I’ll write the newsletter the next week… Without realizing I was very, very burnt out.
Contrary to popular belief, burn outs are not just from simply overworking. In fact, I was a bit of a workaholic - I couldn’t help checking Slack multiple times after work, I would scroll through Twitter feed filled with product advice or recruiting tips, I took product courses in my free time - and I loved my work. But it all changed when my job became directionless as my manager stopped valuing my work, and started changing his mind about the product everyday.
I dreaded going to work. I hated that I’d open Twitter just to see product advice (“None of that stakeholder management stuff works, you lied!”). I would do the bare minimum amount of work knowing if I’d put any bit of passion in, it’d be immediately overturned the next day anyways. It’s as if I was a hamster trapped in a wheel: moving, but never forward.
So I thought, you know what? After 2 years of giving other people job search advice, it’s my time to put them to the test.
3 key hypotheses
From 2020 to 2022, I coached about 100+ jobseekers looking for jobs in tech startups. There were always 3 things I told my coachees:
Referrals are much more likely to be successful than direct applications.
Most people, including strangers, are willing to give referrals.
Quality over quantity. A more focused search leads to more success faster than mass applying.
Here’s how they turned out —
All the jobs I applied to
This is the job search tracker I used (recreated). Unfortunately the original was tied to an account I no longer have access to, but I’ve been tracking every single application since the very first one had gone out. You can use my template here.
I divided all the companies I applied for into 3 tiers. Tier 1 companies are the ones I’m most interested in and my profile was more relevant for. Tier 2 — slightly less so, etc. This is to not put all eggs in one basket.
So let’s check the hypotheses.
Referrals are much more likely to be successful
There are 3 ways to apply to a job - let’s call them application channels: direct application, referral, and getting sourced by a recruiter. No matter the channel, our goal is to get an interview to move forward.
I asked 18 people for referrals, ranging from close friends to complete strangers on LinkedIn. Out of the 18 people, only 2 directly said no and most of the remaining 16 people were willing to refer me. In the end, 8 referrals actually went through. Out of the 8 referrals, 2 moved to the interview stage.
However, comparing the interview rate of the 3 channels, referral didn’t come on top as I expected. This could be because I was purposefully looking for referrals at companies I think I had less chances with. Based on the small-ish sample size, my hypothesis didn’t really stand as expected. But if the remaining 9 referrals had gone through and assuming a consistent interview rate, I would have at least 2 more interviews.
Most people, including strangers, are willing to give referrals
Out of the 18 people I asked for referrals from, 8 are complete strangers, and 3 are people I’ve never met in real life. Nevertheless, a surprising 13 were willing to help me with finding my next job.
However, one factor I didn’t take into account was the fact that 5 of the referrals came a bit too late. By the time they said yes, the job ad was already taken down from the career site. I don’t blame them — you never know how long a job has been open for by the time you saw it!
50% of all strangers I reached out to said yes to giving me a referral, and this is the message I used (please steal it and use it):
Hi FirstName, nice to meet you!
My name is Annie, I'd like to apply for the Product Manager role at CompanyName, and was wondering if you'd be open to giving me a referral? Please let me know if this is too much to ask. I'd also love to share my CV if you need.
Thank you in advance!
Conclusion: referrals aren’t always more successful than direct applications, but they should definitely be leveraged to increase overall success. Would I ask strangers for referrals again? Absolutely.
Quality over quantity
This one is difficult to validate. However, compared to my last job search of sending about 80 applications with most of them going nowhere, it only took me 19 applications (not counting the sourced ones ‘cus I didn’t need to do anything). It also took me roughly 1.5 months of serious job search work to get to one offer, which became my current job. This felt a lot shorter than the countless months my coachees had to go through, especially during a year with the craziest layoffs.
I learned the hard way that job searching without a clear view on your progress or when it’ll end kills any confidence you had at the start. I usually consider myself a confident person, but even the jobs I thought I had a good chance at rejected me.
I will never forget the day before I got an offer — completely worn out, directionless, thinking I might be stuck in a job that sucked out all my passion, and passion was all I had. It was a cool summer’s day and I had to close the laptop and go to the park, or else I might just bury my face in a pillow and cry.
The new year is just around the corner. If you’re looking for a new job, take these lessons I learned to help with your journey:
Start with a clear plan of attack or a strategy. I focused on HR tech startups knowing my recruiter background would be an advantage.
Track your applications. Knowing which companies and jobs I was selected for or rejected allowed me to improve my CV, personal pitch, and application channels each step of the way.
Ask for help. Whether it was messaging strangers for referrals or speaking to mentors (shoutout to my mentor Livio, who gave me crucial job search tips), don’t underestimate how people are willing to help.
Good luck and happy new year!
PS: If you’re interested, I made these nerdy little tables for further analysis 👇
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