This is a story I did not expect to write.
In 2016, I applied to Facebook’s RPM program. Even with a referral, I was cast aside.
In 2017, a friend intro’d me to a tiny startup. I joined as “Head of Analytics” 😅. Within two weeks, I started working to solve a major business crisis, and became a PM.
Fast forward to 2020, the tiny startup grew into a multibillion-dollar company. Along the way, I’ve shipped hundreds of features, and managed other PMs.
Then Facebook came knocking with PM openings. Curious, I went through the interview process to put my learnings to the test. I wound up with a $300K offer including salary and equity, which I negotiated to $375K. In the end, I walked away.
It’s been a wild adventure, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned: how I prepped, mistakes made, negotiation tactics, the secrets behind compensation, and how this newsletter boosted Facebook's interest.
I was surprised by how much advice the recruiter gave on acing the interviews, including a document with sample questions. There were only two rounds of interviews. Round 1 would consist of execution (diagnosing a problem and coming up with next steps) and product sense (coming up with customer-friendly solutions).
I was fairly confident in execution because I’ve interviewed a lot of PM candidates on the topic. Here’s an article I wrote about handling metric-related questions, an approach that impressed my interviewer.
I was less comfortable with product sense. The concept of building X for Y on the fly is mind-boggling to me, so I focused my mock interviews here.
- Make it feel real. To that end, talking out loud is very helpful - maybe even record yourself if you feel up to it
- Understand the difference between bad vs. good vs. great answers - this seems like an underserved area. I searched for answers online to see what I missed, and wrote down how I could improve
- Structured responses are important because they show you can drive clarity. Preparing flexible frameworks will help you deliver on this consistently
- Performance is heavily dependent on the questions, so try to see every interview as an independent event. To paraphrase a Michael Jordan quote: why worry about missing a shot you haven’t taken? I bombed some mocks, and still got an offer. The purpose of practice is to challenge yourself
In a surprising turn of events, I ended up doing better on product sense than execution, which shows the difference practice makes. In the execution interview, I forgot to explicitly define the timeframe (e.g., daily users instead of cumulative users) and the interviewer had to nudge me. A few nudges are ok, but it’s better to proactively clarify along the way.
For product sense, I was asked to build a product to help people with layovers. I love to travel, so this was fun for me. I came up with a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary. I brought the interview along my thought process, so he was sold on the solution. I also explained how I would integrate with the airlines, so passengers could get an invite to begin their adventure upon landing. Add-on details are not critical, but showing you understand what makes a great customer experience is a nice touch.
It took a week, but the feedback came back overwhelmingly positive.
Carried by a gust of new confidence, I prepared for the new interview format, leadership & drive. To do this, I came up with 3-4 unique stories from my time as a PM that would serve as useful lego blocks to answer a variety of behavioral questions.
Even if you don't have prior product experience, I recommend reflecting on three types of stories: when you overcame an unexpected obstacle, when you found an opportunity that drove business outcomes, and when you worked through team conflicts.
- Keep your stories to ~2-3 minutes, so the interviewer can ask follow-ups. Writing your stories down makes it easier to trim the fat
- Start with the headline. The best stories give people a reason to listen
- A good story is a lego block that can be used in many ways. The project you're most proud of may have been riddled with obstacles; the time you overcame said obstacle may have involved team conflicts or uncovered an overlooked business opportunity.
Two days after my final round, I heard back with a $300K offer for an L5 PM role.
How I negotiated (and why you should too)
I used to feel bad about negotiating. Then I had some aha moments:
- Companies expect you to negotiate. Your initial offer is much lower than what they’re willing to pay you
- The money comes from the company’s budget, not your manager’s. It’s best to negotiate through the recruiter when you can though
- Once a company extends an offer, they are incentivized to sign you. They monitor yield closely (% of offers that get accepted) and want to bring it up
- To get what you want, have a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) aka quality backup options
- Negotiation boosts their perception of YOUR value, as long as you do so in good faith. Good faith = mean what you say, but you don’t have to say everything!
For example, I didn’t share details on my existing pay because I wanted an offer based on the value I could create for Facebook. Using levels.fyi I knew $300K was on the lower end of the compensation band for L5, so there was plenty of room to negotiate.
I met with the Instagram Reels team that was interested in me. Up until this point, I approached the whole thing as a curious adventure. Suddenly, I could see myself joining the team. Such is the magic of salesmanship. I decided to make a bold commitment.
If they could bring the total compensation to $400K, I would sign. Immediately.
The team was psyched. I was psyched. They said they would talk to the recruiter and compensation team.
I’ve since learned that the compensation team exists as a check and balance for situations like mine. They set compensation, not the hiring manager. They do it based on leveling, which is determined by interview performance and years of experience, the latter of which caps you.
My experience put me at an L4 or L5, but no higher. I later learned that a typical L5 has a median of 8 years of experience. I had 3 years of experience in product, and 5 years total. Not bad.
Here’s the kicker: people can get paid out of band for their level (i.e., $400K for L5). It’s very rare, but it can happen if you are a strong hire, and have a qualifying event like an IPO, secondary, or bonus that exceeds the offer. Sadly, I did not have an upcoming cash bonanza.
I stuck to my guns and said $400K or no deal.
I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not have a sophisticated formula behind this. I have a few million in stock options, but they are illiquid. $400K felt right for the liquidity I would get, and the value they would get.
The compensation team did not see it this way, however, because most of my existing compensation is locked up in illiquid options. They made begrudgingly small adjustments to my offer. Meanwhile, the Reels team went into overdrive.
How this newsletter boosted interest
The more I resisted, the more interested the team became. They found an article I wrote about TikTok. They told me they paused conversations with all other candidates because I had a unique understanding of the space.
They had directors, VPs and even the Head of Instagram reach out to me. I tried not to get swept up in the fanfare. How long before Zuck himself came calling?
In all seriousness, I was getting a front-row seat to the way big companies work: the time they spent courting me far exceeded the cost of simply giving me what I asked for. But because of rules beyond their control, we all had to play along.
The negotiation stretched for weeks. Finally, I decided it wasn’t going anywhere. I had to pull the plug. The team panicked and the compensation team gave a final, Hail Mary offer: $375K.
I turned it down.
All this… for what?
Truth be told, I believe $375K is a fair offer. An incremental $25K would not change my life. I walked away because the negotiation process reminded me of the rules of working at a big company. Not my cup of tea.
In hindsight, the biggest mistake in my calculation was not accounting for the cost in exercising my stock options, which is hefty enough to perhaps be considered a qualifying event. I recommend trying it if you're in a similar position.
As for me, I see this as a triumph. The most we can ask of experiences that don’t work out perfectly is that they teach us something. I got that, and much more. I met impressive people. I made some mistakes. And now I get to share them with you to hopefully save you some time and money, or at the very least, offer popcorn entertainment.
P.S. soon after walking away from the offer, I decided to walk away from corporate life altogether.