How I Prepared for a Product Manager Interview

Not quite how people described it to me

Andreea Nastase
Jan 19, 2018 · 12 min read

We appear to be 5% into 2018 and it’s been a great year so far.

I just completed my first month as a product manager at Rainforest QA — we built an on-demand QA platform that uses a combination of crowd testing and machine learning to help companies around the world deliver bug-free software, and we’re based in SF with a ton of remote people. My first month has been great, and I’ve received a ton of support from peers and managers alike.

But before it, I went through a 3-month job hunt after we moved to SF. It was not easy coming from a totally different culture but I learned a lot in a very short space of time. A lot of people I met at events and talks around town ask me how I prepared for it, so I thought I’d do a post — but wanted to wait for all signals from my manager to turn green before I published it.

There are lots of posts about “how to get your first job as a product manager” and I certainly read my fair share in preparation. Some of it was useful, some of it was terribly dated or didn’t apply geographically. Some of it was very theoretical and never really applied in real life, or they themselves did not use in their day-to-day jobs. Others wanted to hear you rattle off frameworks. Some of the good stuff was hidden away in articles you wouldn’t expect. Well-meaning people gave me advice, often contradictory, and shadowed by their own experiences long time ago.

It’s all about discovery

The interview process is long and arduous here. You start out terrible at it but the more you practice, the better you become. And you’ll get much more out of it if you frame it as a sort of game: a conversation and process of mutual discovery. You want to find out if you want to work for the company, and they figure out if they want to hire you.

So these are my general observations based on what I’ve read, what more successful people advised me, and what has worked for me in the USA, in San Francisco (also: mid-career, moving from one country to another). I’m not inside the mind of a recruiter or hiring manager, and don’t want to speak for them, but hope this will be useful in the job hunt.

1. Best places to look for jobs

The internet!

  • The sites: There are a ton of aggregators out there, but some of the more useful ones are Glassdoor, Google, Hired, AngelList, The Muse. You’ll see a lot of repetition but also a bunch of unique jobs after perusing them. I’d also advise people to visit company websites; every now and then a handful of companies will deliberately post things only on their website and not in many other places.
  • Slack groups: Product School has a ton of resources and events, not just jobs. It’s one I still keep an eye on every now and then.
  • VCs and their networks and communities: There’s FirstRound Talent (by invitation only), Ken Norton’s blog and newsletter (specifically in the GV portfolio), and the websites of various VC firms out there (Sequoia, Benchmark, True Ventures, Index Ventures, Greylock, Accel, Kleiner Perkins, etc. to name a few). They’ll often post jobs from the companies in their portfolio, and you might find something that hasn’t been posted anywhere else.
A perception of VC deals survey among The Information readers

2. Best interview preparation books

There are a few interview bibles out there that everyone recommends, and you’d do well to read:

My advice would be: read them after you have a good sense of your local job market, know that they are biased towards US/Silicon Valley product manager jobs, and some are a few years old by now. Decode and Conquer was published in 2013, Cracking the PM interview updated in 2015, and only Lewis C. Lin’s last book with 164 Q&As was published in 2017.

BUT before you spend the money…check out the free stuff:

From Lewis C. Lin’s website, resources section

Finally, read what PMs have to say about how they interview and what they look for in places like First Round Review and Medium. There’s a ton of stuff out there.

3. Best advice on how to write your resume

A hiring manager in London once told me that he thought of his role as “people/problems”; he had to hire people to help solve business problems but also make the problems sound exciting so that smart people would want to take him up on the challenge.

The most useful question to ask yourself is, “what problem am I solving for the company I’m applying to?” Read between the lines of the job description, and if the answer isn’t there make it your priority to find out.

If it excites you, then your background, and thus words on your resume, should position you as the best possible candidate to solve that problem.

