Cracking the Product Manager’s Interview (P1)

My first few weeks with Tiki Engineering team is hiring, hiring and continuous looking for good talents to build great products. Geeks, I would give you some bibles to read prior joining our interview.

How do you ace one of the toughest job interviews there is? When you apply to be a Product Manager, you will be asked to make sound business decisions with incomplete data. Interviewers expect you to know their products, product strategy and user goals inside and out. Your product instincts will be put to the test. And you may be asked to design algorithms or write code right on the spot. 

In Cracking the PM Interview, author Gayle Laakmann McDowell provides the strategies and frameworks you need to land a PM job at any company — and even shares unique strategies to land a PM job at one of the top five biggest tech companies in the world.  

TOP 20 INSIGHTS

  1. There is no one right background for PM candidates. The expected background varies from company to company. Amazon prefers MBAs while Apple hires more engineer graduates. Some Google PMs have MBAs, but the company prefers candidates with engineering masters. Facebook looks for a programmer background and startup experience. 
  2. Companies use technical experience as a proxy to check for three qualities: ability to form a relationship with engineers, good intuition on how long engineer work should take and ability to be self-sufficient about minor technical tasks like data collection. If you don’t have a technical background, find ways to develop and demonstrate these three skills.
  3. Side projects are the second most important criteria after actual PM experience. Great side projects fill gaps in your experience, demonstrate your PM skills and give you something concrete to speak about in interviews. Choose projects where you can demonstrate customer focus, product design skills, and experience with a shipped product.
  4. If you don’t have a technical background, build a design and usability project to demonstrate PM skills. Pick a real-world problem from your local community, talk to people and come up with ideas. Build paper prototypes and iterate the design based on feedback. Use the Human Centered Design Toolkit from ideo.com to understand the steps involved. 
  5. Interviewers see your resume as a product that demonstrates your PM skills like communication, design and your ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes. Optimize your resume to highlight key professional skills and accomplishments within a 15-second skim. No bullet point should be longer than three sentences, and no more than 50% of bullets should expand into two lines.
  6. To get a sense of a company’s PM role, check their ratio of PMs to engineers. In companies with few PMs and many engineers, you will get the opportunity to own the vision for a larger product and work primarily on high-level specifications. In companies with a higher PM-to-engineer ratio, you design technical specs and work closely with engineers. 
  7. Interviewers expect candidates to know their company’s products well and judge you harshly if you are unaware of “obvious” details. Study the company’s products, their strategy and what the PM role entails in that team. Go prepared with concrete suggestions for product improvements based on common user complaints.
  8. Do not answer product questions based on what you want to see in the product. You may end up with a solution radically different from what users want. Approach them the way a PM would, with a structured approach that starts with the user. 
  9. While you answer product design questions, keep in mind the organization’s style. Some companies want bold, ambitious feature ideas, while others favor more practical, incremental features. Choose features that best align with the company’s style.
  10. Interviewers will ask you to talk about your favorite product. Select a few products you care about that have exciting features. For each product, understand key metrics, user goals, strengths, challenges and competitors. Have ideas on how you can improve the project.
  11. When it comes to design questions, be opinionated. Interviewers expect PMs to have a clear perspective on the product’s design and how it can be improved. However, don’t try to pass off your approach as the best approach. Be transparent about the tradeoffs involved, particularly between business and customer goals.
  12. Interviewers ask brainstorming questions to test your ability to produce bold, audacious ideas instead of incremental linear thinking. Suspend disbelief, and don’t be afraid to share ideas that you think seem stupid or impractical. 
  13. The best way to prepare for behavioral questions is to create a Preparation Grid. For each behavioral question category like leadership, teamwork, successes and failures, map suitable instances from your previous jobs and projects. Select and master five stories that best represent why you are a great PM candidate and use them whenever you get a chance.
  14. Use a Situation Action Result(SAR) framework to structure your response to behavioral questions. First, explain the situation and provide background information to the problem and why it was necessary. Second, describe the concrete action you took. Finally, quantify the results of your actions in concrete numbers and explain the impact on the company. 
  15. Be prepared with a good failure story. Interviewers will ask you how you failed, how you handled the incident and what you learned. The best way to answer this question is to talk about a failure that made you learn something relevant to the PM role. 
  16. If you are from a consulting background, don’t be fooled by how similar PM case questions look to consulting case questions. The roles are very different, and appropriate interview behavior differs. Unlike consulting interviews where candidates rely heavily on data to solve problems, interviewers use case questions to test the product instincts of PM candidates. You will be expected to make opinionated business decisions in the absence of data. 
  17. While you can certainly ask questions to understand the case better, be careful not to probe too much. When the interviewer responds with a “what do you think?”, it’s a clear signal that you went too far with your questions. If you find it difficult to choose between two equally good approaches to solve an interview problem, choose the solution that aligns best with the company’s business goals. These goals will not only vary from company to company. They will also vary from product to product.
  18. Some companies will ask PM candidates coding and algorithm questions that range from simple pseudocode to more complex programming questions. However, the good news is that expectations are lower than they would be for developers. You won’t be evaluated on solution accuracy but on your willingness to solve the problem and the effectiveness of your approach. Amazon’s PM interview revolves around their 14 leadership principles. Interviewers will repeatedly verify if the candidate’s answers align with Amazon’s leadership principles. If you know the leadership principles well, you can identify which one the interviewer has in mind during a particular question and address it directly. 
  19. You don’t need a lot of work experience to apply for a Product Manager role. Many tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft recruit PMs directly out of college. If you are in business school, take project-based classes to work on your ideas and launch a product to gain relevant experience. You can make double use of class time and pick the brains of a team of MBAs. Engineers who wish to transition to PM roles can demonstrate product leadership through leadership and cross-team coordination work. Stephen, a tech lead at Microsoft, volunteered to take on project management for a cross-team collaboration project. The project’s success convinced his team of Stephen’s leadership and PM skills. When a role opened up in his current team, Stephen got the job. 
  20. The best way to learn Product Management is through observation and interaction with seasoned PMs. Look out for products users love and find ways to get in touch with the PMs behind them. Talk to them to understand their process the frameworks they use to make decisions. Besides the opportunity to learn more about Product Management, a robust network can open many PM opportunities. 

