How To Crush Your Product Management Interview
The Ultimate Guide For All Aspiring PMs
Let’s face it : it’s not easy preparing for an interview.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Pulling in that analogy, it does take a small village — your referral, your friends, your mentors, your mock practice partners and hopefully this article — to give a good interview. It took me a village.
If you want to be a good Product Manager, this is not the article for you. However, if you want to be a good Product Manager Interviewee, you've hit the target.
Let me give a brief intro: Hi, I’m Soundarya (aka Pooja) from India. I just finished my Master’s at Columbia University, majoring in Management Science and Engineering (a mouthful, isn’t it?). I have experience interviewing with Salesforce, Google, DropBox and Facebook. I spent August — November of 2018 preparing ferociously for my interviews. I am happy to say that I will be joining Salesforce as an Associate Product Manager starting March, working in the ML and Security org. Seeing as how my avocation is writing, it was only fitting to pass on what I learnt on to aspiring PMs.
The rest of the article is divided as follows:
- What does a PM do
- How do I prepare for the interview
- How do I stand out from others in the interview
- How do I cope with rejection
1. What does a PM do?
Let’s keep this short. The following are what a PM does:
a) Attend a lot of meetings. What are the different kinds? Brainstorming sessions, giving updates, daily stand-ups, catching up with teams, etc.
b) Create product specs, i.e, write long documents envisioning how the next product feature should look like.
c) Talk to users. Depending on what the product is, it is mostly likely to see PM’s conducting direct/indirect meetings with users to gain feedback.
d) Crisis management. When there’s an engineering issue, you are there to solve it. When there’s a PR issue, you are there to solve it. When there’s a marketing issue… you get the drift.
e) Prioritization. Last but not least, this is an important skill and a task you would probably be performing throughout the day. Feature x or y? Launch or grow? And so much more.
Some say a PM lives at the center of Design, Engineering and Business. I say it’s very subjective and you need to talk to (at least 3–4) PM’s from your target company and org to know more.
2. How do I prepare for the interview
By now, you must have heard that there are five sections to a PM interview: Design, Strategy, Estimation, Behavioral and Technical. I have written about how to prepare for each section below.
But wait! Before we launch into the categories, there is something that you have to do by default for PM interviews. What’s that? Practice, practice and practice even more: Sign up on the Slack Channel created by Lewis Lin, which already has over 5000 people looking for mock practice partners. I probably had over 40–50 practice interviews before I went for my on-site for Google. Yes, it is absolutely and 100% needed.
Note: For all the interviews, by default, you need to practice like hell. Hence, that is something I would not be mentioning repetitively. But please take it as the most critical point.
2.1. Product Design
There are three types of questions here: a) How would you design x for y? b) How would you improve x? and c) What is your favorite mobile app/web app/physical product? I would suggest follow the three step process to master this category.
a) Read Cracking the PM Interview by Gaayle Laakhman and Jackie Bavaro: This book, as I’m sure you’ve heard, gives you a great jumpstart to learn about how to think of Product Design questions with a few good examples. No, you do not need to read it from page 1 till the end if you don’t have time. Only focus on chapters surrounding design and case interview for Product Design. Tip: Also check the Appendix section.
b) Read Decode and Conquer by Lewis Lin: I’m sure you must have heard of this book as well. I’ll tell you why: from the beginning to end it’s filled with useful examples. Unlike the previous book, this has no theory — Lin jumps straight into problems.
c) Think about products, I am serious: Look at the app usage on your phone. Which apps are you using everyday? Why those specific ones, and not the competitors in the market? Which are the apps that you not just like using, but enjoy using? What is an app that has given you a hard time recently (I’m looking at you Goodreads!)? Apply the same thought process for websites and physical products. For eg: I absolutely adore my college bag — distributes weight well, optimal number of zips and waterproof. But I abhor this cardholder that I have attached to my phone — limited space, bad aesthetic and flimsy. So, start observing.
2.2. Product Strategy:
Some say this is the hardest section of the interview, and I agree. The questions here can range from ‘If you’re the CEO of Walmart, what is your 1 year plan?’ to ‘In your perspective, how would a smartphone look like in 10 years?’. There is absolutely no fixed framework that you can use to answer all the questions. Each question demands you to think solely in terms of the company, users and market involved. So, how can you ace this?
There is something that you have to do by default for PM interviews.
a) Read Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer: I’m sure the two books I’ve mentioned have become household names now, and I hope you would do the strategy questions present in them before moving on to any other step.
b) Read The Product Manager Interview: 164 Actual Questions and Answers by (yes, again) Lewis Lin: This book is filled with examples, as the name states. ‘164’ questions, mainly catering towards strategy and analytics. I read this exactly an hour before an interview, and wish I had read it sooner. I hope you don’t make that mistake.
c) Move beyond books to sites such as Medium, LinkedIn, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch: What is going on in the market right now? You need to understand the lay of the land. Why did Microsoft acquire GitHub? Would Google Discover be a success or failure? What’s the advantage of Amazon acquiring Whole Foods? Countless articles out there, critiquing and talking about the nuances. Go ahead, and read. I also created a Slack Channel where people post interesting articles/videos/podcasts they come across. Check it out!
Note: It also helps to know a few frameworks — 3C, 4P, Porter’s 5 forces, Market Entry, etc at the back of your mind.
I was really scared of these questions, even after I had practiced a few. What is the weight of Empire State Building? Well, it’s not humanly possible to know the answer, but shed no tear: the interviewer does not want you to know the answer to any of these questions. Rather, they just want to know what goes on in your head when you hear these questions. Do you instantly panic, do you go blank or do you take it head-on?
