Product Interviewing

Throughout my career in product, I've really enjoyed interviewing. I've interviewed with a ton of companies across the industry, have conducted hundreds of interviews, have been made fun of by friends for "actually enjoying doing interviews", and in recent years have coached dozens of current and aspiring PMs on how to excel in their PM interviews.

I've detailed below how I think about product interviewing. Always happy to chat more about this, feel free to reach out!

Other related topics I've written about:

  1. Product Management resources

  2. How I think about my career

  3. Frameworks I use for product management (for once you're in the role)

  4. Cross-functional collaboration

How to get the interview

Don't just submit your resume; contact someone!

  1. "It's not what you know, it's who you know"

    • You probably won't get the interview by just​ submitting your resume

  2. If you know someone there, get them to refer you

  3. If you don't, go on LinkedIn and browse all 2nd degree connections

    • Ask your connections who know them to intro you to them to learn more about the company

    • If they oblige and intro, ask that person for a referral after you talk to them​

    • Treat this as an informational interview to start with rather than asking for a favor, and go from there depending on how you feel about the company after hearing about it from them

  4. If you don't know anyone at the company and have no 2nd degree connections, pick out some people who are junior or mid-level in the company, and any recruiter, and cold email them

    • Lots of resources online for how to find people's email addresses. It's usually their full name or first initial and last name, and then {company_name}.com

    • Briefly explain: your relevant experience, interest in the company/role, explicitly ask for a referral, and attach your resume

Resume tips​

  1. When I'm job hunting, I make custom resumes for every single company/role I'm vying for

    • I look at the job description for key phrases/words they're looking for and literally copy/paste them into my bespoke resume, with examples from my work experience to back it up

  2. Most important thing by far is relevant experience

    • Most important thing for most companies is impact

      • Not what you shipped, not what tools or skills you leveraged, but the achieved outcomes

    • ​Numbers, numbers, numbers. Put metric success "grew X by Y"​ at the forefront

      • Explain with example projects/teams how that metric impact was realized, and your role in the whole thing​

    • Include extracurriculars you've taken on in past roles to build up team culture (improving hiring, setting up processes to make team more effective, team morale events, etc.)

  3. Secondary stuff

    • Name, number, email, LinkedIn at the top

    • Education at the bottom. Keep skills small if you have one

  4. Keep the whole thing to one page

  5. LinkedIn is more important; keep that up-to-date (with similar principles to above)

  6. I've never heard of anyone looking at cover letters, but for roles you REALLY want you may as well

    • Good forcing function to think deeply about why you want the job​

  7. Check out mine if you need an example​

Preparing for interviews

  1. Pace yourself - don't interview at more than 2-3 companies at once

    • Once you make it to final rounds you'll have full-day onsites

    • I recommend spending at least several hours preparing for​ each onsite

  2. Give yourself time to practice

    • Despite how much time I spend on this stuff, I still don't perform well on interviews where I don't take some time beforehand to practice / rehearse​ stories

  3. Start with a couple companies you wouldn't be upset about not getting offers at

    • Good practice for the interviews you care most about

  4. Do practice interviews with friends who are PMs

    • If you can afford it, consider paying for professional interview coaching with services like interviews.tech (Disclaimer: I'm a coach there 😀)

How to pass the interviews

 

How PM interviews are structured

  1. Starts with a recruiter phone screen

    • They mostly go over your experience and prep you for the rest of the process​

  2. Initial phone screen

    • Depending on the company, 1-2 interviews usually over phone/video​

    • You'll probably get asked a product sense or execution question (more on this below)

  3. Final onsite

    • Depending on the company, 3-5 interviews usually in person (but with COVID-19, all virtual)​

    • You'll get asked questions around product sense, execution, and behavioral / leadership (more on this below)

  4. Most companies focus on just the above 3 areas

    • A few (aka Google) also ​ask technical questions

    • Especially as you get more senior, many will have "cross-functional" interviews with engineering, design, operations, etc. to make sure you'd work well alongside them

How to NOT pass the interview (the red flags interviewers will note if they see)

