Make your product manager application stand out with a custom product requirements document.
Making your product manager (PM) application stand out is difficult. Networking is still the most effective method of getting your foot in the door. But sometimes that is not feasible, or perhaps is just not your style. When applying on a company’s website, try submitting a custom product requirements document (PRD) that highlights a potential feature you think could improve their product. It can be a fantastic way for you to get noticed.
Who should try this
In a nutshell, this technique will have the most benefit for those who are looking for a fighting chance. It is for those who think “if I can just get the opportunity to chat with someone, I can prove why I am a good fit for the role.” You may be looking for your first job, attempting to transition to product management from a different career, or otherwise be early in your product career.
On the other hand, if you tick every box on the job posting’s ‘preferred qualifications list’ you can probably showcase your relevance with just your resume and cover letter. Similarly, if you already have a long history of relevant PM experience, that will likely be enough to get you a first round interview.
I should note that I am not terribly familiar with the recruitment and resume screen process. I imagine this will be considerably less effective for huge tech companies that are probably doing a 60 second resume screen before deciding whether to proceed with a candidate. On the other hand, this method may be more effective for smaller companies that are more likely to spend a bit more time on your application.
I won’t focus on how to create a product requirements document; there’s already a lot of great resources out there on the internet that can do that better than I can. On the other hand, here’s what you need to do to make a stellar PRD for the role you are applying to.
1. Do your research
Learn everything you can about the company and role you are applying for. This should already be part of your job application process, but it is especially important when applying to a product role. Read what you can from their website, especially if they have a company blog. See if they have been in the news. Understand who their competitors are. Try to understand what their product vision is.
2. Use the product
Remember, you are trying to create a realistic PRD that could actually improve their exiting product. You cannot figure out how to improve something without actually using it. Obviously this will be easier for digital products that are public and free to use. Many companies offer free trials. If it’s within your budget, purchase it. And if none of those are options, try to see if you can find recorded demos or webinars.
3. Balance ambition, impact, and practicality
Recall that you are ultimately trying to impress whoever is reading your application. The feature improvement or product that you are proposing should:
- Align with their company vision. The last thing you want to do is propose a feature or product that turns off your potential employer rather than excites them.
- Be impactful. Don’t fall in the trap of building something nobody wants.
- Be ambitious, but concise. You will want an idea that will wow the reader. But they will not be spending hours perusing your PRD. Your document should be thorough and compelling in just a couple pages.
4. Include a mockup
If you’re a software engineer and have bundles of time, a working prototype will really impress them. If you’re a designer at heart, you can show off your skills with a beautiful mockup. For the rest of us, creating some wireframes will suffice. I have used a tool called Balsamiq and I cannot recommend it enough.
5. Tips on how to add it to your application
At the bottom of my cover letter, I include a line that sounds something like:
After playing around with <the company’s product> for a bit, I thought it would be fun to mock up a quick PRD for <your feature/product proposal>. It can be viewed here <embed link to your PRD>.
I create my PRDs using google docs. But you can use whatever tool you’re comfortable with as long as there is some way you can easily link to it online. Avoid forcing the reader to download your document.
Of course, you run the risk that your resume reviewer skips over your cover letter entirely. Many online applications include a field for your website. You can try to include your link there. If you use google docs, you can customize your ugly google docs url with a url shortening website like Bitly. If you already have a personal portfolio website that you use, you can embed your PRD on a page in your portfolio and supply that url instead.
If you’re feeling brave and can find the relevant point of contact, you can try a cold email instead. I would like to imagine this being effective, though I have not had the courage to try.
Here are some examples of PRDs that I have actually sent to companies.
- Zearn is a math education nonprofit that provides digital lessons for students. They have different account types for students who log on to do lessons and for teachers who manage their classroom. My PRD proposed creating an account dedicated for parents. It can be viewed here.
- Newsela is another education startup. After trying out their content online, I created a PRD that focused on giving instant feedback to students taking a quiz. It can be viewed here.
It it worth it?
Creating a PRD is going to take effort. You may wonder if it is even worth investing the time in something that may ultimately be completely glanced over by a recruiter. This will ultimately be your call and will depend on your experience and circumstances. But I can offer two points to inform your decision:
- I can personally attest that including a PRD helped me land a job. My bosses have noted how it made my application stand out.
- Simply submitting a resume and cover letter through a company website is extremely unlikely to garner a request for an interview. You can try to submit 10 applications to different companies, spending an hour working on each one. But don’t be surprised if your response rate is low or nonexistent. On the other hand, you can find a company that you really want to work for and dedicate the same 10 hours working on an application that will really stand out.