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This is What You Need to Know to Ace the Product Manager Interview

  • Product Management is unique amongst all "white-collar" jobs and is also unique amongst general management jobs.
  • Product Manager interviews have a heavy practical component.
  • We assess what types of case-studies job candidates are ask to do and some examples of them.

 

 

A Product Manager interview is unlike any other we've been to.  Here at ProductManagerJobs.net we've collectively have had over 60 interviews for product manager jobs.

First of all, why are product manager interviews different than say the typical job?  It's different because it's a different role and calls for different ways of assessment.

Think for example if you looking for a job that is a fork-lift operator.  There's certifications for that.  Most professions or job skills have some way of have a standard way of training the person and then certifying the person to say s/he can do that skills or job.

(Though there are also certifications for Product Managers too).  But the skills of any manager and especially of a product manager, requires judgement, synthesis, ability to influence/negotiate and the ability to communicate well.  For that, the in-person product manager interviews is important to assess this.

There's also the additional challenge of how to assess these, let's call them, soft skills but we employers know are vital to the success of the this PM in any product role.

So let's start of with illustrating what a typical job interview would look like.

What a typical job interview would consist of:

  • Using the "STAR" Method
  • Using the Behaviorial Interview technicals
  • Using questions related to the relevancy of the job
  • Using questions related to the relevancy of industry experience
  • Other ad-hoc questions

What makes the Product Manager interview a bit different is typically how there is a practical component.  You've been in interviews where you've been asked to write (so that future employers can check your writing) and I've also experienced come computer-based testing.

Early on and one of my first job interviews out of college was for a bank analyst role, where they test me on simple math (like foreign exchange converting) and also testing my skills on excel and using visual basic.  Though I didn't end up taking that job, I've been in many different interview types that required in-person, in-interview tests.

In the Product manager jobs role, it's vital and important to assess if the candidate can think on their feet, estimate and make relatively accurate assumptions and also have a sound way of approaching something novel and new with ease.

As you well know and have probably seen a million times by now, a product manager lives in 3 words in this 3 circle venn diagram.

You have a stake in the design of the application and the front-end experience.

You have an equal stake in working with the technical/engineering and feasibility aspects of the product.

And last but not least, you have an interest in making sure this all lines up with customers, the business, the organization -- whatever is in that ecosystem called "business".

There needs to be a way to assess fluency in each of these areas as well as being able to do it relatively quickly, accurately and be able to talk about it with conviction.

Practical Exercises during a Product Manager Interview

The current way and frankly the way we've observed having had many product manager interviews is the case studies or scenario-type questions.

These are related to either questions about how do you create a brand new product from scratch or if you were to release a new feature how would you do this.  These might be real life scenarios to help brainstorm for the hiring managers on their current problems or they can be typical problems that help expose the way you think, the way you communicate along the 3 elements of the product manager venn diagram along the design, engineering and business areas.

Again the main reasons for these case-studies if three-fold:

  • If gives the hiring manager, be it a senior product manager or a product lead, some way to determine how you think through problems,
  • It gives the employers a way to determine if you know and speak to an industry (some times it might be an industry you don't know much about) and speak to it by making some reasonable assumptions
  • It shows how well you communicate these ideas and take feedback

Case Studies that Expose the Business-side of product management

I've come across a few employers who have asked this:

  • Tell me how to estimate the total revenue of a single-screen movie theatre operator.  The single screening room houses 'X' number of seats.

Most people know the movie theatre business so that's what why this questions comes up quite a bit.  It also isn't too hard to understand the business model once you've been to the theatres yourself at least once.  They sell seats per screening and sell you overpriced popcorn and soft drinks.

But walking through this scenario helps them understand how you'd go about analyzing the vertical market of theatre operators and also the type of mental math you would do to get there.  Sometimes there are white boards for you to work out your assumptions and calculations, sometimes there isn't.  But either way, the key idea is for you to generate a reasonable model for analyzing a business without extensive research.

Other questions could be like:

  • If you were to open a new Walmart store, how many cashiers would you open and why?
  • How do you go about determine if a new store location is suitable?

