Land That Dream Product Job – Interviews (PART II)
This post is PART II of the 3 part series where I give an overview of the product manager interviews. Today lets talk about the key components (or key areas of assessment) of product interviews.
Feel free to review Interviews (PART I): introduction to the interview process. And look out for PART III - preparation tips coming up next!
In PART I you've seen that product interviews end to end is a lengthy process. It's the case for clear reasons:
The responsibilities, scope, and required skills of a product manager are so broad and diverse
Finding a great product manager who's also a great fit for the specific role/team is extremely difficult
There are no shortage of interested candidates coming through the door (for popular roles at major companies)
Especially because of #1, it's by design that many areas, skills, and qualifications are carefully assessed in the interview process. I'll group them into 3 buckets and dive into each:
Experience & Motivation
#1. Experience & Motivation
In this bucket, the assessments are primarily around your actual past work experience, and the motivations behind interviewing for the roles. This is always almost the first thing the hiring team wants to learn about you, before diving into any skill-level assessment.
A. Work Experiences
Obviously the focus would be on your product management experience. This includes your experience with the Product Manager as the title, as well as the experience without the title. The latter is the case especially when you did not have direct product manager title in the past.
The assessment is to learn about the following:
What were your actual scope and responsibilities as a product manager in the past? (and is it aligned with what they're looking for). Obviously this can vary big from company to company
Have you had experience working on similar space, problems, or challenges in the past? This doesn't mean they always expect you to have worked on the same product in the same industry. There's also the scale, the types of challenges, the complexity that they're looking at.
What does your career path so far looks like? Are you able to explain your rationale every step of the way? Do you look like a high achiever (e.g. getting promoted a few times)? Do you hop between jobs every less than a year? The company will also assess if they might be able to support the next step of your career trajectory (which gets to motivation we'll discuss next).
B. Motivation & Goals
The hiring team wants to know:
Why are you looking? Is there something wrong with your current role? Or is it driven by other goals like growth, transition, passion, financial incentives, etc.
What are you looking for? Are you looking for specific companies, roles, industry, products, size, culture, salary, or what?
What are your mid to long term goals? And how might this role fit in.
It's all about whether your motivation aligns with how they want their candidates to be motivated to join, and whether they and the role can offer you what you are looking for near term and long term.
A quick tip (again I'll cover tips at length in PART III) is be both truthful (don't flat out lie) and strategic (highlight what matters). Remember, these are the very initial "fit" assessment before both you and the company invest more time and effort in the interview process. As much as you want to do the best to sell yourself, if they won't provide you what you're really looking for, this role will not be good for your career anyway. Be truthful and authentic also just make it much more convincing, organically.
#2. Hard Skills
By hard skills, these are the commonly defined core competencies of a product manager. Specifically:
Product Sense / Product Design
Leadership & Drive
Strategy / Business Acumen
Lets dive into each!
A. Product Sense / Product Design
Do you have what it takes to build great products that solve the right users/business problems? This is obviously a core part of product management, and therefore the importance of this interview component. This component primarily assesses your:
Ability to break down ambiguous space into specifics
Product taste and design chops
Structure thinking and communications
The questions usually intentionally start from a super broad topic, problem space, or product area, and ask you to take it from there and see your approach. It can be asking you to create something new from scratch, or improving an existing product. Some examples include:
Design a car for elderly in Mexico (or a user segment you're definitely not a part of)
Name a favorite/recently bought/well designed/terrible product. If you're the PM, how would you improve it?
How would you improve Spotify?
Vaccination rate is low in some countries, what software product would you build to solve the problem?
Just to name a few. It's IMPOSSIBLE to be exhaustive because there are infinite hypothetical scenarios like the above that can be created as interview questions. The expectation is for you to hypothetically deliver a specific product at the very end of the interview, and in the process for interviewers to assess exactly the above 5 dimensions.
So quick tips here: don't ever try to memorize any answer to any question, not even a rigid step-by-step framework. Just make sure you take the time to fully take in the question, pause and organize your thoughts before you respond, be structured and concise along the way, listen well and be flexible in directions, and do make sure you focus on the above 5 dimensions when you're practicing through sample questions.
