Interview Prep Deep Dive - Product Strategy
How you win in the most open-ended product interview
This is the last article of the long (but hopefully helpful) Interview Prep Deep Dive series, and I’ll discuss how to best prepare and win in a Product Strategy Interview. I save it to the last, because it’s probably the most ambiguous product manager interview you’ll ever have, and therefore arguably, hardest to get right.
But not to worry! I hope with this guide, you’ll have good clarity enough to prepare for your next product strategy interview!
So I’ll discuss in 3 parts:
🍭What is a product strategy interview
🔍What are the expectations
📘How do you best prepare
Ready? Let’s go.
🍭What is a product strategy interview
A product strategy interview evaluates candidate’s strategic thinking chops. Compared to a product sense interview (or a product execution interview), the discussion sits at a higher altitude, with broader scope, in the longer time horizon. Think of this way, if a product sense or a product execution interview tests how good you are as a product manager, product strategy tests how good you are as a product leader.
To be clear, you can, and mostly should be a good product manager AND a good product leader at the same time. Meaning it’s ideal that you see and operate the forest and the trees, and effortlessly move between the two as needed.
So a product strategy interview evaluates if you’re a product leader who can think broadly, long term, and ambitiously, all while still be practical, structured, and articulative (all the good stuff a product manager should possess).
You might not necessarily have a standalone, dedicated product strategy interview by itself. It could be blended with a product sense interview, or you might not get it at all depending on the company and the role (you might expect much less such question in an entry level PM role for instance).
If this all sounds still too vague to you, lets move on to expectations.
🔍What are the expectations
First lets see some examples of the product strategy questions (obviously non-exhaustively, just to give an idea). Then we’ll dive into interviewer expectations.
“If you’re the CEO of Netflix, how does your 10 year roadmap look like?”
“You’re head of Google Cloud, how do you compete with AWS?”
“Why did Microsoft acquire Activision?”
“Should Amazon get into on demand rideshare?"
For those of you who are brand new to this type of questions, you might be like W. T. F. How the heck do you want me to comment on these things as if I am the CEO of these companies?
Well, of course the expectation is NOT for you to really act like Reed Hastings, Satya Nadella, Jeff Bezos and the kind. If you do, you shouldn’t be interviewing for a product manager role. There are much better places for you.
But what are the expectations then?
4 things primarily: Business Acumen, Vision, Strategic & Logical Thinking and Communication.
Business Acumen: you’re expected to possess general familiarity with business topics, the tech industry, technology and product trends, and what’s going on across major players
Vision: you’re expected to demonstrate the ability to think long term, big, and broadly, way beyond how things look on the surface today.
Strategic & Logical Thinking: you’ll be assessed of your approach in product strategy and logically analyzing an open ended topic at hand. Identify the right dimensions to break it down, and thoughtfully look into each with what you know and what you don’t know
Communication: this is always a key expectation for all interview types. Here again, you’re expected to demonstrate your ability to NOT ramble on a super vague strategic topic, but rather create structure on the fly and crisply and clearly communicate it out that’s easy to follow and debate with.
In general, it’s likely going to be a success if you appear to be comfortable and natural with such discussions (as if you have been talking about these things with your friends and colleagues from time to time), have good structure and reasoning to guide the conversations along the way, put your “visionary” hat on, and enjoy a good back and forth with the interviewer.
It’ll NOT be a success if you ramble your way through, go all over the place across different topics aimlessly, jump into conclusions that are intuition based too quickly, and make it a single sided presentation rather than a collaboration.
📘How do you best prepare
The best strategy to prepare for product strategy interview is to nurture what it takes long term, way before you step into any interview. Then all it takes is to organize what you’ve got into your brain cache right before the interview, and be your best at the interview.
Way Before The Interview
Get into the habit reading what’s happening in tech, and thinking about the “why’s” behind major news.
If you’re like me, you might not have all the time in the world to read about everything that happens. You don’t have to. Spend 10-15 minutes skimming through tech news daily or at least a few times a week. Pick one topic of your interest and practice strategic thinking. Say you pick a news saying Google has launched this new service, or Microsoft just acquire this another high profile company. Think to yourself (and write it down if you want):
How does it contribute to the company’s business, current strategy, and long term vision?