While these questions have more to do with bricks and mortars type scenarios, the same mindset, process and thinking goes into these as do digital products and their strategies.  These help the employers understand your thinking.

Remember this!  Remember in grade school your math teacher gave you partial marks?  Remember they also told you to show your work.  Even though the final answer you arrived at might in fact be incorrect, but the work, the method in which you arrived the work and the math concept you synthesized to get there is half the battle.  If you can understand the general rule and select it correctly for the problem then that's what employers and hiring managers want to hear is your process and your "work".

Being Asked to Assess Your Design Experience in the Product Manager Interview

Design has evolved in the past couple decades and is not just how something looks, but also the whole end-to-end experience.  There's new emerging fields called "Service Design" which I think is a better way to look at design be it online and/or offline experiences.  This is especially true when most digital products are linking both online and offline experiences and no longer in isolation so it becomes more of things 'as-a-service' more than ever.  But more on this topic in a later article.

The key thing to understand is that you have an intuition for what works, and what doesn't when it comes to the user experience.  It's not as important that you need to know all the heuristics and best practices in every single platform or product, but you should be able to pivot, learn from and learn to determine what came work, what doesn't work and be able pull that leverage to make it work.

For most startups, psychology and marketing come into play when we talk about design.  The typical questions for product hiring manager is that they want to know how you'd go about creating a new product from scratch or how to build a new feature in an more mature product.

Here's some examples we've come across first hand:

  • If you had to build a pizza delivery application, tell me what you would do?  What if I were to tell you had 5 days from now to launch a minimum viable product or MVP -- what would you do and which features will you launch with for version 1.0?
  • You are a consultant brought in to resolve recent customer complaints about long wait times at an international airport. What would you do to fix this -- tell us your plan in the next 60 days to change things around.
  • With the growing age of population and also the knowledge that the older generation still wants to go to a brick and mortar grocery store (as this is their own exercise for the week), how would you design a grocery store that caters to the elder populations?  Tell us what you would do and why.
  • How would you design a vending machine for beer cans and bottles?

I really enjoy these questions and case-studies.  It is challenging and it does put you on the spot.  And typically you don't get alone time to sit and think, but you have all your interviewers in the room staring at you while you are processing what they said.  But the key thing is that you think through how to design an experience, what information would you need, what assumptions can you make and how you would go about determine what is relevant in the design and what are impractical or not relevant to include.

It seems rather simple, but the thing to always keep in mind is that making assumptions is okay.  We were also told to do that by our math and science teachers.  It's okay to make a hypothesis and to test it.  No matter how good your idea is, or how vetted a particular design is, there is also room for making assumptions, testing them and making sure it makes sense.  This is one of things I love about product management -- I get to be a scientist in the truest sense of the word.

What about engineering and technology experience?

I have not and we collectively have no come across product manager interviews that dives too deeply into the technical on the practical side.  Partly because it's all contextual when you talk about the technology stack and typically in organizations the product manager oversees but is a servant leader for the development teams work.

But that's not to say that product manager interviews don't have other non-practical ways of determining your experience with technical fluency.

Here are some questions we've come across:

  • Tell me a time when you had to say no to your technical lead. How did you go about do that and explain your point of view?
  • Do you have experience with coding?  What languages do you code in and do you still keep this up?
  • Tell us your experience in working with developers?  Tell us a time when you a developer told you your user story or requirements is not detailed enough.
  • Tells us how you work with them to determine estimates of their work

I think typically, they'd be interested in any side hustles you've been a part of and your role.  As we recently did in our annual Product Manager Jobs description survey, one of the top ten skills is having a technical background.  What we typically observe from these job descriptions is at least having a technical degree be it engineering, computer science and more and more people asking for MBAs too.

Acing the Product Manager Interview

Overall, to ace the product manager interview you'll need to cover your bases by knowing the design-world, bridging this gap with practical experiences in technical fluency and also sharp business acumen.

After-all, a product manager job relies on the product manager to be able to speak in any of these areas fluently and to transition seamlessly between the details and the larger vision/strategy with equal measure.