Look out for a future post or reach out to me for a deep dive of how to crack product sense / design interviews!
B. Product Execution
This component in fact sometimes mixes with Product Sense interviews (as a full end to end product scenario) so it can feel similar at the start. The goal here is to focus more on your ability to execute - actually take a product to launch, measure success, and solve big and small problems along the way, before and after launches. Specifically it's to primarily assess your:
Goal setting, prioritization & trade offs
Metrics and analytical skills
Problem solving / troubleshooting
How you launch and run experiment
Structured thinking and communication
How the assessment starts varies. It can be a continuation of a Product Sense question and then dive into setting goals, defining metrics, your prioritization approaches and how you run A/B tests. Or if can start from a very specific problem and ask you to troubleshoot. So I'd say this component could possibly be even more open ended than Product Sense / Design questions. But knowing that the interviewers are assessing the above specific areas, focus on familiarizing yourself and demonstrating these in your response.
Some sample questions include:
You're the PM for Instagram and you're launching the next version of the Chat function, how would you define the goals for your team? What are the key metrics to track?
You're a PM at Linkedin responsible for the newsfeed, how would you decide using to top slot for content, job recommendation, or ads?
You're a PM at Netflix, new subscribers number drop by 30% from last month, how would you go about figuring out what happened?
How would you go about rolling out Creator Incentives program on Facebook?
I'm obviously making up these samples. But you should get a good sense of how these questions would be asked, and again what they're really assessing behind these questions. Don't focus too much on the specific product/problem mentioned in the samples.
There's a lot that goes into mastering this, contact me if you want to learn more!
C. Leadership & Drive
As a PM, can you lead the team effectively toward success? How do you deal with all kinds of challenges in the product lifecycle? Do you have what it takes the push the boundary and raise the bar?
The interview questions of this component is a lot like the "behavioral questions" (vs a case study like in Product Sense / Execution interviews), which requires you to talk about your specific actual past experiences to illustrate certain leadership qualities. It usually goes like:
Tell me about a time when you <face a specific situation>, how you handle it, and what's the outcome
Have you had the experience of <running into a specific type of challenge> before? Tell me how you go about handling it. (and the outcome)
The specific situation or challenge can be anything related to your success, failure, accomplishment, lesson learns. It can also be handling conflicts, dealing with ambiguity, pushing back on your VP, and charge through disagreements. Etc.
But it can also be some "philosophical: discussions too. Like:
What's your definition of "leadership"?
Explain "leadership" in 5 words.
Just because this is not a consulting style case study interview, doesn't necessarily make it easier to do well. Interviews of this component are highly interactive as well which does not only require you to tell a good narrative about your own experience, expect follow up questions to deep dive into specific parts of what you said.
Quick tips to prepare for this component: Think hard back on your past experiences and prepare a "scenario bank" for you to extract from to answer any leadership/behavior questions. The scenarios bank should at a minimum cover: success, failure, and some main challenges like conflicts, ambiguity etc. Be ready for a discussion rather than a presentation. And as always, structure your response and make it concise!
Almost all companies will include this component as a part of their interviews. The difference is how much they emphasize this vs other components/styles. Amazon for instance, put a lot more emphasis on this than others.
contact me to learn more!
D. Strategy & Business Acumen
Can you think strategically and look at the bigger picture? Are you familiar with business topics and able to navigate through implications and dynamics in the market much beyond what's within your own product and user group? Are you a business leader? (in addition to being a product and tech leader?)
You might or might not be specifically assessed in this component, depending on the company or experience level you're interviewed at. Some companies (like Google) require it across all levels, others might bake it into product sense / execution interview. Other companies / role might not even prioritize this aspect. But it's always good to be prepared, and it's one of the most fun part of PM anyway!
Some examples include:
If you're the CEO of TikTok, what would be your next move and why?
Why do you think Amazon acquired MGM Studio?
If you're the head of Disney Plus, what's your plan to compete with Netflix?
Should Amazon buy Lyft? Why or why not
It's mostly not necessarily to test your knowledge about specific markets, companies, industry, or products. Rather, it's to understand how you think through the strategy working with what you know or the hypothesis you make, whether you identify and focus on what really matters to a company and to the business, and how you communicate your process and analysis in a clear and structured way.
