From Subway Sandwich Artist to Facebook Product Manager
My four-year journey of personal growth, career pivots and life lessons
Hey there! I'm Will Lawrence, product manager at Facebook. Product Life is my weekly newsletter where I write about product strategy, career advice and frameworks I'm using to navigate life. If this sounds like a good time, sign up so you don't miss any articles.
This article was originally shared on Medium in 2018.
August 27th, 2014, I received my first salaried job offer to become a Sandwich Artist at Subway. Just over four years later, I accepted my offer to join Facebook as a Product Manager in their Rotational Product Manager Program. Even writing that down, I still can’t believe it and I’m so excited to get started.
I wanted to share the story of the last four years for two reasons:
To share the lessons I learned at key parts of the journey, and
To show the work that went on behind the scenes of something I’m really proud of
It wasn’t an easy or linear path, but that’s what makes it meaningful to me. This is neither a short post nor a step-by-step guide on how to get a job at Facebook, but hopefully sharing what I learned through every part of the journey can help you navigate your future (I’ve also left some key takeaways at the bottom).
Subway, San Francisco and China
After high school, I moved from Toronto to Vancouver and enrolled in the Bachelor of International Economics Program at the University of British Columbia. I got my aforementioned Sandwich Artist gig as a way of earning some income to pay for school.
Subway was tough. I would always work morning shifts and the bulk of my job was cutting four vegetables: tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and onions. Every morning, without fail, I would cut the onions and start to cry. To make matters worse, my hands would smell like onions for the rest of the day and people in the class would even comment on the smell. The people I worked with were great (and even snuck me some 6" subs every now and then), but after a few months, I knew I needed to get a different job.
So I looked at the skills I had and started to work on some projects. The only “professional” skill I had at the time was social media marketing, which I learned by growing my own Twitter following, so I started to write and market articles online to show how I grew my following. My hope was that by sharing my strategies, I would be able to practice social media content marketing and build my own experiences. People made fun of me for being a “try-hard”, but I tried to brush it off. I found that sharing my work publicly was hard and opened me up to criticism. I found, however, that my real friends encouraged my work and offered me feedback instead of judgment.
Going out to events hosted by my university’s entrepreneurship club also got me involved with a Kickstarter campaign with two awesome Vancouver entrepreneurs. The campaign was for a card game that taught kids the fundamentals of coding logic and it gave me experience with product marketing, developing a go-to-market strategy and working with startup founders.
Between this campaign and publishing a few articles, I was able to land my first internship as a Marketing Intern with The C100 Association in San Francisco. I was EXTREMELY fortunate that my older brother was living in SF and I could stay with him rent-free, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to take this internship.
What I learned:
Start somewhere — I didn’t know if Marketing was my “dream career”, but I had to start somewhere. Leverage your current skills and start accumulating interesting experiences rather than pondering your ideal career path.
Put something out there — sharing my project publicly spoke a lot to my proactivity, knowledge level, and passion for a specific role. I encourage everyone to start putting things out there, regardless of what people say.
Although I learned that marketing wasn’t for me that summer, going to San Francisco exposed me to some really interesting people and opportunities. An example of this was when I met someone who was in The Cansbridge Fellowship — a scholarship for young Canadian entrepreneurs that gives 15 students a grant to take an internship in Asia while giving them access to an awesome alumni base in the Bay Area. The idea of going abroad and meeting people who were also interested in startups/technology was really exciting to me, but I was intimidated by the application process. I didn’t really identify as an “entrepreneur” and didn’t think I met all of the criteria, but I threw in an application anyways. I received an interview and found that the initiative I had taken with publishing articles, running a Kickstarter campaign, and working in San Francisco demonstrated an “entrepreneurial inclination”. I applied in September of 2015 and got accepted to the program that December!
