Getting into Product Management – II (Interview prep + 3 things that help)

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

Overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far: 

– Overall: The PM RoleThe 4 key skillsRemote + Pandemic PM5 Decision Making frameworks/heuristicsProblem finding/solving with executives5 habits – high velocity product teamsGetting in – I

– Skill #1 – Problem finding: Most important skillProblem statement and hypothesisBuilding StrategyValidating problem statements and hypotheses

– Skill #2 – Selling: Sales and MarketingWriting for executive audiences

– Skill #3 – Problem Solving: RoadmapProduct specs

– Skill #4 – Building effective teams: Knowing thyselfYour managerProduct team culture

We covered the paths into product management in last week’s post. This week, we’re going to focus on improving our chances when we get the interview.

The 4 interviews

We’re going to focus on the 4 main interviews – (1) Product sense, (2) Product strategy / analytical ability, (3) Product execution, and (4) Behavioral

These aren’t the only interviews. Some companies and roles may have other variants and some may combine interviews – e.g. Product strategy + execution. But, these 4 elements tend to be tested.

These map in the following way to the 4 skills we’ve been covering in past editions.

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(1) Product sense:

The product sense interview is the most important interview of them all. Nailing the product sense interview doesn’t get you the job – but, it gets you close. Messing this up, on the other hand, guarantees rejection.

How to prepare: I’ve written multiple posts about problem statements – so I won’t belabor the process. But, the short answer here is – develop a habit of working through the fundamentals every time you see a product.

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  1. Problem statement: Who is this for, what is the need, and what is the business value of doing this?
  2. Hypothesis: What are the riskiest assumptions and how can we validate them (ideally cheaply)?
  3. Success metrics: What are the true north, signpost, and guardrail metrics?

Once you cover these, you can begin to approach the solution space –

The Test: How would you structure a lightweight test to see if our hypothesis lead us to the success metrics?

Risks: Are there any key risks you need to call out? (think: technical challenges, go-to-market investment, etc.)

In the heat of the moment, it is tempting to rush into finding a solution. But, doing this well consistently requires us to be rigorous about thinking problem-first. So, the best way to prepare is to keep practicing this with problem statement teardowns. Do this for all kinds of products

– Products you love
– Products you don’t like
– Physical products
– Products in companies you are interested in interviewing for

Work through this for at least 20 products and write or type your answers. Over time, it’ll become second nature.

Where candidates stumble:
Jumping into the solution space too quickly. This is the most common area where candidates stumble.
Business problem focused. Prioritizing business problems instead of user or customer problems never ends well.
Ignore large risks and technical challenges. E.g. If you have a problem that involves thinking about a live video solution, you better be thinking about challenges like technical infrastructure and content moderation.

(2) Product strategy / analytical ability

The product strategy test is more prevalent as the role gets senior while more junior candidates are tested on analytical ability. As is the case with problem finding focused interviews, these are important to get right. And, getting these right isn’t about getting to a “right answer.” It is a matter of pausing to understand the problem we’re solving and structuring our approach to the solution.

How to prepare: There are 2 common variants of questions:

(i) How should we grow? (e.g. should we acquire xyz, should we build abc, etc.?)

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All tech companies grow via 3 ways – a) build, b) buy, and c) partner. It helps to start here and work through the costs and benefits of each of these options before focusing on the most promising option.

ii) How would you diagnose this problem? (e.g. engagement is down today/we need to grow revenues/our onboarding flow is not leading to retained users – what would you do?)

The key in any diagnosis problem is to construct the equation. There is always an equation. Here are 3 revenue focused example equations.

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You can also map out similar equations for engagement or retention. Needless to say, make sure you map out the key equations for the company/role you are interviewing for.

It is also important to work through 10-15 estimates with real numbers – i.e., do some old fashioned multiplication and division. There is always a possibility you will meet an interviewer who’d like to test your ability to guesstimate – particularly in growth focused roles. 

 Where candidates stumble:

  1. No structure. No structure in solving the strategy problem. Again, this is a variant of jumping into the solution space too quickly.
  2. Poor math. Unable to think in terms of an equation for the diagnosis. And, in some cases, demonstrating an inability to work through the math.

(3) Product execution:

This tends to be a relatively easy interview for folks who have good past experiences. It is correspondingly hard when you’re trying to break in. The simplest way to do well here is to take on a product side project before you interview as it’ll help you have some stories to talk about (we’ll get to this below).

How to prepare: There are a sequence of steps involved with building a product that raise questions.

  1. Alignment and conflict: How would you deal with alignment with other functions and teams? The first step this typically involves writing a strategy doc and a spec to ensure you can bring multiple groups along. When alignment doesn’t happen, you need to discuss, influence, and escalate to executives if you’re still not able to find a way.
  2. Design and engineering problem solving: How do you approach reviewing a screen and improving the user experience? How would you approach a technical challenge you’ve run into?
  3. Go-to-market: How are you thinking about go-to-market and distribution? For B2B products, this is especially crucial and should mean you’re thinking about running a pilot. 
  4. Adoption: How will you drive adoption after launch?
  5. Prioritization: How will you continue to evolve the product and prioritize customer feedback?

(Note: We haven’t covered b), c), and d) as yet on this newsletter – more to follow in future editions)

Where candidates stumble:
Naïve about alignment and conflict. They either miss it or back themselves into a hole by refusing to think about aligning incentives and getting executives involved if it isn’t working.

Ignore go-to-market. “Build it and they will come” rarely works.

Ux miss. Complete absence of thinking about user experience details when designing a screen.

