How I Transitioned from Engineering to Product Management — Part III: Preparing for the Interview

Jacky Liang
Sep 24, 2018 · 11 min read
You know the drill with these type of photos

Hello! My name is Jacky and I am a Product Manager at MemSQL and previously a Software Engineer at Looker. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn. I also founded and manage a PM group called subtle asian product manager.

You are reading the final part of the guide to transition from Engineering to Product Management. In part one, I talked about why I transitioned and how to craft the perfect PM resume. In part two, I talked about how to compile a list of hundreds of great companies to apply to and how to stand out among other candidates.

“Jacky Liang wrote this awesome TLDR cheat sheet on how to transition into product management.”

Lewis Lin, author of Decode and Conquer

This post is going to be in-depth, so use the following table of contents to jump to the relevant section.

  1. I got a phone screen
  2. I got a homework assignment
  3. I want to practice Product questions
  4. I want to practice Behavioral questions

I got a phone screen!

Everybody stay calm

First of all, congratulations 😁! This is a big deal, and one step closer to your goal. The phone screen focuses primarily on cultural fit, logistics (location, position, and timeline), experience level, and some behavioral questions. It sounds easy, but do not underestimate the phone screen!

Using Cracking the PM Interview’s “Company Research” chapter as a template, I spent around two hours before each phone screen doing research on the company.

People want to see you care about the company and product. They want to see your curiosity, preparation, and opinions on the company. The most disrespectful thing to do before a phone screen to do is not having even spent a few minutes on the company’s website.

There’s no secret to making an impression — you simply have to be more prepared than the next person

Many of you are come from an engineering background, so by doing the research, it demonstrates that you are proactive in doing what a PM needs to know on the job and supplement on our weaknesses in things like strategy, market, competitors, role, customers, etc.

I have attached a summary of the research you should do in this document. You don’t need to answer every question in the document, but do focus on 📦Product, 🔮Culture, 📋Strategy, and 🌐Mission/Values. Also come prepared with well-researched questions during this phase to ask the interviewer too.

Here is a sample of the research I did on a few of the companies.

Excuse my horrible handwriting

The time and effort you put in in this step pays off in the end, because it will be used in later stages of the interview.

I got a homework assignment!

It’s common these days to get a homework assignment to assess your skills and thought process. One of my homework assignments was part coding and product improvement work for an existing product.

They say spend only a few hours on it, but I believe to deliver good work, you do need to invest more time into it.

My suggestion is to approach such a homework assignment as an in-depth Product Design or Improvement question. Make sure you ask a lot of questions to clarify the goal — why are we improving this product? What is the scope of this? Who are our users? What is the business goal? What “sucks” about the current way? What is great about it?

After this, you can begin dissecting and using the product in order to figure out what doesn’t work for this specific set of users and come up with solutions to improve it. Do assess the tradeoffs, impact, and level of effort for your solution!

I had a PM friend give me feedback on the completed work just to make sure it’s clear.

I am invited to an on-site!

Wow you’re killing it 💪.

It feels very much like this, but it doesn’t have to be

This part of the interview both made me very happy but also made me feel deeply anxious. It is great to feel valued, but an on-site that generally last at least four hours can be quite exhausting. However, I am here to help you best prepare for this.

I want to practice Product questions

If you haven’t already done this, get a copy of Decode and Conquer and Cracking the PM Interview. You don’t need to read these books cover-to-cover, because 90% of PM on-sites cover the following topics:

  • Product design
  • Product improvement
  • Favorite or least favorite product
  • Product metrics (Facebook focuses notoriously on engagement)
  • Engineering questions (if you have an engineering background)
  • Behavioral questions

If you have time, feel free to read and practice everything, though!

How would you approach an open-ended product design question?

The majority of your preparation will come from practicing the chapters in both books that cover the above sections. From the on-sites I have done, the questions they ask are generally a combination of the above five things. For example:

  1. Tell me about your favorite product, and determine the metrics to measure success
  2. “What is your least favorite product, and how would you improve it?
  3. Let’s talk about this product and tell me how you would improve and measure your improvements”
  4. “Tell me about a project you lead in the past — what would you have done differently? What did you learn?”
  5. “Tell me about a feature you created, then walk me through the product design and engineering process.”
  6. “Given a list of items, prioritize them”

Practice makes perfect with product case studies. I won’t go over how to answer these types of questions (P.S. CIRCLES is an awesome framework) because there are many resources out there already, but I have a few tips.