A major part of the program was a self-directed job hunt for an internship in Asia. This was a really demoralizing process. I had never networked for any job before, let alone an internship in countries I had never been to! After about 4 months of failed job applications and networking dead-ends, I began speaking to the Chief Strategy Officer of Sunteng, an Ad-tech company in Guangzhou, China. At this point, I was desperate to land an internship for the summer and when he asked what I could do for their team, I oversold myself and said that I could use my marketing experience to redesign their website. The next thing he said caught me off guard:
OK, show me what you can do. Send me your proposed redesign by the end of the weekend and we’ll see if we want to move forward.
I was nervous. It’s really easy to talk-the-talk, but landing a summer internship was now dependent on my ability to walk-the-walk. That weekend, I spent a ton of time researching website design best-practices, seeing how competitors had marketed their product, and learning about the company’s products. I made mockups of my redesigned website proposal (in Keynote nonetheless) and documented my thought process in detail. I learned a lot that weekend, and fortunately my hard work paid off: I got an offer to join the company as a Strategy Intern in Guangzhou, China for the summer.
What I learned:
Experience compounds — writing articles, getting involved in the Kickstarter campaign and doing my first internship helped me land my next internship. Start getting experience as early as possible and leverage that for the next step.
Nervousness indicates growth opportunities — I was really nervous to redesign a website in a weekend, but I learned a lot from it. I found that nervousness towards an action often indicates an opportunity to learn. Use your nerves as a compass for new opportunities to try.
Prove your value — when applying to a job, build a business plan, redesign a website or create a marketing plan to show your commitment and skills. Most people won’t bother doing this because they can’t walk-the-walk, so show that you can in order to stand out from the crowd.
China was a pivotal experience for me. The team I worked with at Sunteng was incredibly friendly and let me have some amazing experiences over the summer, including going to Techcrunch Shanghai, the RISE Conference in Hong Kong and spending two weeks in their Beijing office. But it was also lonely living in a city where I didn’t know anyone prior to arriving, didn’t speak either of the local languages, and was far-removed from my friends and family back home. My girlfriend got me a journal and encouraged me to keep writing down my thoughts regularly that summer. I tried to write in this journal every Sunday and it really helped me reflect on these challenges. Here’s an excerpt where I came to an important conclusion about my learnings:
I’ve been a little down these past few weeks and have been counting down the days until I’m back in Canada. But I’m starting to put these last few weeks into the context of my summer as a new experience. I’ve never experienced loneliness, full-time work, or tough goodbyes. But having these episodes helps me learn who I am.
While I didn’t enjoy these emotional and ambiguous challenges at the time, I found that I matured and grew a lot from the experience.
Professionally, I also started to fall in love with User Experience (UX) Design at work. I had the opportunity to fully design the prototype for a new mobile CRM tool, conduct usability studies on the company’s products and work with the product team to update the website. Halfway through the summer I knew I wanted to try an internship in UX Design and I started to tell all my friends about my interest. One of my friends, who was then doing an internship at Microsoft, said she would be happy to give me a referral but I had to give her my portfolio in a week. Another tight deadline, but I was able to get my UX design portfolio done and she submitted a referral on my behalf.
Big Tech: Microsoft & Tumblr
A few months passed and I forgot about Microsoft — that is until I got contacted by a recruiter in October 2016 to start the interview process. My jaw hit the floor and I couldn’t believe my luck. Microsoft was a company that billions of people interacted with daily, and I couldn’t fathom the idea of working there.
My phone interview went really well and I was then invited to an onsite interview with other people interviewing for UX Design and Software Engineering internships.
Studying Economics, I had major imposter syndrome on that interview day. All the other designers were studying design, had multiple internships in the field (at places like Shopify and IBM, nonetheless) and even dressed way more like a designer than I did (I was in a dress shirt and khakis). I knew I was the least experienced and thought that maybe I was only here because I got a referral.