Like the above, there are three ways to perfect yourself with these questions:
a) Read Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer: Practice the 10 estimation questions from CTPMI first, as the authors go in detail to explain their reasoning behind the answers. Once this is done, shift gears to DAC.
b) Learn hard facts: I know I said you don’t need to know the answers to the questions, but let me rephrase that. While you don’t need to memorize the answers, it’s crucial to know certain ubiquitous numbers. Let’s say you’re interviewing for Google. What is the market share of Google Search? How much of the pie does Google Cloud Platform have? What was Google’s revenue and profit in 2017? Knowing these numbers, and more, helps more than you’d think. To make your life easier, here is a short (and shabby) fact sheet I created while preparing.
While you don’t need to memorize the answers, it’s crucial to know certain ubiquitous numbers.
c) Solve with structure: There is more in common between Product Design and Estimation thank you’d think. They both are solvable with a ready-made structure. When I see an estimation question, my brain is wired to follow this.
But you don’t have to follow this. Make up your own framework. But only use it as a backbone — you are the one responsible for giving it muscle, bone and flesh to make it a whole. It also helps to have a charisma while solving these questions, and try to give some personal comments here and there.
Disclaimer: I majored in Chemical Engineering in my undergrad, and completed my MS in Management Science and Engineering.
Given that Disclaimer, you might think, ‘what can she tell me about technical interviews that I don’t know already?’. You’re right to do so, but I did spend over 3 months preparing, and so I hope the following are useful.
There are three major categories to prepare for: Data Structures and Algorithms, System Design and Pseudocoding.
a) Data Structures and Algorithms: GeeksforGeeks was my best friend here. I went through all the sorting algorithms and basic data structures used. Also brush up your CS fundamentals: OOPS concepts, Networking frameworks, how internet works, how WiFi works, what are the different protocols used and so on. Remember, you have to be so well-versed such that you can explain all this even to a 5 year old. To make lives easier, here’s the word doc I used while preparing, use this and keep adding more.
b) System Design: Ooh, we've hit bulls eye. Most people either don’t prepare or don’t prepare enough for this. Avoid that mistake, and use this GitHub repo as your Bible or Quran or Bhagavad Gita. Donne has done a brilliant job of breaking down everything needed. But no need to delve too deep; just practice the ten example questions given first.
c) Pseudocoding: Leetcode and a brilliant engineer friend of mine were my strongest pillars. I did not spend a lot of time here, as I knew they wouldn’t ask anything too crazy. If you’re well versed with coding, this should not be a hard section. Just make sure to enunciate, brute force first, optimize next and check for edge cases. This YouTube channel by Kevin Naughton is super, super useful (plus, he’s an awesome person to talk to!).
Here’s a sincere request: please do not underestimate this section. Why would someone hire you if you can whiteboard a brilliant product but cannot answer why you want to join the company? When you interview someone, you don’t just observe what comes out of their mouth, you also observe their attitude, body language, tone and vibe. At the end of the day, everyone wants a person who is good to work with — who can pass the Airport Test. Wait, what?
The Airport Test: If I am stuck with you for 8 hours at an Airport overnight, will you keep me good company or will you be mindbogglingly boring? Can you keep them company? Do you have something you are so passionate about to keep them good company? I hope the answer is yes.
There are multiple sites that give you example behavioral questions, but at the least, cover the basics: Why you? Why this company? Why this role? What’s your expectation? What’s your biggest success? What’s your biggest failure? and How do you cope with a bad manager?
At the end of the day, everyone wants a person who is good to work with — who can pass the Airport Test.
3. How do I stand out from others in the interview
This is where most students struggle. How do you compete with other applicants of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook when everyone around you is a 4.0 driven and hardworking student? Well, you can. And you should try to. Here are a few ways I experimented with:
a) Read, but not for the interview: I am an avid reader, and have always been. So, I welcomed this. Apart from the books above, I read The Lean Product Playbook, Swipe to Unlock and In The Plex. These books, and more, help you become a better PM as well as a better PM interviewee.
b) Go beyond just taking your Resume: Here’s a tip: take your Resume in Matte finish paper (people do notice!). But don’t stop there. Think about what else you can take. Maybe a project you worked on and would like to discuss there? This is your chance to shine, so don’t be shy. I took a mock-up of my project and talked about how it can be applied to a product of that company.
c) Do little things that make you unique: One way to accomplish this is to ask insightful questions. What is the highlight of your day? Do you think you will continue up the ladder or start your company? How do you spend your weekends? As much as they interview you, you interview them as well. Think about this point.. take a long walk. You’ll come up with something.
4. How do I cope with rejection
It’s been more than 5 years since I started receiving rejection emails, but I still feel my heart getting crushed when I see, ‘Thank you for applying, unfortunately…’.
There is only one way that I know to really cope up: feel the pain completely. Do not let anyone make you feel guilty for feeling sad — at least on the day of getting the rejection call. You did put in a lot of effort, and you deserve some time to feel the disappointment.
But, when you wake up the next day, shrug it off, and move on. Because a company does not define who you can be, only you can do that. (I plan on writing a longer article centered around rejection soon.)
Guess what? You’re all set for the interview… if you take the above advice seriously and work hard towards your goal. Interest is just a spark, Initiative is the fuel. Go ahead, and kick-ass!
If that was useful, Follow me for more and do comment/share… you know what? If you really liked my writing, you would be doing it by default. :) So, I just hope you liked it! Here’s some of my other pieces:
- Evolution of Google Search: What You Don’t Know
- Why is Amazon Valued at $1,000,000,000,000?
- How My Grad School Experience Has Been
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