Name: Alex Plutzer
Hometown: Stamford, CT
Undergrad: Washington University in St. Louis, Arts & Sciences
Activities: Sigma Phi Epsilon, Club Sports, Co-founder of a Failed Startup
1st Job: Sales Development Rep >> Business Analyst >> IT Product Manager @ Box
2nd Job: Product Operations @ Facebook
3rd Job: Product Manager @ Facebook
Current Job: Product Manager @ Instagram
Internships: Avatar Studios, Forest City Enterprises, Metaphase Design Group
Instagram product manager Alex Plutzer is the first to admit he didn’t have it all figured out in college. He had a somewhat winding path at WashU, beginning first in the architecture school, then anthropology before discovering his passion for technology and advertising, eventually making his way to become a product manager. Plutzer started at Box and landed a job at Facebook before Instagram. His biggest piece of wisdom: ditch the five to 10-year plans and be willing to explore.
In this interview, Alex waxes and wanes on majors to jobs to profound reflection on long-term life planning.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Stamford Connecticut, a pretty small city about an hour away from New York City. It has since become a much bigger city and now it’s kind of a cool place for new-grads to move. I kind of struggle with that, because part of me feels like it’s cool that I don’t live in my hometown anymore and that I moved away and went to school in a different city and now I’m living in San Francisco — but now where I grew up is kind of cool. Stamford is a good mix between suburban and urban and a downtown area. I feel like there is pretty good diversity, which I really like. I feel like that was a big piece of what I loved about high school especially. I went to a tiny elementary school that was private, but less stuffy private and more hippie private. Stamford High School was really cool because I was exposed to a lot of different types of people.
I was scared of growing up and working. My dad was an accountant. I saw him commuting to the city a lot and he seemed stressed out. I just knew that tax season was the worst and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I am an only child.
Did your mom work as well?
My mom had just left a successful career where she was kind of supporting my dad through law school, but she quit when I was born. She went back to school recently to get her masters degree.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I think the first thing I wanted to be was a carpenter, and I still kind of want to be a carpenter long-term. I love working with my hands, building stuff, putting things together and solving problems.
When I was growing up we had an in-law apartment attached to the house that we rented out to someone. The renter, this guy named Jack, had a huge impact on me. He was a carpenter and he’d to do work around the house sometimes to pay his rent. He would let me paint with him and help him work. When I was two or three years old I would walk around the house with a screwdriver all the time. I always wanted to build and make stuff. That was my first love. I don’t think that’s too far off from architecture, which I studied in college before I dropped it.
What was your first job where you got paid?
The first job I got paid for was a camp counselor when I was in eighth grade. It was at the same day camp I went to when I was a kid. It was a cool experience. It felt a lot of responsibility making sure I knew where the kids were at all times, but it was pretty low-key. I was the most junior counselor possible, so I was mostly just helping out and having fun. It was the first time I came home from something that felt like work.
After my freshman year in college, I worked at Eastern Mountain Sports. It’s basically like REI, but on the east coast. I sold shoes, backpacks and outdoor gear. I actually liked sales a lot. I thought it was fun to be a consultant for people.The key was, I wasn’t on commission. I was just there to help.
I had been on one of those college immersion programs, where you go to another country and travel for two weeks and then you do a small volunteer project just to put it on your college application, more or less. Because I had been on one, I wound up being a really powerful salesperson for others who were doing the same thing. A family would come in and I could say ‘Oh, I’ve been on one of these trips, and I know exactly what to get and what not to get,’ and they would trust me. I did that for a summer.
“Uncle Norm, there’s no way in hell I’m going to WashU.”
How did you get to WashU?
This is a great story. My parents both went to WashU, but they never really pressured me to go there. They met on orientation day — one of those cheesy college stories. My mom wanted me to go away somewhere to explore, like Colorado or California. My dad wanted me to stay closer to home on the East Coast. My uncle knew I was really interested in architecture, so he suggested WashU. He told me they have a great architecture school and that I really should consider it. Plus he pointed out that I have a great shot at getting in since both of my parents went there.