But I went through the interview process — which consisted of a 15-min portfolio presentation followed by 4 interviews — with a strategy: to convey a unique and compelling narrative of why I want to build great products. I spoke about my ablity to build products for the Chinese audience, why I loved launching the educational card game on Kickstarter and how I had a background in project management. I felt this would make me more competitive as I couldn’t compete on just my design chops alone (as I would definitely fail). That plan seemed to have worked — I got an offer and I started my internship as a User Experience Design Intern at Microsoft Vancouver in January of 2017.
What I learned:
Share your career hypotheses — I wanted to get into design, so I told others about that goal. These people either challenged my hypothesis or helped me get to the next step.
The only job requirement is the ability to do the job well — I met less than 20% of the “requirements” for Microsoft’s UX Designer job description. But I knew that I was able to do the job well if I got a chance. Don’t let “requirements” stand in your way.
Focus on your narrative — This is key for anyone trying to break into a field where they don’t meet all the criteria in the job description. Keep trying to bring the conversation to your unique story that makes you a compelling candidate.
My internship at Microsoft was in the Garage — their “department” for experimental projects. The format of the internship was unique: a team of 6 (5 developers and 1 designer) would work for 4 months on a project pitched by a team at Microsoft. My awesome team of 6 (pictured below) worked with Microsoft Teams to launch a bot that helped teams coordinate lunch plans. I loved this internship and I’ve already spoken about the key elements of my experience and the lessons learned in depth.
In the internship, I started to gravitate towards tasks that I later learned were traditionally filled by a product manager — including deciding feature milestones, giving presentations on progress, and advocating for the user. This gave me an inkling that maybe UX Design wasn’t the right position for me (I actually asked my manager “What role do you see me in?” and he started his response with “Probably not a designer…”). Since I thought the role of a Product Manager was something that required a few years in a different role — like a designer, software engineer, or data analyst — I decided to give data analytics a try.
This took me to Tumblr (my first time in New York City!) where I was a Business Analyst Intern on the Global Growth Strategy & Brand team. In this role, I learned SQL and worked mainly on product analytics projects, including evaluating the effect of different push notification formats on 7 day retention. I enjoyed the ability to work directly with the product and data science teams to evaluate different features and even had a chance to present one of my projects to 60+ employees at Lunch and Learn. While I loved being more technical, however, I knew that I wanted to work on building a product more directly.
What I learned:
Self-directed learning > school learning — Many people have asked, “If you study economics, how did you work as a UX Designer?” The key lesson I learned was that what you learn outside the classroom, through books, hackathons, or online courses are A) more directly applicable to professional work and B) demonstrate a real passion for the subject matter.
Hustle into Product
I left my internship at Tumblr with a newfound confidence in my abilities. I started to realize that my strengths were in breaking down complex problems into manageable pieces. I also learned that I was a quick-learner and could pick up challenging skills in a few weeks. I decided that for my next internship, I wanted to really challenge myself and take on either a role in Data Science or Product Management — two fields that were definitely a “stretch” for my background, but could therefore provide the biggest growth opportunities.
When I enter any interview process, I put all my eggs into one basket and typically give that process 120% of my effort and energy (i.e. I’m not the type to apply to 40 jobs and interview at seven different companies in a week). The challenge with this though is that failure is all the more disappointing as you’ve sunk considerable energy and time into something with no success. This happened to me three times over the next few months, while I was interviewing for a Program Manager role at Microsoft and Data Science roles at Yelp and LinkedIn. Final round for all of them — but no luck in the end.
Fortunately, I was able to nab an awesome internship at Siftery — a fast-growing B2B startup in San Francisco. The role was a challenging combination of product management, enterprise sales and product analytics. The main things this role taught me were how to hustle and to learn by doing. For example, I had never done a sales call prior to the internship, but within a week of being there I had a full week of demos planned with founders, executives, and CTOs alike. It was nerve-wracking, but a huge growth opportunity.
