Life as a Product Manager at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft

Hari Iyer · August 10, 2020
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Editorial Credit: Graphic farm / Shutterstock.com

Ideally, Product Managers champion their users and serve as the “Voice of the Customer.” However, this can be challenging, because PMs tend not to have direct authority over other teams. They usually have to build strong relationships across teams to understand their priorities, get their buy-in, recommend solutions, and ensure all are aligned behind the goal. At a more granular level, a Product Manager’s (PM) job is to partner across engineering, data science, marketing, sales, and design teams to:

  • Analyze market opportunities
  • Define success metrics
  • Gather requirements
  • Prioritize requirements and features to be implemented
  • Drive go-to market & launch activities
  • Ensure the features achieve the intended outcomes

For interview preparation advice, see "How to Quickly and Effectively Prepare for PM Interviews" at the end of the article.

Perspectives from Global Senior PMs at Microsoft, Google, and Amazon

In June and July, The Org interviewed six Senior Product Managers with experience at Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook to get their thoughts on life as a PM. Located in London, Hyderabad, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, these experts were paraphrased anonymously in order to facilitate an open dialogue and will be identified by their location.

Microsoft

What is a PM at Microsoft

Hyderabad, India: The Microsoft PM is a “Program Manager.” They created the original “PM” role to represent the interest of users. That is 50% program management, and 50% product management. This means a key part of your job is keeping the trains running on time. And you get very good at that. The PMs at Microsoft don’t have to be great engineers. They have to be great problem solvers, project managers and business analysts.

Risk Taking: Microsoft vs. Google

Hyderabad, India: Google can take risks on a slice of its user base. Microsoft has always been an enterprise company, and CEO Satya Nadella made that even clearer. So they have to produce near flawless releases every time. Microsoft is where I truly learned the value of enterprise and great delivery.

Who Succeeds at Microsoft

Boston, USA: The PMs who thrive at Microsoft are great with processes. Even processes can be pretty! Processes are much more important than innovation at Microsoft, and it’s all about efficiency and streamlining systems.

How the Org Functions

Boston, USA & Hyderabad, India: Microsoft is very top-down. The vision is decided at the top, and PMs execute on pieces of it. In contrast, at Amazon, Google, and Facebook, PMs are much more involved in creating the product strategy.

Google

Culture - What’s Valued

London, UK: Compared to when I worked at Microsoft, there’s a night and day difference in culture. Microsoft values process and discipline. Google values technical creativity and innovation. Most Product Managers at Google are highly technical, because the core of my job is to work with engineers to make leaps of progress. As a Microsoft PM, my technical skills declined, but at Google, they’ve sharpened. I didn’t expect that. If you are not a strong engineer, you’ll struggle as a PM at Google.

San Francisco, USA: Agreed on Google’s higher value for technical innovation and need for PMs to be highly technical.

London, UK: Google PMs are much more entrepreneurial than at Microsoft. To have your ideas implemented at Google, you need to brainstorm with engineers, pitch senior executives on your vision, get their buy-in and secure the budget. Google is also more data-driven than Microsoft. Everything is measured, so whether assessing impact or finding new product ideas, almost everything is based on data analysis.

Seattle, USA: This value for risk-taking is true for most of Google, but definitely not true in Google Cloud. Cloud has had to unlearn some of the habits of the larger company.

HQ vs Satellite Offices

London, UK: The biggest differences I’ve observed between Google offices are not a function of the local culture, but rather whether they are satellite offices or the headquarters HQ of that particular business unit. The one thing every satellite office has in common, especially if they’re in another country, is that they work insanely hard to prove they’re worthy of getting more work. There’s an acute awareness that HQ could decide not to give them more work and that’s true across three different satellite offices I’ve worked in across three different countries.

Seattle, USA: Maybe that’s true in general, or especially for international offices, but I don’t get the sense that’s true in the Puget Sound office, near Seattle. However, there are plenty of competitive reasons to keep expanding in Puget Sound.