SUMMARY

Product Managers (PMs) work at the intersection of technology, business and design. Good PM candidates come from diverse backgrounds.  The PM role and the interview process vary widely from company to company. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the role, candidates with backgrounds that range from freshers to engineers to consultants have cracked the PM interview. Here’s how you can prepare.

CORE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A PM

Product Managers have three core responsibilities:

1. PRODUCT STRATEGY

The PM is responsible to define two simple things: 

  • What game the company will play: including the product vision, customer value, product differentiation and most importantly, the strategy to win in the market.
  • The metrics to define success

If they achieve both, it will allow a diverse team to run in the same direction. A clear product strategy allows the team to make the right decisions even in the absence of the PM. 

2. PRIORITIZATION

The PM has to consistently choose from a surplus of great ideas for the next three things the team will execute. 

3. EXECUTION

PMs must define product specifications to bring clarity on what to build. To do this, they run analytics to understand customer requirements, how current features work and what features to prioritize in the product roadmap. PMs make time/benefit tradeoffs on features to ensure that the product hits the market on time with the right features. When product development hits a snag, they take a call on tricky edge cases. 

Ultimately, Product Managers do whatever is required to ship their products. They cover gaps in design, write content and even do PR. PMs have to lead without authority. While the PM sets the product vision, strategy and defines success, they don’t have direct authority over their team members. PMs have to lead without authority. 

BUILD THE RIGHT PROFILE

Interviewers look for five key competencies in PM candidates:

  1. Analysis and Insight: Companies seek data-driven PMs who can analyze metrics and draw insights from usage patterns. Find ways to build and demonstrate data analysis skills.
  2. Customer Focus: Companies want candidates who can understand customer requirements and translate customer feedback into product specs.
  3. Business Cases: Companies love candidates who have built business cases, sized markets and made business decisions.
  4. Marketing: A background in marketing can help PMs effectively communicate the value of a product and design products that will do well in the marketplace.
  5. Industry Expertise: A deep working knowledge of a specific industry can be a good boost when you apply for PM roles in the same industry.

IS A CS BACKGROUND NECESSARY?

Companies use technical expertise as a proxy for specific skills. If you don’t have a CS background, find ways to develop and demonstrate three skills:

  1. Ability to form a working relationship with engineers. PMs have to work closely with engineers, understand their mindset and appreciate the complexity of their work.
  2. A good understanding of how long engineering work takes. PMs need to make informed tradeoffs between time spent and the value of the work to the customer. 
  3. Hands-on and self-sufficient. PMs must be able to make minor product changes and gather data independently. 

SIDE PROJECTS MATTER

Side projects are the second most important criteria after actual PM experience when interviewers evaluate a PM candidate. Side projects offer proof of experience in product design, technical work and an actual shipped product. A good side project will:

  • Cover gaps in experience: You can make up for a lack of technical degrees or experience with a website or a simple mobile app that you build based on online tutorials.
  • Demonstrate skills: A good side project can compensate for a lack of experience in project management, design or programming. 
  • Give something concrete to talk about in interviews. A good project gives you the chance to explain why you have the necessary background and skills to be a PM.

If you don’t have technical experience, you can do design and usability projects. Find a problem in your local neighborhood, talk to potential users and prototype ideas on paper. Test with potential users and iterate.

OPTIMIZE YOUR RESUME

Interviewers see PM resumes as a product that showcases the candidate’s design skills, communication skills and the ability to put themselves in the user’s shoes. Resumes are not read. The screener skims them for about 15 seconds to decide whether or not to interview the candidate. In particular, interviewers look out for: 

  • Passion for technology: If you don’t have technical work experience, demonstrate a passion for technology through the highlight of side projects, online courses or your website. 
  • Leadership: If you have managed people in some capacity, highlight it. 
  • Projects: List your side projects, their goals and metrics of success.

COMPANY RESEARCH

Interviewers expect candidates to know the company’s products nearly as well as they do and may judge them harshly if they don’t. Make sure to extensively research the product, strategy and role description before an interview.

Study the company’s products, features, key competitors, target market, revenue model and critical product metrics. Use the product extensively and formulate a clear opinion on it.

Understand how the company’s products fit into its mission statement and the company’s overall strategy. Study the product’s strengths, how the company should address its weaknesses, key challenges and ways to overcome them and opportunities on the horizon. Form a researched opinion on the product’s strategy and how it can succeed. 

Understand the PM role in the company and find good answers for why you would be a good fit. Finally, be prepared with some ideas for what you would like to change about the company’s product.

Finally, we are waiting for you guys “The builder” at Tiki Engineering.

https://tuyendung.tiki.vn//careers/job/2243

https://tuyendung.tiki.vn//careers/job/2244

Let’s see how to response to interview questions in part 2 soon.

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