  1. Start answering immediately without clarifying the prompt with the interviewer

  2. Go directly into solutions, rather than understanding the "why"

  3. Fail to exemplify a well-structured framework for approaching the problem

  4. Make assumptions you don't overtly state with the interviewer

  5. Completely rigid in response; not open to pushback / nudges from interviewer

  6. Completely fluid in response; not willing to defend your stance with interviewer

Product Sense

What they're looking for

  1. Structured approach to grounding the product design/strategy problem at hand in high-level goals and user needs

  2. User-centricity the whole way throughout the problem; constantly coming back to needs/goals

  3. Ability to prioritize between a set of solutions; creativity is good but least important of the above

Types of questions you may be asked

  1. How would you design {existing product} for {new user segment they haven't addressed yet}?

  2. You're the PM for {product} at {company}. How would you improve it?

  3. What's your favorite product and why? How would you improve it?

Make sure your answer more or less covers the following

  1. Goal / Mission

    • What is the company as a whole's mission?​

    • Why is this area you're evaluating relevant to that mission (user and business perspective)

  2. Users and their needs

    • What are the core user groups that are relevant?​

      • Not just who uses the product, but who pays for it​

      • eg: for a marketplace, the demand and supply side are two different user groups

    • What are their needs?

      • Needs not problems - imagine how to add value beyond current baseline​

    • Any notable gaps in the existing market for these needs?

    • Pick one primary user need to focus on

  3. How we’d measure solving those users’ problems (high-level)

    • If it were true that we delivered on the aforementioned user needs​, what else would be true?

    • Would the users in question retain or engage more? Would new users join? Would we be able to make more money?

    • Keep this to high-level "North Star" metrics for now

    • Pick one as your main metric

  4. Brainstorm solutions for a key user need​

    • With all of the context above, brainstorm 3-5 solutions for how you would deliver​ on the previously prioritized user need

    • Balance of incremental and long-term ideas

    • Consider your interviewer a thought partner - totally okay if they pitch in ideas or push back on specific ideas

  5. Prioritize one solution (impact/cost)

    • ​Ascribe a t-shirt size (S/M/L) to each solution for both impact (North Star metric) and cost to develop the solution (eng/design/operations/etc.)​​; based on intuition and stated assumptions

    • The solution with the best ratio of impact / cost is probably the one to start with​

      • Doesn't have to be though; use your intuition to double check the output here​

  6. Success metrics for that solution, and experimentation

    • The solution you pick should ultimately help move the North Star metric that you picked earlier​

      • But North Star metrics take a while to observe changes in

    • Identify some proxy metrics ​that should correlate well with the North Star metric and for which changes be detected more quickly

    • How would you know that after launching this, the solution was successful in meeting our goals?

      • Experimentation. Often an A/B test​ but not always (eg: marketplaces often can't do A/B)

  7. Trade-offs / risks with the recommended approach

    • Why might the North Star metric you picked be a bad one? Why might the solution you picked be a bad one? Layer trade-offs and critical thought throughout

Execution

What they're looking for

  1. How you identify and prioritize opportunities

  2. How you analyze a set of constraints and problems to come up with goals / success metrics

  3. How you adapt your plans and troubleshoot problems with new information and changing circumstances

There are a couple ways you might be asked an execution question. Make sure your answers more or less cover the following

For "goal-setting" questions (eg: "How would you set goals for {product} at {company}?)

  1. Mission of company

    • ​What is the company as a whole's mission?​

    • Why is this area you're evaluating relevant to that mission (user and business perspective)

  2. Goal of product area in question from user perspective

    • Qualitatively, how does the area you're setting goals for help enforce the company's overall mission? What user value does it provide?​

  3. Metrics that quantify us meeting that goal (if didn’t exist then what)

    • If it weren't true that this product existed yet, and all of a sudden it did, what would be different about the company's topline metrics?​

    • Would the users in question retain or engage more? Would new users join? Would we be able to make more money?

    • Keep this to high-level "North Star" metrics for now

    • Pick one as your main metric to move forward with

  4. Note proxy metrics (short-term)

    • This "North Star" metric probably takes a while to detect statistically significant changes to

    • What proxy metrics ​would correlate well with the North Star metric, for which changes be detected more quickly?

  5. Trade-offs of that metric vs other metrics (avoid gaming)

    • ​Why might the North Star metric you picked be a bad one? Or proxy metrics? Layer trade-offs and critical thought throughout

For "trade-off" questions (eg: "How would you decide between doing X or Y?")