I remember sitting there with him at brunch, looking him in the eye and saying ‘Uncle Norm, there’s no way in hell I’m going to WashU.’ I hated the sound of it. I had heard about it for so many years. ‘Your dad and I met at WashU.’ ‘When Rich and I were at WashU…’ ‘Back at WashU…’Just hearing it gave me a headache. I hated it.
I was working with a college counselor — such a ridiculous luxury — and she was steering me toward it too. She said it’s an option that I should look at and that it would be stupid not to. So I said “Alright, fine. Whatever.” I had a family friend and a cousin who both went there, so I visited it on an architecture student weekend and I loved it, especially the food. That was my favorite part about it. I also loved the architecture school and the vibe I got. I changed my mind about it and decided to apply.
I’ve always liked to get ahead of a big decision as soon as I can so I can tackle it, get it out of the way, and then relax. It’s kind of a theme for my whole life, actually. You know how some people might wake up every day and their garbage can is broken or something, so they have to do some quirky workaround thing to get it to function every morning? They’ll never fix it. As soon as I do that workaround once, I’m going to fix it for good even if it takes a day and a half just so I never have to do it again. And then every day after that it’ll be so easy. That’s kind of how I thought about applying to college.
I remember getting the box in the mail and it had this green t-shirt and I was like ‘this is it.’ I knew WashU was the one.
What activities were you involved in at WashU?
I joined Club Tennis, but I barely ever went because I didn’t have a car and it was lazy in joining carpools to get to practice. I joined a fraternity, Sig Ep, my second semester of freshman year, which is the best thing I did while I was at WashU. I met a ton of awesome guys who really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I think it brought me out of my shell in a major way.
“When I switched to anthropology, I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew I wanted to learn more about people and how people interact with tools.”
Why did you switch majors?
I studied a lot about the design principles, which I liked, but I found the actual building of the models to be really frustrating. I don’t know what it was about architecture, but I just couldn’t figure it out. I think what I didn’t like about it was the scale. Buildings were just too big of a scale for me to wrap my head around. After two years of having such defeat and not being able to take feedback I decided to drop it and try something else. It was also when I started reading tech blogs for the first time. That’s what got me into technology. Smart phones were just kind of coming on to the scene when I was a freshman. That’s when the iPhone 3G came out. I had an iPod Touch when I was younger and I used to hack into it a little bit with one of my friends. We’d hack in and move parts of the interface around and I thought it was so cool that something in your hand could so many amazing things. It kind of fit in with carrying around that screwdriver when I was younger. This was the new cool screwdriver that could do everything.
When I switched to anthropology, I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew I wanted to learn more about people and how people interact with tools.
What tech blogs did you start reading?
I started reading Engadget.com. I haven’t read it in so long. I think it’s such a bad blog now, but I used to love it. And I’d argue in the comments about Mac vs. PC, the Nokia n95 vs. the Blackberry Curve. I started following this blog called PhoneDog.com. I don’t even know if it’s still around. And I would watch these unboxing videos. I was really focused on the size of the devices, how they fit in your hand, the size of the screen, what you could do with it. Android had just started when I was a sophomore in college. It was also blowing my mind. I think the Apple App Store had just started to catch on when I was a freshman or something. Before that, you had to hack your iPhone to load another app than what it came with. All of this stuff was still pretty new. I thought it was amazing.
“Oh, my god, this ketchup packet is the best ketchup packet that you could ever find.”
What was your first internship?
I ended up doing a semester internship with a research and design company called Metaphase Design Group in St. Louis. I feel like I did almost nothing for them, but I got to sit in the office a couple days a week and learn from them and see the work they were doing, and it was awesome.
They had developed all this cool packaging and I was like ‘Oh, my god, this ketchup packet is the best ketchup packet that you could ever find.’ It was so superior to other ketchup packets in every way. That’s when it just clicked for me that I did love design, but I wanted to do something that was a smaller scale than architecture, more personal.
At that point, and I couldn’t have articulated this to you at the time at all, but inside my head I was starting to realize that I liked designing and creating things that were more ergonomic and smaller scale. I love technology and phones because they had this Swiss Army knife functionality to them that was totally blowing my mind. And it all fit in the palm of your hand.
How did you get your internship at Metaphase?