Country-Specific Culture

London, UK: I’ve traveled to the U.S. and India many times from London. The amazing thing about the UK is that it’s so diverse, with so many people from around Europe. The tricky part is that people aren’t direct. If someone says, “That’s not quite what I expected,” we often half-seriously ask, “Are you speaking American or British?” Because Americans say what they think, whereas the British meaning of that statement is, “This is a complete piece of trash and you need to redo the whole thing.” Aside from the language, the large tech companies I’ve worked at are highly standardized in their processes.

Covid

London, UK: The core of a PM job is meetings and collaboration. With Covid, all these in-person interactions that were key for me doing my job are all moving online. Now, every interaction requires a scheduled meeting. My meetings have increased drastically. But we have been unsuccessful in getting anyone for solid blocks of time to go deep into brainstorming. Between household chores, interruptions from family members, and other distractions, we are moving at 50% speed, and we are not going into the depth required for meaningful innovation. It’s just a slog. Pre-covid, I loved my job. Post-covid, with the hiring freeze, we’re severely understaffed. I’m working 14 hour days, I have no human contact living by myself in lockdown, and I’m on the verge of burnout.

Promotions

London, UK: Promotions are clear and tough. You can release a few features over a year or two and get to Level 5 (L5) PM, but after that, you’ve got to blow your numbers out of the park. The thing I love about Google is that it’s super clear what you need to do to succeed because of the data-driven OKR (Objectives & Key Results) performance management system. But when everyone around you is brilliant, to stand out, you can’t do 10% better than others. You can’t exceed your targets by a little. You have to do significantly better so that everyone, all the way up to VP level, is wowed at your numbers.

Engineering vs Product Management

London, UK: If you’re an engineer who loves to create, then do not become a PM. Just be an engineer. You have to love being in this coordination / collaboration role or you’ll find it exhausting. Sometimes the PM role is glorified, but it’s a terrible career trajectory for those who love engineering. In companies like Google, you can be respected even more as a great engineer than as a PM. I loved being a software engineer and going to hackathons, but I loved being the person working across teams even more.

San Francisco, USA: Agreed. If you love going deep on topics for undisturbed periods, being a PM might drive you batty. You're constantly switching hats and often putting out fires. Your job is partly to see which fire is burning hottest that your team isn't equipped to handle and put it out so that everyone else can focus on what they do best.

Amazon

Product Management at Amazon

London, UK: There are so many PMs at Amazon and they vary depending on the team. The equivalent role to a “Product Manager” at Facebook or Google is called the “Product Manager  —  Technical” at Amazon. Otherwise you can be a “Product Manager” where most of your job is doing financial analysis. It’s difficult to generalize. Amazon definitely values MBAs in their general PMs.

Business Unit Determines Culture & Exit Path

London, UK: The culture between teams in offices is determined by business unit much more than geography. Think of Amazon as comprising of several different companies. Alexa AI has a completely different culture than AWS, which is nothing like Retail. Of course those are different from the companies they acquired, like Goodreads, Twitch, PillPack, and Zappos. Your exit path from Amazon, in terms of what jobs you can do afterwards, is determined by what exactly you did in your job for that business unit.

Culture is Impersonal & Focused on Standardization

London, UK: Compared to Facebook, Amazon is much less human oriented. I never felt like my manager cared about me as a person or that it was a culture of caring like at Facebook, but I attribute that to the business we are in. Facebook has huge margins, so they can afford to invest in their people. Amazon is a retailer and is all about razor thin margins, automating processes, and cutting cost.

Boston, USA: I would definitely agree that the culture of Amazon is way more impersonal than Microsoft. The saying at Amazon is, “Everyone is really impersonal. Don’t take it personally.” Amazon is operating at such a huge scale that everything has to be standardized, down to the format of emails that you send. I totally get it; if I was a VP reading 400 update emails per day, then of course I’d want them to be super easy to read.

Boston, USA: When you start the job, there’s no onboarding “Bootcamp” like at Facebook, where you get a soft landing to learn how things work. It’s going to be rough from the beginning. You’re expected to hit the ground running, and there’s not much support. It’s okay if you make mistakes though, at least in your first few months.