  1. What is the trade-off (plug in infinite to both sides)

    • If you're weighing between two things, imagine you only did one of the forever and went all in on it. What positive things would happen short term, but what might not go well long-term?​​

    • Find the common thread between them both

      • eg: Facebook: ad versus organic engagement module both long-term optimize for money​

      • eg: Lyft: Getting one more Driver hour versus getting a Rider to book one more ride both long-term optimize for most aggregate rides

  2. Objective function (goal to meet through experimentation)

    • The right point in the trade-off is what will maximize the common long-term goal that both sides you're considering have​

    • You can run experiments with different levels of both sides and whichever mix is best for your long-term goal is the right mix!

  3. Further optimize (network effect, personalization, etc.)

    • The above is a starting point. You can always better optimize over time by having different mixes for different circumstances​

      • eg: Facebook: for highly-engaged users who aren't ad-sensitive, can show more ads

      • eg: Lyft: in a region where there are too many Drivers, might have less need for one incremental hour from a Driver

For "root cause analysis" questions (eg: "XY metric is down. What happened?")

  1. The goal here is to systematically explore all reasonable explanations that could have contributed to the metric changing

  2. You basically want to make one of these that cover areas like specific technical attributes, specific funnel step, region, time frame, product/feature change, and demographic​​

  3. There's no right answer. There's no root cause that you have to get to pass. The goal is breadth so don't worry at all if you never find the "correct answer"

    • In fact, when I ask candidates this question, if they​ ever guess the "correct" root cause I had in mind, I just change it to keep them going  😈​​

Behavioral / Leadership

What they're looking for

  1. Can you build a team and motivate them around the mission of the company and team?

  2. Can you develop and align everyone around frameworks for prioritization and execution that make the team productive and high-morale?

  3. Does your team clearly understand the goals and the impact of the team?

  4. Does your team always know what the most important things to work on are?

  5. When conflict arises, how do you approach resolving it?

  6. Humility, ownership, and team-orientedness

Types of questions you may be asked here

  1. What are you working on learning / getting better at now?

  2. Tell me about one of your past accomplishments you're most proud of

  3. Tell me about a time you really messed up and what you learned

  4. Tell me about a time you had to resolve a big conflict with some teammates

  5. If I called your past manager and asked for praise / areas of improvement, what would they say?

  6. Tell me about a time you had to get something done with insufficient resources

How to approach these

  1. Prepare stories that serve as great examples of the above topics

  2. Rehearse them. Be able to explain them in a couple minutes

  3. When possible, stick to either one or three concise concepts

General advice for interviews

  1. Be humble: when the interviewer pushes back on something you're saying, it's not necessarily because you're wrong. They just want to see how you respond to feedback

    • The people I've most enjoyed interviewing are those who I felt like the interview was a collaboration between two people on an equal playing field
  2. Focus on the team ("we did this"), but also be clear about your role in the process and why you were a multiplier

  3. Interviewing is a great way to network. Whether things work out or not, stay in touch with the people you meet

After the interview

  1. Email everyone you interviewed with within 24 hours to thank them for their time

    • You'd be surprised how small a % of folks I've interviewed emailed me after to say thanks​

  2. Email the recruiters to thank them for setting everything up

  3. Add everyone you spoke with (interviewers and recruiters) on LinkedIn

  4. Wait patiently  :)

When you hear back

  1. If you got the job, congrats!!

    • Take some time to chat more with the hiring manager / leaders to get a sense for if this is an opportunity that truly fits your values and learning goals

    • Some companies like candor.co are​ popping up nowadays to help you negotiate comp

  2. If you didn't get the job

    • It's okay, happens to everyone. Even people who've held seniors PM roles at a bunch of popular tech companies have copious rejections from all stages of their career

    • Ask the recruiter for feedback on what you should focus on to improve next time you do interviews

    • Email or LinkedIn message one or a couple interviewers from your onsite (ones you think you got along well with) to ask for feedback as well

  3. Either way

    • Whether you got the offer or not, and whether you accepted it or not​, you now have a larger network!

    • Interviewing is a great way to meet fellow professionals in your network, and you should stay in touch with them / offer to help them out periodically

      • The most consequential job offer I've gotten in my career came to me because I interviewed (and did't get an offer) at a different company a year beforehand and hit it off with one of the interviewers from that loop, who was working at the new company (that ultimately gave me an offer). He made sure I got an interview when I may not have otherwise

© 2020 by Hadar Dor

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