How to Crush Your Product Management Interview

Luke Congdon
Nov 5, 2019 · 12 min read
source: pixabay.com

Over the past 20 years, I have been both a product management job seeker and a hiring manager more than a few times. Having experienced both sides of the hiring process, I can now recognize many of the common interview process mistakes. In this post, I want to focus on those common hiring mistakes made on the candidate side.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for product manager (PM) roles. Surprisingly, many candidates take themselves out of the interview funnel by making fundamental mistakes that are completely avoidable. My goal is to help you identify and avoid these common mistakes and help you stay on the interview track. To begin, it helps to understand the motivations and needs of both parties in this transaction. For simplicity, I’m not including the roles of sourcers or recruiters/search consultants/headhunters.

How to get into the hiring manager’s head

As a job seeker, it’s natural to think primarily about your needs when looking for an opportunity. Hiring managers, on the other hand, have specific needs in mind of which the job seeker might not be aware when they are searching for candidates. Managers are looking for the following attributes:

These should be obvious, since no one wants to hire the opposite of these traits. Finding the right combination of these attributes, matched to the right seniority level for the role, is the challenge a manager must meet.

The manager’s role also has demands that may be less obvious, especially when they are looking for a new professional to join the team. A search begins because the manager is either replacing someone who vacated a role, or they need more PM coverage as a result of product growth and/or expansion. Since hiring is need-based, the manager and team are probably already doing the role themselves, in addition to their standard job responsibilities.

To get approval for a new team member, the manager then presents a value/benefit argument to defend a new hire and works to get a requisition approved. In other words, they need approval to hire a person in the company budget. This can take a variable amount of time depending on company budget cycles or yearly operating plan cycle approvals. Requisitions are elusive, however. They can appear, get frozen or disappear overnight, as budgets or quarterly earnings shift in unexpected directions, meaning hiring efforts can go unsatisfied despite months of effort.

Your motivations

The job seeker also has a host of motivations ranging from career progression (such as wanting a promotion), to needing stable employment, to wanting better compensation. There are many other intangibles in the equation, too, including:

Perhaps the employer contacted you, in which case this is an opportunity to test the market and evaluate the benefits of the opportunity.

Staying on course during the interview process

I’ve always liked major metropolitan subway transit maps. In comparison to an interview process, there may be hundreds of route combinations to land on a job, or wrong connections to route you out of the running for a job. Ultimately, the job is at a single stop, and you need to stay on course and navigate the right connection points to land there.

Say a candidate has applied to a job posting with enough background to match to the role and get an interview or two. They are in a related industry, have a matching background, and meet the basics on experience and education. They are a viable candidate and are already ahead of many others who might also be applying.

In my experience, I’ve seen many key mistakes that have off-ramped initially qualified candidates. Don’t let these happen to you. I am aware that interviewing is a difficult process, and you don’t always get the job, even when you do match many of the qualifications required. I’ve been there myself.

Seven common product management interviewing mistakes, and how to avoid them

1. You Don’t Show Motivation

Product management jobs are competitive to get. Hiring managers want a candidate who is motivated and strongly interested in the position and product. When a candidate arrives with neutral or disinterested feelings, their body language often shows it. To be clear, you don’t have to behave like a sycophant. I want to know you want the job. In fact, it helps to clearly express you want the job.

The candidate I’m most invested in is someone who can come in and perform the role very well, fit the culture and enjoy what they are doing. Ideally, they will stay for years. Hopefully, I won’t need to rehire for the same role in less than two years.

2. You Don’t Know What We Do

This happens quite a lot, and I find it hard to understand why. I also find this occurs more often with candidates directly out of college or graduate school. A PM is a role that has a lot of leverage and fits a unique responsibility. You have to know the customer, the product and the business. If you arrive for an interview, and you can’t clearly communicate what we do as a company, you’ve self-exited the candidate funnel. This shows a lack of preparation and basic research on the company website, which is a terminal red flag. In the case where we reached out to you, you may not have been prepared, but you still have time to read up prior to responding to an email or taking a phone screen.