  • Length rule of thumb: keep it to 1 page (or one page per 10 years of experience). This has served me well, and most hiring managers appreciate brevity.
  • Professional summary: I didn’t bother. I did an early A/B test with and without, and it worked out better to skip it. I summarized my interests and experience in the email/letter and it was enough. If you’re struggling for space, take them out.
  • What to include, how to include it: Make sure your roles and titles tell a clear story about your career (e.g. how you went from an entry-level job to a senior role) and that your successful projects reveal a pattern of interests (e.g. turned around projects that were on the verge of failure , or always worked inside large organizations). Help people see what you want them to see about yourself. Don’t let a busy person reading in a hurry to fill in the gaps for you.
  • How to format it: The best advice was in ‘Cracking the PM interview’ book. Use bullet points and keep the bullets no longer than 3 lines.
  • How to phrase accomplishments: Use Laszlo Bock’s formula: “Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z].” See his post “My Personal Formula for a Winning Resume”.
  • Skills and knowledge of tools: I didn’t include this. I think they’re helpful in case the rest of your resume has a reason to worry recruiters, or you’re moving from one country/industry to another. Showing them off is also probably good if you’re early in your career (e.g. straight out of university) OR if the job description specifically asks for them and you want to be covered. In my experience all screening calls honed in on specific skills or tools or things they wanted you to know (e.g. “Can you use JIRA?” or “Have you worked with remote teams before?” etc.). If you’re struggling for space, take them out.
  • Resume vs. LinkedIn: Same? Different? My resume was far pithier than LinkedIn. LinkedIn had more prose and information about education, volunteering, etc. than my resume because, well, you can. Conversely, my resume included confidential data I would not want competitors from my ex-employers to find on LinkedIn.

4. Best way to write a cover letter

Cover letters are controversial. Not every company requires one. But some do, and some CEOs take time to read them, usually to see motivation and clarity in written communication.

I had one for every job I applied to and I took the time to personalize it to the company, the role, and the person it was addressed to. It wasn’t always possible (search on LinkedIn for ‘recruiter’ title at a bigger company and get dozens of people) but it’s advisable.

  • Length: I kept mine to three paragraphs, with 1–3 sentences maximum per paragraph. Who I am, why me, why the company, and an easy way for them to get back to me.
  • Tone of voice: Depends on you, and depends on the company. If in doubt, stay neutral. The Muse has some “standout” examples that I would not use but you can start to see what grabs attention.

5. Best places or ways to send your resume

Don’t apply on company websites without knowing people. Just don’t. If this article by an ex-Google recruiter is anything to go by, you’ll just end up in a huge pile with other randoms.

If you’re going in cold, think of it as an exercise for you to learn what works and what doesn’t. I did this early on when I had no idea what I was doing, and from a couple of dozen resumes and letters sent, I had a 10% response rate. The rest never ever got back to me (85%) or got back to me within 24 hours to say no (5%).

Of those 10% that did go through, none of them worked out after phone screen. All of them promoted “internal candidates” (or so they claim). Others seem to have been bad apples, and later Glassdoor reviews confirmed as much. So you’d have to cast your net really wide for this one to work, which isn’t feasible or desirable after a while.

What to do instead:

  • Meet your future colleagues. Make friends in companies and get referrals; it’s a vote of confidence that matters a lot. Get to know people on online communities where people talk about work and products (Twitter, LinkedIn, Product School, Product Tank, Product Hunt, On Deck Daily, some sub-reddits, etc.). Send them emails. Read their Medium posts. Get their thoughts on things. It seemed scary during the interview process but it paid off. Outside of product management, I went to a non-insignificant amount of design and engineering talks to learn from potential future colleagues.
  • Meet your future boss: it can also help to directly target the person you might or will end up working for. If you already know you want to work for a certain person (and the feeling is mutual) you’re well ahead of the game. You can start with a coffee but you have to do a lot of work and preparation for it to be useful for both sides.

And don’t just “pick people’s brains” — “When you ask to pick somebody’s brain, you are essentially asking (often a stranger) if you can extract value without adding any value.”

6. Best advice on how to prepare for questions

This is the hardest part of the whole interview, and the hardest to write about since there are so many variables. Every PM role is different, so is every company, and so is the particular moment in time when you apply.

