I spoke with Grace Yeung, co-founder of Product Buds and incoming PM at Salesforce, about her experience as a product manager intern and how other PM interns can thrive in the role. This interview has been edited and lightly arranged for clarity, with my main takeaways summarized in bold.
Goals of an Internship
What were your goals at your internships?
At Salesforce, my goals were firstly to perform really well on my projects, and ensure that I was contributing in some way to whatever future vision that my manager and the team had set out for the project. Whether that be conducting primary and secondary research via interviews, surveys, focus groups, and online research, or driving the product forward in the lifecycle by assisting engineers with the development and clearing roadblocks for them. Or later on in the product lifecycle, collecting feedback from customers and continually iterating on product features. So that was a big component of a product internally.
Takeaway: Dive right in and buy into the project, team, and company. A mindset of “This project is not important” or “I’m not going to take the mission seriously” will inhibit your effort, attitude, and performance. Behave like a full member of the team.
Second, building relationships. I made a very deliberate effort to get to know as many of my colleagues as possible, both within and outside of my team. At GE lighting, I actually went all the way up to having lunches with some of the C suite executives because there actually weren’t that many people on the campus headquarters that I was working at. It was intimidating sitting there and talking to the CEO, but I experienced that he’s just as human as anyone else. That really was a humbling experience. At Salesforce, even though that was a virtual internship, I did over 60 virtual coffee chats with product managers, designers, engineers, directors, and fellow interns. So getting to know people, build relationships, expand my network was another big goal.
Lastly, professional and personal growth and development. Making sure that throughout my entire internship, I’m always upskilling myself, up-leveling myself, whether it be reading more books about product management, or learning more about the technology that I was working with. For example at Salesforce, we have so many products, so you can and go online to the trailhead website and do modules to learn more about sales, courses, products, and features and how to use those products.
Takeaway: It’s easy to forget that learning doesn’t stop when you leave a class lecture. Internships are the perfect place to experiment and practice the techniques and frameworks you hear about. Learn about the work you’re doing, but also about how you’re doing your work.
I wanted to talk about the lunches and coffee chats you had at Salesforce, up to the C suite at GE lighting. This is widely repeated advice — network. I want to ask a more tactical question for current interns: What do you talk about in these calls?
The questions that you ask are going to depend on who you’re speaking to, what their area of expertise is, and their personality. If you’re talking to someone as senior as a CEO, you want to make sure that the questions are very professional in nature, and relate them to their experiences, how you can learn from them.
For example, and honestly this is regardless of their seniority, I love the question “What’s your story? Can you tell me more about your career journey? What led you to where you are now, both the achievements, but also be rejections or failures, low points.”
I love that question because as an intern, you’re almost always going to suffer from imposter syndrome. You’re always going to be surrounded by people who are more knowledgeable and more experienced and have very high credentials. But you can ask them to tell their story in a way that is vulnerable, and it allows you to humanize them a little bit more. It allows you to see “Okay, there are human just like I am, and they have emotions, and they have a family and they have passions and dreams, but also insecurities.”
I also really love asking people for their advice. But before you go in, share some context with them. Who are you? What are you struggling with? And then pose a question that question that hopefully they can answer. If you’re asking a software engineer who has no experience in product management, questions about product management, they’ll direct you to somebody else. So make sure you’re utilizing the time effectively based on who you’re speaking to, but approaching them in a way that is more genuine than “How’s the weather?”
Takeaway: Interns have a great opportunity for networking and learning, even with senior employees in the company. Use the opportunity to learn how they’re similar to you, and how bridge the gap between you and them.
Building Skills Across Internships
Across your multiple internships, how have your skills built upon each other and compounded as you went from one to the next?
When I was at GE lighting, that was my very first product management experience. And I did not know what product management was. I didn’t know what it took to be a successful product manager. And it wasn’t until a couple months into that internship that I really felt like I had a good grasp on those two things.
I also learned how to collaborate across many different teams in engineering, design, and business during multiple stages of the product lifecycle for our smart home lighting products. This was very interesting because at GE lighting, the Smart Home products that I was working with were not only physical hardware products, but also firmware, and a connected mobile app. Because I was working with both hardware and software and engineers and designers who understood both, I learned a lot about product management from a more holistic standpoint, and the particular challenges that you deal with when you’re working with hardware. And I learned what practices it takes to make a successful product. For example, deeply empathizing with your customers. I did so many interviews and focus groups while I was there. And ruthless prioritization of feature requests.
