Tips that helped me succeed in my onsite interviews with Google, Facebook, Airbnb and Walmart labs

This article is part of my series of experiences with Product Manager interviews. You could check out the other parts here.

I truly believe a big component in a PM interview depends upon the manner in which a candidate delivers an answer. A PM’s currency is influence, the ability for them to clearly articulate their vision and rally others to their cause. I believe that interviewers are looking to see if you are creative, logical, and driven all while being very clear at expressing your thoughts.

I’ve listed out a few things which I spent a lot of time consciously trying to improve in my own interviews.

Clarify the question

Imagine the situation: The interviewer asks you a product question you’ve heard before. You get super excited, remember your solution previously and start with your structure. You might be starting off on a very wrong foot. The interviewer may have their own twist to the question you haven’t thought about.

On getting a question in the interview, I’ve learned to pause for a moment and thinking about a few things: What kind of clarifying questions I need to ask and what the interviewer trying to test with this question?

Clarifying questions can and should be asked for all types of questions:

Product Q: Am I a PM at the company (which I’m interviewing at) or a new company? Are there any constraints, time/engineering resources?

Strategy Q: Where in the company/product lifecycle are we?

Behavioral Q: Tell me about yourself… Where would you like me to start?

Slow down and structure your thoughts

This was something I spent more than 50% of my time practicing.

Why is it important: Communication is a core skill for Product Managers. Your ability to articulate your vision for the product in a clear and concise manner, helps others understand why your product is important and what you are trying to achieve.

Before rushing into a question, take a moment to think. Heck, take more than a moment, take 20 sec — 1min. If you think you are taking too much time, then ask a friend to interview you and let you know if your break is too long. Even in the middle of the question, if you think you want to think, take a moment. Do NOT rush into any section of your answer. You get to control the tempo of the interview, not the interviewer.

A great way to show structure is to describe the framework you will use to tackle the question. Don’t say: I will be using Circles method to solve this. That sounds robotic.

But you could say: I will first talk about the goal, then go into some potential users, following with their pain points, and finally come up with some solutions to solve that pain point.

This shows the interviewer where you are at all times in your answer and that you have a structured process. Once you do that, try not to jump around to different topics.

Think about it from the interviewers point of view, if they are trying to make notes about what you are saying, structuring your answer would immensely help. Tip: Ask your friend to take notes of your answer. When you start seeing those notes taper off, it became difficult to follow your answer. That’s where you should focus your energy.

Whiteboard practice

For onsite interviews the whiteboard is your friend. Its who you can face when you think you are lost in the question and need time to think. Use the board to structure your thoughts and bring you back to the framework you have put down to answer the question.

Important tip: If you are writing a list of anything, make sure you have a title to it. You don’t want to go back to that list having forgotten what it is. Plus it tremendously helps the person reading what you’ve written. Being structured on the whiteboard is itself an art.

Now that you have a board, don’t forget to make eye contact with the interviewer. The board is just a tool to help convey your answer better, you’re still having a discussion with the interviewer.

Definitely practice on a whiteboard. Practice speaking to a friend while answering a question with a whiteboard. Get used to your style with the board. If you don’t have access to one at work, buy one. It’s definitely worth the investment.

Talking in Bullet points

Cracking the PM interview by Gayle Laackmann talks about this. This really is a great way to achieve structure when answering questions that do not have a previously defined structure.

The ‘Rule of 3’ is something that my boss shared with me and its super effective. Any more than 3 points, and people lose interest. 3 points are substantial to answer any question with solid justification.

This allows you to set the theme of your answer. Then you can follow with describing each of them. Finally summarize your points. The interviewer walks away completely clear about what your answer is.

Compare that to a paragraph style answer. Where does the answer start, its middle and end?

Take control of the interview

A big part of the job is making tough decisions and being able to justify it. The interviewers test that implicitly through ambiguous Product design questions where you are forced to make decisions about the target user, pain point, goals, and solutions. The burden of making the decision is on you, not on the interviewer.

Avoid: Do you think we should do this? OR I am choosing this, is this okay?

Better: Out of the choices, I am selecting X for A,B,C reason, let me know/stop me if you would like me to go in another direction.

Of course, the caveat to this is that don’t be adverse to taking feedback and adapting. That certainly is a very easy way to fail the interview.

What’s important is to be confident and be able to stick with your decisions and defend it with logical reasoning.

Be comfortable to get up and start using the whiteboard without being prompted to. Don’t confine yourself to sitting down and waiting for the interviewer to prompt you.

Tip: Onsite interviews can be quite long and tiring (over 5+ hours). When a new interviewer comes in the room, they are fresh and ready to go, but you might not be. Don’t hesitate to ask the interviewer if you could excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or get something to eat/drink. Its their job to manage the time they have and ask questions accordingly. Its your job to be in the best condition to answer those questions well.

Ask interesting/ challenging questions

Almost all interviewers keep some time at the end of the interview for questions. Startups sometimes let you ask questions first.

Here are some things you can think about:

  1. How can I highlight my strengths: What role do you think will be best for me with my skill X in your company? What skills do similar PMs from my background use to succeed at your company? (good for candidates with startups experience)
  2. Ask the interviewer tough/interesting questions: What do you find difficult about being a PM here? If you were given a promotion at a competitor would you take it? How have you improved as a PM here?
  3. Insightful questions about the business: How do you plan to tackle the threat from your biggest competitor? How does the company address failure/or when things don’t work out.

Definitely be prepared with your questions. Don’t try to make them up on the spot. Read up on the interviewers background and see if there is something that you can find common ground on.

Final Thoughts

There are definitely a lot more behavioral traits which helped me perform well. Being enthusiastic, smiling and thanking/following up with my recruiters after interviews really helped.

If there are more skills that you think are important, would love to learn and discuss.

Product @Walmartlabs, Ex-Founder @CampusConnect

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