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How to Ace Product Management Interviews? Tips from the Other Side of the Interviewing Table

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Group Product Manager, Andrew Smolik, shares his experience as an interviewer of Senior PMs. What makes for a good or bad answer?


Over the years, Andrew Smolik, a Group Product Manager at Academia.edu, has managed product roadmaps for multiple projects across various companies, including Twilio, Upwork, Walmart eCommerce, and 23andMe. Before his Product Management journey, he founded CourseRank, a web platform that helps students by serving them the information they need to map out their academic careers. He has also interviewed hundreds of product manager and senior product manager job candidates.


As the founding product management coach, I am always seeking the latest and greatest advice on helping PM aspirants. I find Andrew’s experience and insights extremely valuable for candidates seeking Product Manager roles. He has interviewed hundreds of product manager and senior product manager job candidates. So, when I spoke with him, I wanted to share tips I gleaned to help product management candidates ace their next interview.


Thumbnail credits to Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

thumbnail with an interviewer and interviewee having a chat while sitting across a table

This article was originally posted at www.harshal-patil.com on 6th Jan 2023


The Ideal Product Manager

three professionals handling data dashboard, launch plans, social media, and planning

Product management is a notoriously tricky role to interview for. In addition to having to be technically competent, product managers need to be able to demonstrate strong problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills.


Andrew's approach to finding the perfect PM candidate follows Facebook's PM interview process, which has three parts:

  1. Product Sense - Tests your ability to design and strategize around products. A great product knows who their target market is and what they need. Their goal should be to create value and impact with their design choices. They should be intentional in their design decisions and always be willing to consider new data points or feedback.

  2. Execution - This is the analytical thinking stage, where you'll need to show off your prioritization and data analysis skills. A great product manager knows how to appropriately set goals for their product and team and can demonstrate an understanding of key trade-offs. They are familiar with problem analysis and debugging processes and know how to set their team up for success.

  3. Leadership & Drive - You need to demonstrate that you've got both drive and empathy. The ability to drive alignment, resolve conflicts, build relationships, motivate their team, and work with others are key qualities of an ideal product manager.

Getting Started with the Interview: Start with an Easy Question

interviewer and interviewee shaking their hands while sitting across the table in an interview

Andrew likes to start his interviews with an easy question: I've read through your resume and looked at your LinkedIn, but can you use your own words to describe your career to date? And can you highlight anything that isn't there?


This question aims to establish if the candidate can tell their story quickly and coherently. They should be able to articulate what they have done and its impact (preferably in a qualitative way e.g. “I launched a product that drove 5% of company revenue in the first year”, etc) and explain it in a way that engages the listener. Their answer sets the stage for the tone and direction of the rest of the interview. If the candidate cannot answer this question with ease and in a well-structured manner, it is usually a red flag .


Describing Your Career: Bad Versus Good Answers

interviewer and interviewee sitting across a table, having coffee, and smiling

When describing your career, Andrew explains that your response could be poor, good, or great. Poor answers typically have no structure, and the candidate spends lots of time rambling until they are stopped. Good responses have structure and allow the interviewer to follow along.


A candidate with a great answer will:

  1. Have a well-structured response

  2. Provide a concise answer

  3. Include quantitative explanations of their impact (e.g., “I launched a product that drove 5% of company revenue in the first year”)


The Product Design Question: Metrics

team discussion around a laptop and a working desk with physical prototypes

Product design is the most critical question in a product management interview. Metric interview questions evaluate a candidate's ability to analyze data and identify key metrics critical to a product's success. Metric definition questions gauge your understanding of how to define metrics that provide insight into the well-being of a product or feature.


With many possible metrics to track (such as clicks, impressions, or return on ad spend), your interviewer will want to hear you explain how you prioritize and select the most important ones using a clear process. Metric change questions evaluate if you know the appropriate actions to take when a primary product metric, such as traffic or engagement, suddenly changes without a clear explanation. There are many potential causes for this decrease, and your interviewer will want to see that you can methodically discover the root cause of the problem.


Metrics questions gauge your ability to measure the success of a feature from different angles, such as how it impacts users, the company, and the broader ecosystem. They also look at your capacity to identify key user behaviors that significantly affect performance, spot helpful metrics for assessing progress, and use data analytics to back up decisions made. The candidate's response should demonstrate that they:

  • Know the goals of the product

  • Know the product users

  • Can prioritize users

  • Can identify key metrics, including North Star and secondary metrics

  • Can talk through solutions and prioritize those solutions


Simply put, a good PM candidate should be able to explain what they're going to build, why they're going to build it, and how they'll measure it. The core competencies of a PM are bundled up in that product design question.