What Amazon Teaches You

Boston, USA: Precision Writing —  that’s what Amazon teaches you more than anything. Every email or document has to have zero fluff and be precise with numbers. You can’t say, “The customers loved it!” You’ve got to say, “There was a X% week-over-week increase in purchases of Y product under Z conditions due to A action at B timeframe by users with C, D and E attributes.” As an L6, your writing  —  of which there is a lot  —  is judged for both content and precision. You must master both.

San Francisco, USA: I’m sitting with a director of product at Amazon right now, and he agrees with this.

Geography Influence on Management Hires

London, UK: Geography plays a small role: In Italy, for example, many of the managers are former management consultants. That’s because there are few exit paths for management consultants in Italy, so big tech is one of the main places they can work.

HQ vs Satellite Offices

London, UK: I’ve worked at Amazon and Facebook in different countries. For both companies, the biggest difference in culture across offices is whether you are working at the HQ of your team. If I’m working at Facebook Workplace, then it’s great because the HQ is in London. Most other Facebook teams have HQ in the U.S., so it’s difficult to be involved in the decision making. Imagine: these are the people that you see in the office every day and go for lunch with. It’s the same thing at Amazon. There is a level of trust and information you get from working with key people in-person vs online. I’m not sure how much that changes with Covid, but I imagine that it’s even more difficult to get involved if you don’t have those strong relationships coming into a company.

How Customer-Obsession Impacts Decisions

Boston, USA: Amazon’s complete focus is on what’s best for the customer. It’s so important that figuratively, and occasionally literally, there’s an empty chair in the room representing the customer. When we make decisions, we often decide between X and Y after debating what’s best for the customer.

Weaknesses in Understanding Customers

Boston, USA: First, although we collect a TON of data, we don’t do a great job of analyzing it. The data analysis is bare bones compared to Google or Facebook. The general assumption is that if we hire bright people, then Amazon will be in good shape. However, if we could properly analyze our data, then we may have amazing results! Second, we’re pretty bad at finding user groups and doing in-person interviews. In the Amazon world, there are so many different types of users. My tiny piece of the business has tens of thousands of enterprise customers, so it’s hard to define who a representative customer is in order to interview them.

Profit & Loss (P&L) Responsibility

London, UK: Amazon is a machine. It’s designed to run well with or without you. That’s a key reason for why there’s such a ruthless focus on documentation, because your job is to build systems that can work independently. So it’s fine to say that you run a $1.5 billion P&L, but that P&L would have run just fine without you. It’s hard for people on the outside and in your next company to know if you were great at your job unless you get a series of promotions.

Boston, USA: It’s cool that I get to work on finances and learn about it. As a Technical PM, it’s the first time I’ve had P&L responsibility. That’s not how it works at Microsoft or Google. Sure, Amazon will still be here tomorrow, so in that sense, my business unit will be fine if I leave. But my boss, a General Manager, won’t look good if he only grows the business by 5%. And then I won’t look good. So in that sense, I have - or need to have - a notable impact on the P&L.

Promotions

London, UK: As a Harvard MBA I started as an L6. To get to L7, you’ve got to double or triple your targets. I personally don’t know any L6s who have been promoted to L7s.

Boston, USA: I know a handful of PMs who are L7, but only 1 woman. It’s disappointing that there aren’t more women who are L7s. I know someone who came in as L6 and is now L8, but it took about 8 years at Amazon to get there.

Boston, USA: It takes 3–4 years to get promoted 1 level, because they need solid proof over a few years that you’re incredible. Getting INTO Amazon is one thing, but you’re assumed to be “below the bar” until proven otherwise, and meeting the “bar” is a big thing inside Amazon. Everyone is thinking, “Okay, you interviewed well, and the business will be around tomorrow regardless, but are you better than the top 50% of other L6 PMs?” We all know the “Director” who interviewed well, but 10 days into the job, everyone realizes should’ve been a Jr. Associate. So there’s high pressure once you get in to perform.