However:

  • Be ready to talk about your favorite physical/digital product for yourself or for other people and do a proper “product tear-down”. Use the ‘CIRCLES’ method from Lewis Lin, by far the most useful mental model.
  • Be able to explain what product management is, so you and interviewer are on the same page.
  • Master 5 career stories that show off your key skills and capabilities. This is for the “tell me about a time when you did …” questions. You can find the full guide if you read ‘Cracking the PM’ interview’. Be ready to talk about success, failure, compromise, leadership, motivation, and other situations you found yourself in. Oh, and make sure the stories relate to the role you’re applying to.
  • Know the “SAR” (or STAR or SPAR or similar) structure and the “pyramid principle” for organising your thoughts and answers. S, T, P, A, R refer to situation, task (or problem), action, result. Basically: some context, what was the problem, what did you do about it, and what happened? The pyramid principle developed by Barbara Minto, a consultant, refers to grouping your answers into themes that are easier to digest.

7. Best advice on how to prepare for an interview:

There are only two things to mention here really, and the bad news is that preparation takes time. If you’re not willing to spend this time, you won’t have a great interview experience.

  • Do your research. Luck favors the prepared as they say. This is your moment to reach out to everyone you know who can help you with information about the company and product. A PM friend of mine said: “treat the company as if they were your client. Diagnose their business and product, and think of what you’d advise them.” Bring your notes to the interview and read from them. Few people will say no.
  • Treat every meeting like a conversation that’s part of a discovery process where both you and the employer find out whether you’re right for one another. This is really good advice for the nervous and anxious, of which I was one.

8. Best advice on how to dress for an interview

“Dress for the job you want” is silly and vague.

Just look at how people around dress in the city, and go “+1" as in dress one “level” smarter than they are. Do you see jeans, hoodies and t-shirts all around? Wear something nicer: pants, a shirt and a sweater. Do you see people mostly in shirts (albeit unbuttoned)? Wear yours tucked in with a jacket, and so on. It won’t be how you’ll always dress in case you get the job but interviews are still about first impressions. Overly formal is an impression too.

9. Best questions to ask in the interview

Not all companies are courteous when it comes to time at the end for the candidate to ask questions. You’ll know more about what to ask if you do the preparation mentioned at #7 but there a couple more things to mention:

  • Don’t ask questions you can easily Google. If you do, be prepared for pushback (or judgement) and say, “I’ve researched this but want to hear you describe it with your own words.”
  • Every question you ask reveals something about your intent. So if you read Quora threads, tweets or articles about ‘clever’ questions to ask, be aware of the effect they’ll have on interviewers or hiring managers. They’ll be curious why you’re asking. However, there’s no harm done in asking questions that most candidates are perfectly entitled to ask about: Why did previous people in this role leave? What do you do for fun? Are there opportunities to work remotely? How do people advance or get promoted? Who are the key stakeholders who have a say in that? Is there a budget for training or events? etc.

10. The best way to negotiate your offer

Ah, the offer — the moment when everyone starts talking about your “leverage” more than at any other point.

  • Stock options: If you’re in the US, working for a startup, you need to know about how companies are funded and how stock options work. That’s tricky territory not easy to explain in a summary other than to say “get clued up about finance because it’s your money and future we’re talking about.” Regardless of gender, ignorance is not cool. If you’re curious about the employer perspective on stock options for employees, I recommend Fred Wilson’s MBA Mondays posts from back in 2010, particularly the ones on “How Much?”, Vesting, Restricted Stock and RSUs and Options.
  • For all other negotiations (money, time, flexibility): I found that Josh Doody had some helpful advice for how to think about negotiations:

“To get the best result in your salary negotiation, focus on one thing at a time and make that thing the one which is most valuable to you. For most people, that’s base salary. Once you maximize base salary, then move on to something like paid vacation or whatever is the next-most-valuable thing on your list.”

His newsletters are informative but you can read his book too. I haven’t signed up to the course as it was overkill for what I needed at the time.

The more you know about the market and company and have confidence in your self worth, the better the negotiation will go.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. Do comment with useful resources and links: what worked for you?

Andreea Nastase

Written by

Product manager. UK to US transplant.