STORY: In the past year, I interviewed a business development intern candidate who was just completing business school. This person, even after having interviewed with four other people that morning, could not describe what our company did in even the simplest terms. They managed to repeat a couple of buzz words, but clearly had no idea what we were in business for. While I did not expect the level of industry understanding a 10-year veteran could provide for an entry-level role, showing zero knowledge told me they hadn’t done their homework. “Tell me what you know about our company” is a softball opening question. For an MBA student, this lack of awareness was disappointing.

3. You’re Not Prepared

Not knowing what the company you’re interviewing for does is egregious enough to get its own bullet. Not being prepared overall is even worse. The job interview, in some ways, is a dance with established moves. It starts with, “Hello, tell me about yourself,” then moves to qualification and fit questions, then wraps up with, “Do you have any questions for me?” In general, PM roles are usually not available at the start of one’s career, though some exceptions apply. Given the abundance of free online career advice and online interview education videos available with a few clicks, managers expect candidates to be familiar with a company’s business and basic product portfolio. It is an easy routing filter to decide if you will continue to be considered for additional interviews, much less an offer.

STORY: I once made a direct hiring manager recommendation years ago for a friend who expressed interest in a PM role. The friend had deep and highly relevant professional expertise, which made them a natural and easy referral. It was no surprise that a recruiter contacted them immediately for a phone screen. The day of the call, I found an hour-old instant message asking me who the key competitors of my company were. They had messaged me while on the call for a quick answer to a fundamental question. They had taken the call with no apparent preparation. The recruiter never scheduled a follow-up interview.

4. You Don’t Know Our Product

This one is specific to PMs. Product managers are seen as experts in their product and industry. When interviewing for a PM role, you are expected to know the fundamentals of the product we offer. At this point, you are not expected to be an expert if you are changing product lines. You are expected to have arrived with knowledge of what it is, what core use cases it addresses, and where and how it fits in the industry. There is no excuse for not taking the time to know these fundamentals. This information is very easy to acquire on the company website, YouTube, news and blogs. The level of depth will vary with the seniority and responsibility level of the role. The more senior the role, the more I’d expect a candidate to know the product, the business, the selling motion, common objections, the market, etc.

If you are targeting a B2C (business to consumer) product, you can easily differentiate yourself by downloading the trial version of the product, using it and developing a point of view about it. B2B (business to business) products also often have trial versions. Here you can differentiate by conducting interviews with people in your network who use the product and summarize their feedback with recommendations.

If the role is entry-level, I’m less concerned that all your research and responses are perfect. Getting every question 100% correct is not the minimum bar to meet. Showing you did your research and came prepared is the minimum. That said, everyone wants the best talent they can get. If your personal competition is more prepared than you are, they will advance past you.

Caveat: Some companies, such as Google, won’t tell you what the specific product you’ll work on as a PM will be. They interview for PM talent, and then let the new hire choose the group they’ll work for via internal pitches from groups that need help. This model is not that common. This is arguably more difficult to prepare for, since these companies focus deeply on skills.

STORY: In 2007, I interviewed with VMware. During the interview, the hiring manager asked me how much I knew about the company. While I did not know a lot as an industry outsider, I had read the website and proceeded to describe a product called GSX. He let me finish and smiled. He told me VMware had stopped selling that product, but that it was still on the website. He was happy I had done my research and was not concerned I didn’t know that VMware’s own website was not yet updated. A few interviews later, I got an offer I accepted.

5. You Tell Me You Don’t Want the Job

This one is less common, but surprisingly, it does occur. Normally, you should simply not interview for a role you don’t want. I believe this only occurs when a job seeker is testing out options in the market or is searching to find a role that fits them perfectly. While this mistake is somewhat understandable for an entry-level job seeker, it is frowned upon for a senior candidate. Hiring is expensive for companies and consumes many resources. I recognize some readers will feel that companies do the same thing when asking people to interview them. Remember that once you track into a particular industry, the candidate pool shrinks, and hiring managers have long memories. The other way of showing you don’t want the job is by prioritizing elements unrelated to the job itself.

