Successful Product Internships
Here is a blueprint on how to create successful internships in product management — achieving goals for interns (get hired) and managers (build a great product talent pool). You can find templates for all mentioned documents linked at the end. I used this process at forto (Berlin-based log-tech unicorn, where I was VP product) while we scaled from 80 to >900 people and I hired many people from internships into full-time positions.
This article refers to the German TECH scene. The US and other hubs work differently, nevertheless — if you already scored or planned an internship in product, this article can help you to make the most out of it. Disclaimer: This article covers how to have a great internship, not how to score an internship.
Applicant / product intern view: this article will help you understand how a professional process could look like from an employer perspective. So if you haven’t seen your manager in the first two internship weeks, did not have an expectation-setting kick-off discussion etc. etc. → you are prepared to offer some improvement suggestions. ;) An internship is a serious commitment from your side and this article will help you get the most out of it.
Step 1: Recruit and Interview with a Strong Filter
The fact is: product is a very demanding area. If there is no strong recruiting process, neither the candidate or the company will be happy. Candidates won’t get full time offers and companies cannot hire interns to entry-level product roles.
Therefore I recommend a pretty thorough CV screening with high to very high expectations. As a manager, decide what qualifications you really expect and then screen with your people team. Otherwise you will drown in applications as TECH is a super-hot area for potential interns.
Applicant view: keep your application short and professional, highlighting your strengths and aptitude for product. As always, if you can find a way to personally meet people (e.g. at company events, video conferences) try to use that to understand what the company is looking for, then apply.
At forto (Berlin-based tech-logistics unicorn) we successfully ran product intern hiring like this:
- CV screening: max. 15–20% of applicants passed this stage
- Senior Product Manager interview, 1h including a case study
- Director Product or even VP Product interview, 15-30m interview
Why the Director/VP interview? You should only hire top talents, no compromises. All product interns should have the potential to become a full-time hire, otherwise you are risking too much valuable product time.
Note: this process description was true from ca. 120 to 500 overall employees, then VPs dropped out of the recruiting for interns.
Step 2: Define Expectations and Internship Goals
Congratulations, you made it into the internship.
Here are some good goals for a product internship that can enable somebody to go from intern to associate product manager in six months.
Goals Month 1–3:
- Get to know the team
- Get started on working with tickets, stakeholders and engineers
- Launch a feature
- Research one feature for the future (quantitative and qualitative)
- Present either your research or feature within product team
Goals Month 4–6:
- Achieve Associate PM Level (see product mgmt skill set)
- Research a medium-sized feature
- Launch a couple of medium-sized features
- Develop positive and productive relationships with engineers, design and stakeholders
- Own a couple of key results from the TECH team’s OKRs for the respective quarter
- Present research, feature and impact within product teams and to engineers/stakeholders
The manager should review the progress on all of these goals with the product intern regularly in your 1:1s.
“I had never worked with engineers prior to my internship. But after 3 months I had already launched several small features (front-end design components) and worked my way up to more and complex deliveries in the weeks after”
Step 3: Run a Clear Internship Process
To have a successful internship for both sides, you should run a clear internship process. Through this process you will discover the individual fit and strengths of the intern to his role.
Core Development Meetings: Kick-Off, Half-Time, Final Check
Kick-off for intern and manager in first 2 days of the internship, 60 minutes
Mode: intern prepares, manager reads & prepares, discussion and review
Why: Match a structured set of personal goals with overall internship goals. This allows to clearly create a roadmap and track development to ensure the best outcome from the internship for both sides.
B. Half-Time Internship Discussion:
Same drill as before: read, prepare answers and review.
Why: the half-time meeting is crucial. As a leader you now have a baseline of performance of this intern. Together with the intern you can now set ambitous goals for the second half of the internship. At the end of the intership you evaluate the learning curve. How fast did this person get better, how fast did she learn? This gives you an idea for intern potential.
C. Final Internship Discussion:
Read, prepare answers and review with your manager. Discuss what made you achieve your goals and what held you behind as a final feedback and assess further development areas.
Managers need to assess candidate performance at this point and get ready to make an offer or not.
At forto we actually ran interns with great performance in their first 5 months through a reduced interviewing process. One senior product manager interview (1h) + 1 HR interview + final decision at product leadership.
Regular Check-Ins and 1:1 meetings (+ support materials)
- 1:1 meetings: Regular manager and intern one on one meetings should be scheduled in the first week
- Tasks & Org: Structuring your internship kick-off is crucial if you want a smooth and good experience. We used a standardized “1:1 Manager/Intern” Asana project, including all initial tasks and deadlines and comments.
Other product resources:
This article covers how to have a successful product management internship:
- Recruit and Interview with a Strong Filter
- Define Expectations and Internship Goals
- Run a Clear Internship Process
Leverage a kick-off, half-time check-in and final discussion to structure the internship. Have regular 1:1s to ensure progress. Enjoy seeing bright young people grow into challenges and take on their first full-time positions at your company!
Personal note: I’ve left forto after 4 amazing years earlier this year. I’m now building my own startup with the mission to help tech talents and tech leaders achieve their potential. Technology is one of the great forces moving humanity forward and I believe we should always try to get better and more effective! These articles & resources are a tiny contribution towards that goal.