I got it through the Anthropology department. When I switched to anthropology, the first thing I asked my advisor is how I could finish the major as quickly as possible, because I wanted flexibility to look for a job my senior year and to hang out with my friends.
When I got into anthro, I had two goals: first, I wanted to do one of these research design internships that I’d heard about and I knew the company I wanted to work with. I think someone else had done an internship at Metaphase a year or two ago. And second, I wanted to finish the major requirements early so that I could explore elective classes on anthropology or take another language, which I wound up doing. I took Japanese my senior year. The anthropology department connected me with Metaphase and set up an interview. I guess it went well since a few weeks later I was sitting at Metaphase doing design research..
“I talked to a bunch of different people on how to format my resume, which turned out to be totally useless. It doesn’t matter at all.”
How did your internship evolve into a job search; what was your initial plan?
One thing that I haven’t mentioned is that I became interested in a few classes in the art school on advertising. I had been watching Mad Men, like every other person around that time. I was fascinated by advertising, but more in a weird, cynical, manipulative way. Like ‘How can I build amazing campaigns that could change the way people think or manipulate them to buy a product?’ Maybe that’s because of Don Drapers’s character. I wanted to study the anthropology aspect of how people think when they absorb media, and then study design so I could focus on the design part of it as well.
So when I graduated, my plan was to do tech and marketing. I didn’t really know what marketing was, but I thought it was just another word for advertising. So I thought I would do tech advertising. I had a little bit of a design portfolio.
I honestly had no idea how to apply for a job, because I’d gotten all my internships through people I knew or cold calls. I had never applied for a job before. When I got the job at Eastern Mountain Sports, I just walked into the store. I had never even had a proper interview. I had no idea where to start, so I went to the business school to get some advice. They gave me a resume template. I had a career counselor, but she was more focused on what I wanted to do versus how to get the job. I talked to a bunch of different people on how to format my resume, which turned out to be totally useless. It doesn’t matter at all. I started looking by using different search engines to find jobs. There’s one called VentureLoop.com that had a bunch of tech startups. LinkedIn was a big one. I think I used Indeed a little bit.
There were no jobs that felt like they were for me or my skill level, so I applied to jobs that were way out of my league. I didn’t even know if they were out of my league. I applied for jobs like “director of marketing”. I honestly thought if I could just get my resume in front of someone, maybe they would just happen to be looking for a position I was qualified for and think ‘Let’s hire this kid.’
Then I got connected with two guys in Silicon Valley who had graduated from WashU. They lived in San Francisco. They were both in sales. And I talked to another friend who’s graduated from WashU who had just moved out there and had some kind of marketing role. They said first of all, you’re not qualified for any of the jobs you’re applying to. Stop applying. It’s stupid. They suggested sales roles since most companies will take pretty much anyone out of college to work in sales without any prior experience. You just need to go to a good school, be pretty personable, and you need to be knowledgeable enough about tech. Sales felt like something I like, which was building analogies with people.
I was also applying to advertising agencies for project manager positions, and also “junior creative director” or something along those lines. I was actually getting bites on those, but nothing went anywhere. With the tech ones, nothing was happening because I was clearly applying to the wrong roles. But when I started applying for customer support and sales roles, I started getting bites for the first time, which was really exciting. That was how I realized that sales is where I need to focus.
How did you go from Box to Facebook to Instagram?
I started at Box in sales, as an SDR (Sales Development Representative). My move to San Francisco was really rushed. I had barely seen any of the city, so I thought San Francisco was kind of like a tiki bar surf town. I thought I was like San Diego or something. When I started at Box, I didn’t know what hit me. I didn’t know if I didn’t like my job or if I didn’t like San Francisco but I needed to do some soul-searching. That was a big time in my life, leaving school and starting on my own. I’d decided I was going to try to make the sales thing work for six months so I could save face, then I was going to move back home and search for a job in advertising or follow up on a past internship.
But after six months, something started to come together. After some soul searching, some therapy, and talking to friends and family, my life and work was actually going pretty well. I went from the person who was on the bottom of the team to a top performer. It was fun and I liked the people a lot.
