Prepping for the PM Interview

Being a Product Manager has a certain set of challenges, but getting a job as one is a whole other ballgame. You need to pick the right positions to apply for, perform well during the interview process, and leave a lasting positive impression. I’ve cobbled together a collection of information that I frequently share with my PM friends regarding my preparation process for finding and snagging the next job. Please keep in mind that this advice assumes that you’ve had at least one job as a Product Manager.

Step 1: What Genre of PM are you?

Before you start looking at job descriptions, think about what kind of Product Manager you are or want to be. There are some important variations in day-to-day responsibilities, despite the usual slew of skills you find on any Product Manager job listing. Do you want to spend your time writing SQL? Getting your hands dirty with UX? Rubbing shoulders with clients and stakeholders? Your job won’t be limited to any one activity, but knowing how you prefer to spend your time is helpful in selecting the best job for you.

Don’t know yet what genre of PM you are? This article is pretty great at describing some of the main types - The Myths of Product Management.

Step 2: Update your Resume

There are many online and offline resources for putting together the perfect resume, often with contradictory advice. I’ve learned from friends who own and operate Interview Edge, a company that offers behavioral interview training. They have been involved in teaching companies including Apple, HP, Google, and PayPal how to interview and hire since the early 1980’s. While their courses and materials are geared towards the company conducting the interviews, they’ve coached me on what hiring managers should look for in great resumes. Below are some key takeaways I use when crafting my resume based on what they taught me.

  • Clean and easy to read. One page if possible. Show off your writing and organizational skills in your resume.
  • All resume content is tailored to the job being applied for. Ditch all mention of projects or work irrelevant to the job listing. You may be proud of some of the work you’ve done in your past roles, but if it doesn’t help sell you as the perfect fit then leave it out.
  • You don’t have to list every job you’ve ever had. Be sure not to leave large gaps in your history, but it is best to only include jobs that are relevant to the future position. If you worked in a coffee shop in college, you may want to skip that on your resume unless you don’t have enough content.
  • List only one job as the one you are actively working on. It is confusing to the recruiter to understand your career progression to see multiple active roles. If you are working at more than one place, make it clear if you are a contractor or simply choose one that best aligns with the position you are applying for to list as your “current” position.
  • Start each statement with a verb. For past jobs, past tense. For your current job, active tense. Depending on what level of position you are aiming for, you may want to consider using verbs like “managed”, “launched”, “increased”, “improved”, “championed”, or “developed”. Need more verbs? Use a thesaurus. For example, “Developed process for product delivery, streamlining work and communications across functional teams”.
  • Data, data, data. It is one thing to claim you improved LTR of all active users, but by how much? Each position you list on your resume should have at least two bullet points where you can show quantifiable improvements that you produced for your organization. This can be a count or a percentage. For example, “Implemented live chat and instant answer services to reduce call volume by 22%”.
  • Keep. Content. Short. Legibility is key. Concise statements that format onto one or two lines per bullet point are important. Simple, clean language also proves that you can write without bloviating.
  • Include 2–6 bullet points per job. If you only have 1, the job doesn’t merit listing. If you cannot pare down to 6, you need to spend more time thinking and editing.
  • If you held multiple positions at a company, you may want to list them as separate roles. This allows you to show progression if you’ve only worked at a couple of companies.
  • Your Linkedin profile and resume should match. There might be a few additional jobs you list on Linkedin, but all content in your resume should mirror your internet persona. A good recruiter is going to go to your internet profile as soon as they get your job application, so make things easy for them and keep all your content synchronized.
  • Have several people proofread your resume for spelling, grammar, and content.

Step 3: Prepare Answers to Common PM Interview Questions

There are some questions you will always get in PM interviews. In advance of all interviews or recruiter calls I write down answers to 15–20 of the most popular questions. I also put together questions that I will ask of the specific people I know I will be speaking with. You may call this overkill, I call this being a prepared Product Manager. Nothing is more satisfying than chatting with a hiring manager and having all the answers lined up.

The core questions I assume I will be asked:

  • Tell me about a great product you’ve encountered recently. Why do you like it? (Make sure this is not the company you are interviewing with).
  • What’s made [insert previously mentioned product here] successful?
  • What do you dislike about our product? How would you improve it? (This is for each company you interview with)
  • What was your biggest product mistake?
  • What aspects of product management do you find the least interesting and why?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where your team has let you down and you’ve had to take the blame?
  • What have you learned about saying no?
  • Why do you want to leave your current job? (Alternately, Why are you no longer with your last company?)
  • Why do you want to work at our company?