In San Francisco, I started to learn that there were Product Manager programs for new-grads, like Associate Product Manager programs for Uber, Google, and Lyft. I also heard that they were incredibly competitive, but I knew that being a Product Manager was my dream. I knew I wanted to go all-in again.
Towards the end of the summer, I attended an info session for Facebook’s Rotational Product Manager (RPM) program. At the session, I met other attendees who had extremely impressive (and therefore intimidating) backgrounds. This reinforced the idea that maybe I wasn’t good enough to get in.
But when the presentation started, I could see that the RPM program was the perfect fit for me: an 18-month program that rotates you through the most widely used consumer products in the world including Instagram, WhatsApp, and, of course, Facebook. Importantly, Facebook emphasizes your product sense and execution abilities over your technical background, which was much more aligned with my strengths. I didn’t get a referral because I didn’t know many people at Facebook, but I applied anyways and heard back that I had a phone interview!
Facebook’s RPM interview process consisted of three stages: a phone screen, two technical video calls, and an onsite. I had never interviewed for a Product Manager role at a company like Facebook, so I knew that I would actively need to prepare. I picked up Lewis Lin’s Decode & Conquer, Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro’s Cracking the PM Interview, and spent 3–4 hours every day during my interview process preparing.
The phone screen was a series of classic behavioural questions that I felt comfortable answering. The technical calls were more challenging. One tested your “Product Sense”, how you design a solution to an ambiguous problem (A classic example: How would you design a phone for the blind?). The other tested your “Execution”, which centred around choosing the right metric to prioritize (Ex. How would you measure the success of Facebook Stories?). Having done UX Design interviews before, I felt that Product Sense went better than my Execution interview. Fortunately, I did well on the aggregate and advanced to the onsite.
When I arrived at Facebook campus, I soon learned that I was the only new-grad candidate amongst a group of experienced and MBA candidates. It reminded me of my interview at Microsoft and imposter syndrome started to kick back in. I went to the bathroom to take a minute to collect myself and think back to all my experienced that got me here — cutting onions at Subway, facing emotional challenges in China, and hustling for jobs at some of the coolest companies in the world. I felt like I had a unique path to this interview and that I was far from a “cookie-cutter” candidate. I convinced myself that I deserved to be here and decided to give it 120% again.
The onsite featured more behavioural, product sense and execution questions. Everyone I met seemed excited about their job, spoke candidly about some of their challenges with work and why they joined Facebook. My first interview went well, which helped me compound confidence over my next two. I felt strong coming out of the onsite and I genuinely enjoyed the experience.
After my onsite, I received the following email from my recruiter:
Everyone really enjoyed speaking with you and I hope that the feeling was mutual. Before we can make a final decision on your candidacy, we would like to schedule a 30 minute follow up VC for you with the Director for the RPM program on this Friday
I was incredibly nervous and didn’t expect an interview after my onsite, but I was ready for one more step. The director of the program is a celebrity in the tech/product management space and it was a really cool opportunity to speak with him. He asked me a Product Sense style question that evolved into a really interesting conversation around bigger threats in social media, like fake news. The call ended and a few hours later I got a call from my recruiter. I got the offer.
These last four years have been a really exciting part of my life. I’ve learned a ton, met great people and dealt with quite a few challenges. I’m thankful for all the support I’ve had from friends, family and just plain luck. I’m looking forward to starting the next chapter of my life at Facebook in 2019!
I’d like to leave you with three core lessons that I’ve learned from the process:
Start anywhere and keep moving forward — Any experience is good experience. Work on interesting projects, travel when you can and expose yourself to great people. These experiences compound and will help you grow personally and professionally.
Doing > Learning — I learned early on that executing is a much better use of time than learning. If you want to do UX Design, for example, redesigning your favourite app will provide a much larger return than taking courses.
Take your career (and life) one step at a time — Your 10 year plan is daunting and should be subject to change. Think about what you want to work on today and in the next 6 months, this will lead you to a more authentic career path rather than chasing vanity metrics or titles.
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