In sales, I started realizing that the process of how the leads came to me was inefficient and the lead score and all the information that I was given as a SDR was not super helpful. I wasn’t able to do my job as well as I thought I could. So I started talking to the sales operations team about how to tweak the process and they started implementing my ideas, which I liked way more than sales. The head of the team was like ‘OK, let’s see if we can hire you.’ It took four months of back and forth, but eventually they opened up headcount and they brought me onto the sales operations team.
I really loved the product manager title at the time, but I didn’t really know what it was. I called myself a sales systems analyst. Eventually, my manager took me out of the sales tools, and wanted me oversee a broader suite of tools for other departments. They asked me to look into the marketing tools and the way they works with sales. I was paired up with an engineer or two. I loved that there were people who could build things that I thought were meaningful to execute and that we worked as a team.
I also designed a bunch of the internal tools at Box, but then I wanted to work on larger, harder problems. There were a lot of higher ups barking at me to do stuff and very little room to actually dream up new ideas or work on more creative solutions. Internal tools are often pretty straightforward and less strategic, even though some companies have the resources to build some pretty cool stuff.
“They wanted me to be a people manager, but I wanted to be a product manager.”
I wanted to make a jump to the outward-facing product side and be a PM (product manager) focused on the actual Box product. They had just started this APM program and they were willing to interview me. I worked with a few mentors to prep for it and felt really good going in. I went in for the interview and I totally bombed it, like so hard. It was terrible. There was only one leg of the three interviews that I did okay on, which was the design piece. The product thinking piece and the execution/technical problem solving piece, I bombed. They said I could wait six months and reapply, even though normally they make people wait a year. I had just been promoted to my IT project manager job and they really didn’t want me to quit. They wanted me to be a people manager, but I wanted to be a product manager.
Even though everyone was so nice and supportive of me, I went online and I built a spreadsheet of what PM jobs I was going to apply to next. I had already decided that Box was out. I didn’t feel like I was snubbed for the job, but I didn’t want to build enterprise tools anyway, so this was just a convenient way to bow out. I was going to apply to OpenTable, Postmates, and all of these other positions.
Then I got an email from Facebook asking if I wanted to interview for a product operations team. I thought ‘Oh, my God, Facebook? This is a consumer tech dream company.’ They build all of this crazy consumer technology. They’ve got a website, the apps, all this stuff. The job was as a product specialist, which had product in the name. And it was at Facebook? Awesome. At the same time, the rotational PM program (RPM) was just closing applications and I tried to get a referral, but they were closed. I think I had what it takes on my resume to get an interview, but I totally would have bombed that interview knowing what I know now.
“However, as soon as I got that job, I was furious at myself for taking it. I managed to get into Facebook, but I was basically triaging of bugs.”
I worked in product operations, which was mostly QA (quality assurance), so I was writing test plans and making sure the app wasn’t crashing. However, as soon as I got that job, I was furious at myself for taking it. I managed to get into Facebook, but I was basically triaging of bugs. I was getting paid more than I did at Box, which didn’t make sense to me because my job felt way easier, but I was basically taking an internal bug that an employee logged and giving it to the right engineer and merging similar bugs together. It was very manual and tactical, not strategic at all. As soon as I realized that, I told the PM on my team, who is now a mentor of mine, that I wanted to be a PM. I asked him to mentor and train me, I promised I’d give him everything it takes on QA and operations.
The PM and designer on this team taught me about product intuition, how to push the envelope, and how to think strategically. I absorbed all this stuff and after 8 or 10 months in the job, I saw that the RPM applications were opening up. I told my manager, my manager’s manager, their manager — I told everyone I wanted this job. HR booked a meeting with me and said I couldn’t apply, because I hadn’t been in my current position for a year. But if I were to get the job, I wouldn’t start until after it had been a year. It would have been 13 months. But they said no, you can’t do it.
I was really upset, but I decided not to let it stop me. So I went up the chain again to all the managers and told them I deserved to at least have an interview. ‘Just let me go and hear no and then I’ll be fine.’ They were nice enough to unblock me from applying and the interviews went well. But they wanted to do one more follow up interview. They told me it was totally standard. I realize now that I’m on the other side that it’s wasn’t standard. There was some red flag on me and I know exactly what piece of the interview it was. They were testing me on it and luckily I passed and got in. I started the RPM program and worked as a PM on three different teams, rotating every 6 months and I learned a ton. It was truly invaluable.