London, UK: My boss does not try to help me. He is extremely smart, but there is no way I can get promoted. To get promoted, I have to do his job. And this is a guy who has been at Amazon for 10 years, developing expertise in this line of business, after he finished his MBA from a top business school. I cannot compete with his level of knowledge or intuitive understanding of this business. My only option is to change teams or leave Amazon.

Comparison to Startups

Boston, USA: Let’s say you want to tweak an API. That might be a 2-line code change, which at a startup, would be deployed in a few days. At Amazon, that will take 6–7 weeks, even if I have 20 major enterprise customers who all want this change and agree on it. Amazon can’t afford mistakes, so everything has to go through 4–5 layers of approval before you can get it done. This could be because I work in enterprise.

Boston, USA: I like my boss at Amazon. Maybe it’s my reference point. He’s not good with people and feelings, and he’s not sure how to help me solve problems, but he cares about me. When I tell him I need help, he’ll tell me to come up with solutions, and then he’ll offer to help implement them. That’s way more than I got from my managers at three other early stage, venture-backed startups I worked at. Startups are so focused on survival that I mostly felt that my managers wondered why I was asking them for their time. So compared to that, it was an upgrade, but it doesn’t compare to the cultures of PM mentorship at other big tech companies like Microsoft.

Day in the Life (Covid Edition)

Boston, USA: Why is the job hard? Sometimes, I feel my job was more clear when working at startups. On any given day I have 6–8 hours of meetings, and that’s separate from the 4-6 hours of core work I need to do around product strategy, pricing, writing reports for meetings, etc. That means I need to get it all done in snatches of 30 minutes here and there and the rest has to be done after I’m tired from a full day of meetings. Looking at tomorrow, I need to attend 4 hours of meetings where I don’t say a thing, just in case they need my input since I know a lot about a piece of it.

Boston, USA: Covid has changed things. My goal is to survive. Everyone’s standards seem to have lowered. Living alone during lockdown is so tough. My colleagues love working from home. I miss the office. If I go to the office, there are only 3 people there. I can’t wait for us all to go back to work. I’m pretty sure I already had Covid in February, because I felt like I had smoked 20 packs of cigarettes and was bedridden, and that was the most sick I’ve ever been. So I’m not worried about getting it anymore. I just want to see people again.

Getting an Interview

Boston, USA: Getting an interview at Amazon is hard. Many HMs (Hiring Managers) don’t believe that recruiters know how to screen for great candidates, so they often prefer direct referrals. If you haven’t worked as a Product Manager at a well known tech company, I’d definitely recommend getting direct referrals to HMs in case you get screened out. If you do get an interview, 90% of it consists of behavioral questions focused on Amazon's 14 Leadership Principles.

How to Quickly and Effectively Prepare for PM Interviews

Several senior product managers recommend using Rocketblocks to prepare. While the free primer provides a comprehensive overview, the paid product offers hundreds of timed “Drills”, which senior PMs say is similar to real interviews at top tech companies. Since drill answers can be checked against expert answers and are supplemented with concise, relevant learning material, the program is consistent with best practice on accelerated learning.

In general, most top tech companies expect applicants to have studied Cracking the PM Interview, and the key technical concepts from the book are summarized in the open-sourced project, “Tech Interview Cheat Sheet.” To help frame effective answers to behavioral questions, 22 Principles for Product Managers provides high-value heuristics applicable across companies. The Product Manager Interview provides many case examples.

Aside from thorough studying, successful applicants spend 40-50% of interview preparation time in roleplay with other professionals. This is required to identify blind spots and smoothly handle unexpected questions.

For Amazon, since the vast majority of interview questions are exclusively focused on testing for Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles (LPs), Dan Croitor’s YouTube series is widely recommended by recruiters, current employees, and even exclusive interview preparation bootcamps. Since the LPs are tested in every interview regardless of role, most Amazon employees can provide feedback with mock interviews.

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