How good is the opportunity with this move? What would be the risk or potential concerns with this move? (How might it fail?) Who are the company competing with?
If you’re the shot caller (CEO or a key decision maker), what would you do? how would you make it a success?
You don’t have to follow these exact same questions. They are just examples of what you can think about in your thought exercise.
Also in addition to reading news. Read good books and blog posts about product strategy (I had some recommendations in this article) just to see how other experts think about strategic topics.
Finally, discussing these topics with your connections (friends, colleagues, or even family - if they’re interested). You might get fresh perspectives, various ways of thinking, and good feedback.
By doing these (reading, thinking, discussing) regularly over time, you’ll find yourself much better equipped with mastery to product strategy interview discussions. Because it’ll become much more natural.
Right Before The Interview
Interview still is an interview - it’s still not the same as your own thought exercise or a casual discussion you have with your friends. So you’d still have to properly prepare for it, right before stepping into it. To maximize your chance to win.
Here are the activities you can do to prepare:
Look at sample product strategy interview questions. Look them up online similar to how you prepare other types of interview questions. Think about how you’d answer them in an actual interview
Create and practice some analysis frameworks with these questions. do NOT blindly reuse well know frameworks like SWOT, Porter’s Five Forces etc. Instead, take inspirations from them. Think about, when evaluating companies and their strategies, what are the usual suspects of key dimensions might you consider? Just to name a few (absolutely non-exhaustive):
Company’s current core businesses
Company’s long term vision
Company’s current phase
Company’s strengths and weaknesses
Market opportunity, size, and growth potential
Competition in the market
Users and the customers, their needs and gaps
Trends - technological, political, cultural, societal etc.
Mock interview. First with yourself. Where possible, with your connections or coaches. With yourself is about verbalizing what you have been preparing and practicing on the paper. With connections and coaches is about getting feedback (especially with coaches to get specialized feedback as if they are your interviewers).
At The Interview
Now that you’re well prepared leading up to the actual interview. It’s time to just perform your best on the spot. So I’m only leaving you with a number of key reminders:
Clean slate: throw away what you memorized prior to the interviews. Don’t attempt to anticipate the exact questions you’ll be asked, not to mention how you’d think you’ll exactly respond. Step into the interview with zero pre-conception, just be mentally ready to take in any question and have a great discussion.
Pause and think: always, like any other interview type. After getting the question, most likely you won’t organically have good answers to pull out and you might be in some initial shock with “how the heck am I gonna answer this”. Take a deep breadth, fully take in the question, and start thinking about how you’d tackle it with all you have practiced.
Layout your structure: briefly talk about the framework you came up with on the fly, before diving into your step 1 analysis. This will prepare the interviewer for what to expect, and allow both of you to follow along.
Check in: check in with the interviewer from time to time, usually at the breakpoint of each “section” of your structure. Remember, a great strategy interview should be a collaboration not a presentation. Ask whether she has any feedback, or even discuss whether she’d like us to continue onto one of the several possible directions.
Manage your time well: A perfect expected ending of a product strategy interview, would be that you come up with a conclusion after following through a highly structured and rationalized analysis leading up to it. It’ll be sub-optimal (though not always a failure) if you run out of time before you were able to give an educated conclusion. So do manage your time and pace well so you can hit that point before the interview time expires. Your interviewer might assist you with that by speeding you up. It’s always a huge bonus point if they don’t have to do it but you lead a great discussion at a great pace. That is, lay out the right structure that’s not over complex, know how deep you should go, know when to move on to the next section, know when to start converging.
Oh yes, there’s always an After The Interview component that cannot be forgotten. You should always reflect on the interview right after it, and lay out where you could’ve done better and work on them. Like any other interview type.
Whew! OK! Now it’s a wrap for the entire Interview Prep Deep Dive series, and I believe you should now have a complete starter tool kit to help you prepare and succeed in most product management interviews.
Obviously, there are a lot of nuances to each part that you’ll need to work on, and it takes a lot of practices and experience to perfect. But I believe for most of you, it’s not that you’re unwilling to put in effort; it’s that you don’t know how to start, what to expect, and what the interviewers are looking for. Why do I know? Because I was one of you. And I learned through failures. Lots of failures.
Still have unanswered questions about product interviews? Need personal coaching help? Or just want to share your success, failure, and lessons learned? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.