How did you prepare for the interviews for Facebook’s RPM program?
I did a bunch of mock interviews. I didn’t read a single book, but I had met a bunch of PMs, asked them about their products and had gotten them to take me under their wing a little bit.
I did seven or eight mock interviews where they would just grill me. Even the last mock interview I did before I got the job, I totally bombed it. And now I mock interview people that are looking to move into product management, and I’m always happy to help them out because that’s how I got in. Mock interviews were the key.
“I think the most helpful thing is having somebody who can give you brutally honest feedback, who won’t sugarcoat it at all.”
What makes a mock interview helpful?
I think the most helpful thing is having somebody who can give you brutally honest feedback, who won’t sugarcoat it at all. I still try to do that with people today. You don’t want to demotivate them, but you need to give really clear feedback. I learned that you don’t have to be a good product manager to get the job, you have to be a good product manager interviewee to get the job. When I got people to interview for me, I didn’t get the best PMs to interview me, I got the people who had interviewed the most people to interview me. I actually asked around to find out who had done the most interviews or, if they’re really good at one specific type of interview or if they’re known to be tough. I didn’t want friends or people who were going to be nice and I didn’t want people who are good at their job but haven’t interviewed candidates before.
What was the follow-up interview for? What was your red flag?
I think it was for leadership, or about my ability to be a humble and empathetic leader. I can’t tell if they picked up on some arrogance or cockiness just because I was so revved up and excited to be there and had probably drank too much coffee that morning, or if somehow the stories I was telling didn’t feel believable or didn’t have enough behind them. Facebook is a very EQ and empathy driven company. I think the guy I was interviewing with seemed so self-aware that it was almost intimidating to me to have him judge me on my leadership. But when I sat down with someone else, it flowed well and felt normal.
What kind of follow-up did you do after the interviews?
Because it was an internal transfer, I think I probably sent them a Facebook message, which is our internal way of communicating. It was very low-key. I think thank you notes are really nice and I get them from people I interview. But by the time people send them, I’ve usually already submitted my feedback. People kind of freak out thinking that thank you notes are going to make or break someone giving you the job, but I don’t think that’s the way to think about them. I don’t get them that often here at Facebook when I interview people, and I’m not offended at all. I don’t feel like I’m doing them a favor by interviewing them, so I’m not a huge believer of the thank you note.
“You could say ‘design a better garbage truck’ and I could do it. You get to the point where it’s like a Mad Lib, basically.”
Anything you would have changed in terms of interview prep?
I don’t think it would change anything. I think the mock interview is the biggest piece. Basically, by the time that you’re done mock interviewing, you have such a good structure and a framework for answering questions that you could plug any question in and answer it effectively. I had practice building apps and understanding people problems and building solutions for them. You could say ‘design a better garbage truck’ and I could do it. You get to the point where it’s like a Mad Lib, basically. You already have your structure ready. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to throw you curveballs, but you have such a good, grounded structure that you can go back to and a way of breaking down problems. Even if you’re told to design a better spaceship and you don’t know a lot about space, you can make the same guesses and assumptions. Your framework is like a safety blanket. Sometimes I interview people who are so afraid to stray from the framework that they’re inflexible and it becomes a weakness. But generally, it’s nice to know that you have some kind of home base to go back to.
How did you find out you got the job?
I actually found out I got the job when I was on jury duty. I got the call from the recruiter, but I couldn’t pick up. It was a Facebook Messenger call. Then I got a text from him saying “give me a call back when you can.” A minute or two later I was asked a question that disqualified me from jury duty and as soon as I got out I gave him a call.
When you found out that it was a yes, did you negotiate the offer?
No. There was no negotiation. Even if I was given me the option to negotiate, I wouldn’t have, and I don’t care if anyone told me that’s stupid. I would have never, ever regretted it. It was all about getting the job. Sure enough, after I started the job, all the companies that I was going to apply to on that Excel doc were suddenly reaching out to me. I figured, this is a career I can have for 5 to 10 years and I’m just going to enjoy this and learn a ton. In the rotational program, I think some of the RPMs want to make a big impact and get promoted quickly, but to me it’s all about learning. It’s basically like an MBA, except you’re on the job.
