Preparing for PM interviews: how to get there in 15–20 hours
I’ve conducted upwards of 400 PM interviews in the last 11 years, and currently coach individuals who want to improve their chances of getting the PM job of their dreams.
Prior to becoming a coach, I spent 5+ years at Google as a Product Manager and 3 years at Yahoo as a Sr Director of Product Management. I have been featured in Cracking the PM interview and have launched products to hundreds of millions of users.
One thing I’ve learned is that landing your dream product management job is no easy task, even for top-performers. Just because you’re a successful Product Manager in your day-to-day job doesn’t mean you can automatically ace an interview. Look no further than the NBA Slam Dunk Contest to understand why.
Slam Dunk Contests and the NBA
Since 1984, during each year’s All-Star Weekend, the NBA hosts a Slam Dunk Contest. The rules of the competition vary slightly every year, but typically consist of multiple rounds, subjectively scored by a panel of 5 celebrity judges. From 2008–2014 they allowed fan-voting via text messaging to pick the final winner. In 2015, they went back to the traditional judge panel.
As of 2018, out of the 33 Slam Dunk Champions, only 3 of them have won an NBA championship (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Brent Barry). Other than Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Julius Erving, most competitors are considered “dunkers only”. LeBron James has famously avoided competing altogether.
In a critical manner, Slam Dunk Contests are to the NBA league what job interviews are to Product Management — they require similar but not fully-overlapping skills. The best NBA players are not necessarily good at Slam Dunk Contests in the same way that the best PMs are not automatically good an interviewing. I have personally witnessed really strong PMs get rejected from companies they thought they could easily get offers from, because they underestimated the effort needed to land a new job. The good news is that there is a systematic way to prepare yourself for PM interviews, even if you already are a top performing Product Manager.
15–20 hours of effort
After training over 40 PM candidates and spending hundreds of hours coaching them on areas for improvement, I’ve found that a general rule of thumb is as follows: an investment of 15–20 hours of preparation is sufficient to get strong candidates to peak potential. Here’s a general breakdown of that time commitment:
- 5–6 hours: read a book such as Cracking the PM interview or Decode & Conquer and pay particular attention to the frameworks/structure used in different types of questions.
- 2 hours: prepare a set of personal stories to answer behavioral questions. They should cover strengths, weaknesses, struggles/challenging situations, achievements, life values/principles, mistakes made, and stories outside of work.
- 3–5 hours: study 6–7 different products deeply. Your analysis should cover goals, main use cases, key pain points, users/personas, current solutions, what can be improved, competitors, and metrics to measure success.
- 1.5 hours: ensure you are familiar with the most important technical concepts. You can read 40 Computer Science terms explained in layman’s terms. You should feel comfortable discussing high-level algorithms and data structures, as well as describing how common technical systems work behind the scenes (browsers, APIs, websites vs apps, and so on).
- 1.5 hours: practice estimation questions as well as general analytical problems. These usually involve breaking down a seemingly intractable problems into smaller, digestible pieces, and then tackling those individually.
- 2–4 hours: work with peers or PM coaches to conduct mock interviews. You can find peers in communities such as PMHQ. You can also hire Product Management coaches such as this post’s author.
General tips for interviews
- Stand up whenever possible: in between interviews and during interviews if appropriate. Studies show that standing up helps your body release endorphins and reduce cortisol, i.e. the “stress hormone”. This should improve your alertness and overall interview performance. 
- Use the whiteboard: if you have the option of using a whiteboard during a design exercise or an analytical question, do so by all means. There are a couple of benefits: one, you get to stand up (see the point #1) and two, it allows you to articulate abstract ideas and apply structure to your answer in a more effective manner.
- Be pumped/excited: if you are able to convey genuine excitement and passion, you will likely score more points in your interview. So listening to a song that gets you going or watching an inspirational video on YouTube right before you walk in is a great idea.
- Try to connect beyond the interview: look for common ground with your interviewer — whether it’s a town you both have lived in, a hobby you both practice, a type of restaurant you both enjoy, or an obscure band you both follow. Every interviewer is implicitly or explicitly judging whether you’d be an interesting person to work with.
I have a B.S. in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I started my career at Google as an Associate Product Manager, where I worked on Web Search (google.com), Google Maps, Voice Search, Android and Google+ Local. After Google, I joined Yahoo as a Senior Director of Product Management, where I contributed to Yahoo’s homepage app, the Yahoo Mail App and Yahoo’s APM Program.