So all of those things I took from GE Lighting to Salesforce. And when I went to Salesforce, I was also out of my element because firstly, the internship was remote. I never got to meet any of my team members. I was working with team members in different time zones. So, the challenges associated with that compounded on top of the fact that I was no longer working with B2C hardware products — I was working with B2B software products. So there I discovered that I needed to learn how to continue to be adaptable and autonomous in my work as well as accountable for the results that I produced. Regardless of that fact that I’m not sitting in the same room as my manager.
The Salesforce internship not only taught me those technical skills and product skills, but also what type of culture I want in a company. And the type of culture that I really enjoy is one that is shaped by a commitment to customer success, innovation, equality, trust, transparency, and empathy.
Takeaway: Different skills come at difference stages, not all at once. Grace focused on execution skills in her first internship, and up-leveled to focusing on being a good teammate, accountability, and autonomy in her second internship.
If you were to redo your internships, what would you change?
I try not to live with too many regrets. But if I were to look deeply within myself and reflect, I wish I spent more time at the beginning of the internship — and whenever I was given a new project — setting up some quantitative metrics of success for myself and the project. Because when I finished that internship, I struggled with finding those quantitative metrics to put on my resume. Some of the products I was working on were going to be launching much later, after my internship was over, and those metrics wouldn’t be available yet.
Another thing that I’m referring to is measuring your work. For example, you might be working on some user testing. And you want to make sure that you set a goal for the net promoter score, or customer satisfaction score. How many testers do you want to test this product? Or other eventually quantitative measures of success can you capture to ensure that you’re confident in your decision about launching this product to the market.
And if you can’t set metrics like that, talk to your manager and ask “What do you want to see out of this project by the time I’m finished with it?” Make sure that you are really clear with your manager about what the end objective is, and what the impact is on the business that you’re hoping to achieve. This helps you thoughtfully talk about the the work that you did in a future interviews.
Takeaway: Don’t make it your only goal, but do keep in mind how you’ll present your current work in future conversations. It’s prudent, and ensures you maximize your ROI during your internship.
With Salesforce, I wish I had gotten Salesforce certified before starting the internship. Getting a Salesforce certification requires time, but it allows you to gain such a deeper knowledge and appreciation for Salesforce’s core products. If I had that knowledge coming into the internship, I would have saved a lot of time that was spent asking questions, looking up answers, and really feeling stressed out about some of the work that I was doing.
After my internship was over, I did get Salesforce certified. It was a time consuming process, but worthwhile. And regardless of where you’re working, make sure you have that base knowledge of the products that you’re working on.
Takeaway: Be an actual user of your product. This is good advice for interns, aspiring PMs, and full-time PMs alike. It’s hard to properly PM a product that you don’t understand or have a connection with.
I really liked your advice to have a conversation with your manager about what goals you’re trying to achieve and how can you work towards those over the course of the internship. Managers are on your side. They’re there to see you succeed and to help you. Having that that conversation and setting the stage right at the beginning allows maximum time for you to develop and execute a plan and ultimately achieve the goals that you both set for the internship.
The Interdisciplinary Role
I want to point out this breath of experience: hardware versus software, B2B versus B2C, virtual versus remote, all these different contrasting experiences. The goal is not to necessarily say, “Now that I’ve done both, I can, with equal confidence and competence, do both of these jobs.” Rather, now you have points of comparison, and you can define the spectrum. You can say, “Well, here’s the problem. I have these different tools that can apply to different situations.”
Being exposed to these different options so early on in your career is an incredibly valuable experience, even if you never actually work on a hardware product again. Just knowing the types of problems and solutions that exist is extremely valuable knowledge.
Definitely. I encourage everyone listening to be open minded to different types of products and industries and companies and cultures. Because there’s no such thing as wasted time or wasted effort. Every single experience that you have, whether in product management or elsewhere, teaches you something that you can compound and bring to your next experience.
That’s important to keep in mind, especially for college students. We often become very stubborn and say, “Okay, this is the only thing that I want to do. And if I don’t do this, then all is done.” But, when I started college and was looking for my first internship, I was set on marketing. But then, obviously, I was led to product management. And I don’t see the time in marketing as wasted. There’re so many great concepts and skills in marketing that I carried over to product management.
Exactly. Talking about how interdisciplinary the role is, it’s hard to have such a thing as wasted experience as a product manager.
Takeaway: Product Management is interdisciplinary, and having diverse experiences is a strength. When looking at your history, your skills, focus on what you bring, not what you lack.