For more Junior PM Roles, Execution Matters More than Strategy and Innovation

For PM and senior PM positions, which are individual contributor (IC) positions, Andrew believes execution is vital. When answering product design questions, candidates should focus more on demonstrating their execution capabilities. While you want to see if the candidate can think strategically, you're first and foremost looking for someone who will have core PM skills.


Not Throwing Curveballs at Applicants

interview looks at the interviewee’s resume with a magnifying glass to throw curveball questions

Andrew thinks interviewers should focus on getting the most out of the product design questions instead of trying to throw curveballs at applicants. He prefers keeping the interview at a level playing field where neither he nor the candidate has an undue advantage. Because of this, he usually avoids delving deep into asking candidates about their previous experiences since it is hard for him as an interviewer to evaluate experiences only the candidate was part of.


He also won’t ask questions that are too specific about his company or product because such questions are skewed against the interviewee, which could result in the interviewer dismissing an otherwise good candidate. Andrew prefers neutral questions so that there’s an even playing field.


Past Experiences: Disagree and Commit

a professional irritated and frustrated with a document they read

One behavioral question that Andrew often asks revolves around a candidate’s attitude towards the disagree and commit management principle. The principle states that individuals can disagree during the decision-making process but must commit to the decision that will be made even if they disagree with it. The question delves into how the interviewee would act if they were assigned a project they didn't want to work on. Such a situation will happen sooner or later, especially for those considering junior PM positions.


A bad candidate would signal their unwillingness to work on projects unless they are completely in tandem with the leadership's decision. While they can push back with data and a thoughtful argument during discovery, once a decision has been made, they need to be committed to making it a success. Before a decision is finalized, debate can be helpful in the deliberation process, but disagreement will only hamper progress once a call has been made.


Testing for Leadership Qualities


A standard way to test a candidate's leadership qualities is to ask how their colleagues at work would describe them; what they would say are the interviewee's best and weakest qualities. In addition, the interviewer might ask about the candidate's experience as a PM leading a team to find out how they develop work relationships. Asking the candidate to describe how they handle conflict can also help them understand their leadership abilities.


Incorporating the Company's History into Your Story

employee showing a data analytics dashboard to present a story

From an interviewer’s perspective, a candidate’s interest in working for the company is a good marker of whether they’d be a good fit. They can show that they understand the company’s story and how their candidacy integrates with it. Although it’s not required, it’s impressive when interviewees research recent events surrounding the company. This attention to detail shows they’re good product people willing to do the work.


Andrew encourages candidates to do a little research on the company, its products, and the industry. Find out if they’re raising money, if they’ve had any specific issues recently, or whether they’ve had new product announcements. Accordingly, try figuring out how your story can map to it.


Test Interviews: Practicing the Interview

Product Management candidates mock interviewing each other for practice

Andrew believes that you should be strategic in how you sequence your interviews. Make sure to interview with companies you’re most interested in towards the end of your process so that you’re well prepared for them.


You can also do the test interviews with friends, family, and colleagues. Friends and family could ask you behavioral questions where they'd be able to offer constructive feedback, while colleagues from product teams can ask you more product-related questions.


The Last Five Minutes of the Interview: Questions for the Interviewer

interviewee asking questions to the interviewer

In most interviews, the interviewer will open the floor for five to ten minutes allowing the interviewee to ask any questions they might have. When asked if you have any questions for the interviewer, the worst response you can give is, "I have no questions!": it's a red flag. The best PM candidates would use the time to ask questions that showcase their knowledge of the company, trying to understand the organization and culture and how excited they are about working there.


The interviewer will see whether you have thoughtful and relevant questions.


Conclusion


When interviewers are choosing which candidate to hire for a PM position, they look for:

  1. experience working on product teams

  2. showing leadership skills

  3. showing excitement about the company's mission


In addition, make sure to prepare for your interview so that you can provide crisp answers, weave the company’s mission or recent events into your story and have relevant questions for the interviewer.


By following these tips, applicants can increase their chances of getting hired as a PM.


This article was originally posted at www.harshal-patil.com on 6th Jan 2023

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