STORY: In a recent interview, I had a candidate tell me after 30 minutes that, “The only reason I took the interview was because your office is close to my house.” This showed real disinterest in the opportunity at hand. I understand commute time is a real concern to life-work balance. This response, however, told me they did not have an interest in the opportunity itself. This was a hard U-turn, taking the candidate out of the hiring funnel.

6. You’re Not Selling Me

As I mentioned earlier, PM positions are competitive, professional roles. Part of the role involves positioning and selling products by working with marketing and sales teams. I want to hear why you believe you’re a great fit for the role. During the interview process, you are the product I’m considering buying. Do you know why you’re the best? Are you confident in your abilities? What differentiates you? What can you bring to the organization your competition can’t? PMs drive product and teams with informal authority. If you can’t sell a story, you will not be successful in your role. I assume the best product you know is yourself, and interviews, at their core, are sales pitches.

7. You’re Not Committing

Let’s assume you’ve been interviewing well, keeping on track, and you are the real deal. You are smart, motivated, informed and know your capabilities. You get an offer! Congratulations. We’re serious, and we want you on our team. Let’s make this happen. There are two ways to not commit, which will end the process. The first is to simply not accept the offer. This hurts, because we’ve been spending time on interviews and follow-ups, because we were working in good faith. By the time we’ve made an offer, we’ve probably parted ways with other candidates, too. This can go both ways. I’ve been a candidate to make it past 12 interviews and not get an offer. Ideally, you’d know well before the offer that you were not truly interested in the role. Hopefully, a company representative did not create a terminal red flag for you at the last minute.

The second way to not show commitment is even more painful. You accept the offer but don’t commit to joining the company, or you just never show up. In this case, we’ve both spent a lot of time and resources getting to this point. On the company side, having made a clear decision to make an offer that the candidate accepted, we’ve informed other candidates who are no longer in the pipeline. An offer means that 3–5 other executives and I have agreed and signed off on your offer and comp plan. If you provide a verbal “yes” and sign the offer, tickets are generated to get you a place to sit, a computer, an email address and other day-one activities. There is a lot to unwind and start over with a new candidate pipeline, which could take months to get back to this point.

STORY: In the past year, I found a candidate who was well-spoken, had the right background, knew my industry and interviewed very well. We ran phone screens and in-person interviews. Everyone involved in the process gave their approval. An offer was made. They let us know they were in-process with two other companies and were weighing options. We improved the total comp plan and updated our offer. They verbally accepted and signed our offer. We were excited to get moving. I emailed them and welcomed them to the team, and I asked what start date they had agreed to with recruiting. A week went by with no response. I emailed again. They said they had more questions first. A call was scheduled, and I spent an hour responding to validation questions, which would normally be answered before you signed an offer. They didn’t give me start date but said they would update me that week. A week went by. I emailed again. More time went by. Finally I got a response that said they were close and would let me know when they were starting soon. I probably waited too long to take action. After four weeks of this, I pulled the offer.

The on-ramp

It might appear to be common sense to avoid these pitfalls, but I run into many of these frequently in interviews. PM roles are highly cross-functional with direct impact on many teams and the business at large. It’s no surprise that PM is a role that is often in the background experience of many start-up founders, executives and venture capitalists. As a result, a lot is expected from a PM candidate. Hopefully, this offers a point of view that will help you land your next dream job.

Of course, sometimes you’ll do it all right and still not get selected. We’ve all been there. By avoiding these mistakes, you’ll put yourself in the best possible position to be selected for the position you’re seeking.

About the Author

Luke Congdon is a career product manager living and working in Silicon Valley since 2000. His areas of focus include enterprise software, virtualization and cloud computing. He has built and brought numerous products to market, including start-up MVPs and billion-dollar product lines. Luke currently lives in San Francisco. To contact him, connect via luke@lukecongdon.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/lukecongdon/.

Originally published at http://lukecongdon.com.

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Luke Congdon

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product guy | home chef | coffee drinker

Agile Insider

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Luke Congdon

Written by

product guy | home chef | coffee drinker

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

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