I have an article dedicated to strategy, including some tips on how to get better at it over time. In addition to that, just approach the interviews similar to how you approach other components. Listen well, be structured and crisp, be ready for a good bi-directional discussion.
You're a PM at a tech company. How well do you know technology? Are you able to work with engineering well? Are you not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get into how the sausages are made (vs just sell or eat the sausage)? Can you influence technical/engineering decisions?
There are a number of different styles of the technical interview questions. Including but not limited to the following:
Describe one of your project where you're a product manager. Talk about the specific platform technologies/programming languages used to build it. Talk about the high level system architecture of the product. Talk about one of the biggest technical challenges the team ran into and how we ended up solving it. etc.
If you're a solution architect for StubHub, how would you design the system architecture behind it. What are the key components?
How do you think how Google Map live traffic works - from behind the scene technically?
Tell me about what you know about Relational Database (or any specific technology or technical concept)
Different companies assess your technical chops at different depths. It could also be role dependent, as some roles are more technical in nature (e.g. data or platform PMs). Google for instance, does dive relatively deep and broad about your technical skills because of its engineering centric culture. Other companies might not even ask "technical specific" questions like the above but focus on assessing how you work with engineering teams (see "Collaboration" in the Soft Skills section below). Anyhow, even for Google I don't think they go as far asking you to write code anymore (I might be wrong, and they used to).
Just be sure you fully understand the company/role specific process and the expectation in "technical interviews" from the recruiters, so you can prepare accordingly (and not over prepare).
This concludes the Hard Skills bucket!
#3. Soft Skills
Soft skills are ones that are non-PM specific skills, important for PM and any professional, and are assessed almost throughout every interview in every round (there's usually not a dedicate interview for these skills).
Self explanatory. Are you communicating clearly and listening attentive? Are you concise or verbose? Do you talk in structure or all over the place?
I have a post dedicated to communication. I won't go at length here.
Different from communication. It's how to work with your colleagues. In PM interviews, the focus is primarily around how you work / collaborate with your core cross functional teams - engineering, design, scientist, or potentially other functions depending on the roles. Again it's assessed throughout all types of interviews, but it's also the very focus when you are interviewed by the specific cross functional partners.
For example, the interview with the engineering lead will likely go over questions similar to Leadership/Behavioral questions like: challenges you had with engineering, how do you inspire your engineering team, example of conflicts etc.
I'll be sure to also cover "How to work (well) with XXX" in depth in future posts.
C. Cultural Fit
How you're assessed, and what is the company's "culture" obviously depends on the company. Basically, there are core values that the company defined as the principles of how they do business, work, and make decisions. They want to know if your values align with these. It's important because however brilliant and capable you are, you'd be a negative force if your values go against theirs. Netflix for one, has very unique culture (just google "Netflix culture deck"), and it focuses a lot of its interview process on cultural fit.
Make sure you learn thoroughly about the company's culture before stepping into the interviews. But again, be truthful yet strategic, be authentic and don't lie. If you're not a cultural fit, it's bad for the company, it's probably going to be miserable for you. So don't join if you're really not a fit.
Are you passionate about this opportunity you're interviewing for, after all? Like cultural fit, it doesn't matter how good you are, if you're not even enthusiastic about what you might be getting into. So show your passion along the way. If you're really not so hot about the role, maybe you should consider passing this opportunity.
Are you a know-it-all or learn-it-all? Are you willing to learn what you don't already know? Do you ask good questions and delve into the space with the interviewers? All employers want to hire learners over knowers. Particularly in tech, things change blazingly fast. What you know today could be obsolete tomorrow.
The best way to demonstrate this throughout? Again listen attentively, take in and synthesis what you hear, and always be asking good questions (good questions are what's relevant + what you genuinely care about).
Wrap Up. Finally.
I feel like I'm writing an encyclopedia of PM interviews, as it's getting longer in every article I wrote. Maybe I should turn them into a book soon. To put it all together for you, here are the key assessment components in 3 buckets:
[#1. Experience & Motivation]
Motivations & Goals
[#2. Hard Skills]
Product Sense / Product Design
Leadership & Drive
Strategy / Business Acumen
[#3. Soft Skills]
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