“The solution and getting to the answer is not what it’s about. It’s about thinking through the problem that you’re trying to solve.”
Which product management frameworks have been the most helpful?
I think the biggest thing for me, especially in product management is a framework for building something, which basically means you should spend way more time talking about the problem than working on the solution. There’s not as big of a risk in building the wrong solution. The biggest risk is solving the wrong problem. Instead of spending more time on a solution, I spend way more time on the problem. The solution and getting to the answer is not what it’s about. It’s about thinking through the problem that you’re trying to solve. Even when I give people mock interviews I always tell them, even if it feels unnatural, hold on in that problem space as long as you can before you start to create your solution, because the worst thing you can do is solve the wrong problem.
“Some people think a PM is a mini CEO of a product. I disagree.
To me, it’s much more like being the administrative assistant of a team.”
How does working at Facebook and now Instagram in the PM role compare to the hype?
It’s probably overhyped, but I love it. Some people think a PM is a mini CEO of a product. I disagree. To me, it’s much more like being the administrative assistant of a team. I don’t tell people what to do. I help build frameworks and set them up to figure out what to do. I spend so much time booking meetings, figuring out what restaurant to book for a team dinner, who is allergic to what, who is gluten free . . . It’s definitely not as glamorous as people make it out to be. The only glamorous piece of it is the communication. You are the one whose name is attached to a lot of stuff, which means that you get a lot more glory than you deserve. On the other hand, you also get a lot more blame than you deserve. It’s kind of a double-edged sword in that you get to stamp your name on a lot of stuff, but it means you also protect the team from bad feedback. The strategic thinking is the one thing I think that is accurately hyped and is really fun. Going on research trips and talking with actual users is so fun. Working with the best people is totally under-hyped. The coolest thing about the PM job is that you get to sit in the cross section of a ton of people that are amazing at their craft. I get to work with these designers who have made amazing things, engineers who have built this awesome stuff, researchers who know so much about people and cultures and data scientist who are able to come up with simple answers out of a crazy amount of numbers. That’s probably the coolest piece. If I do my job well, I’m unblocking them so they can do their job well.
How do you think students should determine if a product manager or career in tech might be a fit for them?
To figure out if it’s the right thing, I think the best thing is to read. There are plenty of blog posts, a lot of them on Medium. They tackle what the job is and tactics that are important in the job. The biggest thing to think about is if you like all of those things. I would ask people if they were working on something they didn’t like, would they still like the job? I think that’s a really good way to understand if you like the job. You need to be able to empathize, understand and build for other people. If you’re working at one of these global companies, you need to be able to think like someone living in rural India or Beverly Hills. So reading and empathizing with people and cultures is super important. You definitely need to study a lot about team mechanics and how to run a successful team. A lot of the job is problem solving. You have to be able to wrap your head around really big problems.
“The the biggest thing I would probably say is stop setting a five or 10 year goal — it’s not the way to live.”
What do you wish someone would have told you during your job search?
Two things: the first one is that there’s a chance that the job you want doesn’t exist today, which I think is an interesting line. I heard someone at Google say it.
And two, just don’t freak out about it. The people who honestly think they can answer the question where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years are either delusional or they’re lying to you. They don’t know. And they are absolutely not going to be right.
I read this article in The Atlantic about how when we build a future, we’re really just remembering the past. It was all about how people have this mythical idea that they are actually going to know who they are in five years when people are actually terrible at predicting the future. I’ve changed so much in 5 years. If you ask me today, “where are you going to be in five years?” I couldn’t tell you. The the biggest thing I would probably say is stop setting a five or 10 year goal — it’s not the way to live.
The hardest thing to drill into students heads — and hey, even if I was reading my interview as a current student, I wouldn’t want to listen to the whole “ignore your 5-10 year plan.” You’ll never know what you’re going to do. “Alex started in Architecture, then Anthropology, and how he works at Instagram.” It is so hard to hear because you can’t really imagine your own path until it happens. Some people want a path to follow and they want to know the path in advance, but they won’t know the path until it happens.