Want more questions to prepare for your next interview? Use Ken Norton’s essay on How to Hire a Product Manager.

Step 4: Create or Update Your Personal Portfolio

Portfolios are not just for designers and creatives. Having a collection of work displayed on a personal website is a great asset when sending in your resume, even if you have a friend intro you to the recruiter (which is always the preferred path). This also demonstrates that you know what websites should generally look like. Use whatever website building tool you prefer, unless you can code in which case you may want to consider building your own.

I tend to take tons of pictures of my teams, whiteboards, and project events so I have a library of content to pull from for my site. Screenshots work just as well. My portfolio also includes personal side projects and links to some of my Medium posts. More often than not in interviews I am asked about some of my sillier side projects rather than any work I was actually paid to do. Check it out.

Step 5: Set Personal Boundaries & Define Acceptance Criteria

Before you start talking to recruiters, make sure you know the acceptance criteria for taking or rejecting a job offer. Nothing is more appealing in a candidate than knowing exactly what they want. Being desperate for work can often lead you to an unhealthy work environment even though sometimes you don’t have a choice. If you are considering accepting a job that doesn’t meet all your criteria, think carefully before accepting and know why.

Before you start looking for jobs, consider writing down the answers to these questions:

  • What are 5 immutable requirements for this next job? (Examples from past job hunts: the team must be kind, X amount of money, people on the team who want to elevate me and see me succeed, no meeting culture, the team enjoys being silly and likes to laugh)
  • What amount of money must you make to take the job?
  • How far are you willing to commute?
  • Who are you willing to work with?

Step 6: Review the Interview Process

Most PM interviews in the Bay Area follow a similar, if not identical format.

  1. Recruiter Phone Screen (aka the Sanity Check)
    Average time: 30–60 minutes. On this call the recruiter will have a list of questions to see if you know enough about the basics of Product Management.
  2. Hiring Manager or Senior PM Phone Interview
    Average time: 30–60 minutes. Expect to answer many of the questions I mentioned in step 3. Sound excited, positive, and thoughtful. Speak slowly and distinctly.
  3. Homework
    Average time: 4–12 hours. Depending on where you interview, a homework assignment may be used as a screening mechanism. This is used to assess how a candidate organizes their thoughts. It tests for knowledge of A/B testing, UX, and other key Product Management concepts. Find out if you are expected to produce wireframes. (Always have someone proof read your homework for spelling and grammar.)
    Important Note — many companies will ask you for homework that mirrors the exact job you are applying for (aka free work). Some people are okay with this, you have to decide for yourself. I am unwilling to do work for free as part of the interview process. I’ve given feedback directly to recruiters, offering to do an alternate assignments when this happens. Some people refuse, in which case I politely thank them for their time and look for other opportunities. Others have actually changed their homework assignments and overall interview practices, expressing gratitude for the feedback.
  4. In-Person Interview Round One
    Average time: 2–5 hours. There are a couple of ways this can go down. You may either meet with several members of the Product team, present and defend your homework to the executive team, or meet with 2 to 4 people from across functional areas. If you had homework you will be expected to answer questions about it. You will probably be asked to do a task around populating a backlog, show how you would deal with irate stakeholders, and answer more of the questions from step 3.
  5. In-Person Interview Round Two
    If the company has another round of interviews, you can expect more of the same, but with additional members of the leadership team. Don’t be surprised if your final interview is with the CEO.
  6. The Offer
    Be prepared to negotiate, assuming you get this far. No one ever accepts their first offer unless they are desperate or uninformed. The recruiter almost always has more they can offer you since they assume you will ask. Feel free to take some time to consider their offer before making a counter offer. Before accepting, review your answers to step 5.

General Advice

  • Never speak poorly of anyone during the interview process. Ever. This is a red flag and is often grounds for immediate rejection.
  • Practice answers to your interview questions with others or in the mirror. Expect to bomb your first interview if you are out of practice. This is a skill just like any other.
  • Haven’t interviewed in a while but aren’t looking for a job? Go out and interview. You can bring back insights to your company your interview experience. Maybe go for an interview once every month or so.
  • If you can, time your interview to start early in the day and just after people normally eat their meals. There is data to suggest that people are more likely to say “yes” when they have not made too many decisions in in the day and when they have high levels of blood sugar. Read more about this here.
  • That being said, eat before you interview. And don’t drink too much coffee.

Other Ideas & Resources

Have other ideas and thoughts about getting ready for PM interviews? Please feel free to comment and share your experience.