January 23, 2020 / Blog

How to break into product management out of college with the Dropbox Product Manager, Patrick McDonnell

From Patrick’s unusual background to his little secret for landing the interviews, we’ll experience his journey from college to product management. Interested in landing a spot in Dropbox’s prestigious new grad Product Manager (PM) program? Patrick McDonnell did just that. So, without any further ado, let’s dive in.

A little bit on Patrick’s background

Patrick’s story is not so common with him having a background in hardware and currently working at a software company. Helping him along on the way, he studied mechanical engineering at USC while simultaneously taking some software classes on the side and as a minor during his college degree.

By sophomore year in college, Patrick knew he wanted to step back from mechanical engineering and go work in another field. Only one problem, his portfolio was mainly in mechanical engineering and didn’t really have a portfolio in the PM field. 

That’s when he started pursuing personal projects. So, starting with Craigslist he managed to trade up from a spoon to a car. He didn’t stop there, he moved on to building microsites and doing micro-projects that were more along like product management that could be leveraged later on.

Next on his list was flamethrowers. He got the opportunity to work at the boring company on their flamethrowers for six months. At his new half product and half engineering role, he got a taste for product management and a fair amount of responsibility which ultimately enabled him to get hired in a full product management role. 

Finding out about product management and interview hunting

After working at the boring company for a while, Patrick had kind of realized what he was doing was more or less product work and found it enjoyable. For him, it felt that he was using his skill set pretty well and that he was learning a lot.

He then started investigating and bought “Cracking the PM Interview”. And from there he was on track for his current role.

Unfortunately for Patrick, his resume didn’t fit the normal person and product management with his degree in hardware and no work experience at a software company. He had never officially interned in product management. Luckily, he knew his situation and therefore went about things differently. 

His secret was cold mail. Using a cold email template that he had done some testing on; he was able to refine the template and then send it out to pretty much most companies that had grad PM programs.

Targeting roughly seven to ten people at any given company was his strategy while aiming for slightly senior mid-level management.

His advice is to target people who went to the same school as you or someone you have a connection with. But this wasn’t his case, his emails would reach mostly random people. These emails he sent would read: 

Hi, my name is Patrick. I have a degree from this school.

 So, the first part was just an intro. It and then goes into:

 “I think I’m qualified for these reasons. I did product management for the boring company on flamethrowers. I traded from a spoon to a car on Craigslist. I’ve taken these classes in college.” 

And then finally “the ask” such as:

“I think I’d be a great like fit for this role like would you be happy to chat about it sometimes”

New grads often like to make a mistake of just like emailing people or grab a coffee to chat about roles and product management, Patrick says. 

Having tried it himself, he believes that the idea of having to form a connection with this person first before getting a referral is really inefficient. A direct ask is better in his view.

Most employees are incentivized and if you can make a compelling pitch on yourself then you can at least get into the interview pipeline and in most companies, referrals are pretty valued. Once you’re headed in that pipeline then at least you’ve made it through the first hurdle.

Preparing for his interview

Using the book “Cracking the PM Interview”, he was basically going through those cases with friends who he thought had good product senses or had worked on projects that were very product-centric.

He then started preparing a fair amount of responses for things that could be anticipated. For example, everybody has certain like resume items on their portfolio or their resume. So, his approach was more like “How do I pitch those in the best product or a technical way possible”.

Every interview set usually has some type of technical interviews, some type of product interview or some type of design and some type of all-around interview. So, it was also kind of how do you create a story for each of those. He could then practice those interviews reasonably effectively, not completely because interviews have always some level of randomness in them.

Choosing the right company

In Patrick’s case, he originally wanted to stay with a smaller company because of the level and type of work you can get there as well as being closer to the product.

With that said there just aren’t that many new grad PM roles in tech. So instead, he pretty much sent emails to just about every company with new grad PM programs, kind of going in a “spam mode” which ended up working for him.

His ultimate choice was then based more on finding a place where felt like he can grow and less about the physical product.

I really wanted to kind of lay that strong base especially given how nebulous product management was, how it can mean so many different things and how complex it is, he says when asked about his choice of company.

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