(4) Behavioral/leading teams + selling

This interview is standard. They tend to help make the yes/no decision on candidates assuming they’ve passed the above interviews. I think these interviews are a big opportunity if you’re looking to break into product management as they give you the opportunity to shape your narrative in the minds of the interviewers. You can move them from describing you as “that data scientist candidate” to the “candidate who loves building community products.”

How to prepare:

i) Meeting the bar:
Create a compelling self introduction: You know they are going to ask you to “tell me about yourself” – prepare a compelling self introduction in ~2.5 mins that beautifully brings together a) your why, b) your progression and what you’ve learnt, and c) why you’d be a great fit by showing you have the skills required.

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Nail 5 key stories with the help of a behavioral matrix: Start by building a behavioral matrix where the rows are key stories/experiences and the columns are areas you believe you’ll be tested. These vary by company – but, they typically involve some combination of leadership, influence, communication, and the company’s values/principles. For example, if you’re interviewing at Amazon, you need to make sure your stories map with the key leadership principles. Once you make your list, write each story out in detail (use the STARL framework to structure your thoughts – situation, task, action, result, learning) and pick 5 key stories that you practice until they flow naturally.

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Ask thoughtful questions: The Firstround blog had a recent post detailing ways to approach this. The key here is to be thoughtful about the questions you ask. I have, for example, always asked my interviewers for feedback on how I did and any advice they have for me. These are authentic to me as they flow from how much I value learning and I’ve been fortunate to receive candid responses on both of these nearly every time.

 ii) Exceeding expectations:
Go in with a clear strategy: When interviewers debrief, they’re going to be describing you with 1-3 words or phrases. Be intentional about what those should be and make sure it keeps coming across in your interview processes.

Don’t just tell them what you did – explain your thought process: The expectation in a behavioral interview is that you’ll answer the question. But, you can exceed expectations by explaining how you’d approach such situations. For example, “Tell me about a time when you dealt with conflict” could be answered with a situation. But, if you started with a line that went something like – “When I find myself dealing with conflict, I focus on doing 3 things – understanding the other person’s point-of-view, having a direct conversation, and then escalating to an executive so we make the right decision for the company. I did this recently when….” This clearly gets to the point of the behavioral interview – to understand how you’d deal with challenges on the job and highlights your structure and thought.

Where people stumble:
Ramble without a sense of time. This is the most common offense. I’ve occasionally stopped folks from continuing a self introduction that was approaching 10 minutes.

Vague about their role. A simple rule – tell your interviewers about what YOU did in a situation. Candidates who couch their answers in “we” don’t inspire confidence.

No structure. It helps to be structured and precise in your answers. This isn’t as much a red flag in junior roles as this is a learned skill. However, an absence of this becomes costly as the role becomes more senior.

Now that we’ve worked through the details of the interview process, I’d like to leave you with 3 things that help when you’re attempting to break into product management:

i) A product management side project: There are 3 variants of this stacked in priority order:

a) PM project in your company: These aren’t easy to come by and require finding existing PMs who are able to find a spot + are willing to take a bet on you. The best opportunities tend to be those that folks tend to avoid. Find the most unappetizing edges of the product or customer experience – bonus points if you can contribute to these with your existing skills. Your PM partners will be happy to have your help and you get an awesome opportunity to learn and potentially have an impact.

As an example, my first PM project was going through thousands of apps as we began beta testing our LinkedIn Audience Network, categorizing them, and surfacing them to our leadership to make decisions on our approach to quality. Totally unappetizing for most – perfect for me to get my foot in the door. :-)

b) Build an app or website: This is the next best option. Build an app yourself or find friends who are willing to go through the process of building something useful. The biggest benefit of this approach, if you don’t have a technical background, is that you’ll get an education in technical basics. Think through decisions like – What cloud vendor will you use and why?, what language will you build the app in?, are you going to set up a NoSQL database?, what should the database structure be?, what APIs will you use?, etc.

 c) Write: If none of these are possible, consider writing. Do problem statement and user experience teardowns on a blog. Your audience need not be anyone beyond your mom or spouse. Just attempt to teach someone – it will clarify your thinking.

ii) Think in 5 year horizons – don’t fall into “I want the dream role now” trap

Most fellow prospective PMs are trying to get their dream role in that dream consumer tech companies. Do the opposite. Start by getting in – find niche areas where you can add value, get into lesser known companies, or find roles in the product team in companies you care about. Then, find ways to keep moving toward that dream job.

This is especially true if you are limited by immigration system problems. You may have to prioritize immigration until you have stability and make suboptimal choices. That’s okay.

It is a marathon. And, the only person we compete with is ourselves.

iii) Prepare hard and remember there are 26 years letters in the alphabet

When you attempt to break in, you get very few shots. This is especially true if you are limited by your immigration situation. So, the best approach is to prepare hard and aim to leave little to chance. Here’s an approach to structuring your preparation that I recommend –

– Start with 10%-20% of prep focused on an overview of the different interviews and how you plan to approach them
– Do 2 mock interviews with the toughest interviewers you can find – this will help you calibrate and understand where you need to put in extra effort
– Next, go into preparation mode and get yourself to 80%-90%
– Do another 5-6 mock interviews and re-calibrate
– Then, work your way to 100% prep / confidence

Ask for plenty of help (you can pay it forward later) and ask around for folks who are tough interviewers. You’ll learn the most from these interviews. 

Finally, even if you leave nothing to chance, there’s going to be plenty of chance involved. But, this is when we need to remember that there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Keep at it.

The path isn’t linear.

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And, you only need one to work out.

I hope this helps. All the best!