1. Do mock interviews

Think of this as the Pramp.com of Product Management

I used StellarPeers to find peers to do mock interviews with each. Doing mock interviews helps with getting you used to a live interview environment. Whereas you have all the time and calm when doing questions on your own, with mock interviews, you are constrained by time, the peer’s reactions to your answer, and their questioning of your decision making.

I know some people that have done over 100+ mock interviews, but I think that’s overkill. I did seven and thought that was plenty, because of how I would approach it after each one.

After each mock interview, write down all the feedback, and reflect on how you would approach the next interview

When receiving feedback, I ask my interviewers to balance out what needs to be improved on and what I should continue doing. By balancing out the good and critical feedback, you gain confidence on what you’re doing well, and gain insight what you needs to be improved.

Hearing too much of either the good or bad is (IMO) counterproductive. We’re all here to improve, not to get lavishly praised or our confidence shattered!

Alternatively, practicing with a friend or seasoned PMs work too.

2. Be confident and believe in yourself

You will have to make decisions soon — so be confident! Even when you are being questioned in your decision-making during an interview, you can still maintain a confident tone. Facebook PM interviews are notorious for having a lot of questions thrown your way.

Limit use of “um” “uh” or “like”. Trust in your thought process. This is a strategy that some companies use to see if you easily change your opinion (which is fine if you know you are wrong!) or if you can handle pressure. Believe in yourself.

3. Be process-oriented

How do you navigate to a decision given open-ended requirements?

Be methodical and process-oriented when answering product questions. Having a basic process is better than no process. Interviewers are more interested in knowing how you think than coming to a “correct” solution. This doesn’t mean reciting from a framework. This means properly articulating and defining how you arrive at the ultimate solution.

4. Do mock interviews

Google Hangouts became my second home for a few months

Seriously. Do this!

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for 10–20 seconds to gather your thoughts

Whenever I get a complex question that requires me to address many different points, I always ask for a little time to write down my thoughts on a notebook before answering. I ask “could you please give me 10–20 seconds to gather my thoughts?”.

Your interviewer will be happy to give this time when it means giving a better answer. This has also helped me to stay calm if it’s a tough question.

6. Do ask questions

Clarify. Clarify. Clarify.

The worst thing you can do when answering a product question is not asking questions to properly define the scope, goal, why, what, users, etc. It’s a really bad look if you dive straight into answering a question, even if you think you know what the solution is.

Before diving into the answer, make sure you know at least what the goal and users are. The goal can be — are we trying to increase engagement, retain users, add users, drive revenue, convert users, improve design, etc?
Also who are our users? Are users the same as the buyer? Are there secondary users?

Define these things clearly, and feel free to ask the interviewer if you’re on the right track. If the interviewer won’t give you hints, make educated assumptions.

7. Optional: Do outline the structure of how you will answer the question

I personally like to outline how I will structure my answer prior to answering. This primes the interviewer with what to expect, helps yourself to stay organized, and shows them that you are process-oriented. This takes a total of 10 seconds to do, but it has lasting impact.

8. Do mock interviews

dO mOcK iNtErViEwS

9. Do stay calm

I picked up mindfulness during my job search phase

There will be times you don’t know how to proceed or your mind goes blank. I’ve been through that more times than I’d like to admit. It’s normal. In this situation, stay calm. Take a deep breath. Articulate your thought process on what you are unsure about. Ask questions. A good product interview flows like a conversation, and this encourages the interviewer to help you out.

I want to practice Behavioral questions

1. Be aware of these questions — you will be asked them

Behavioral-type questions are self-explanatory, and the most common questions I received are:

  1. “Why do you want to be a PM?”
  2. “Tell me about yourself.”
  3. “Tell me about a time where you disagreed with a coworker or manager.”
  4. “What do you think makes a good product manager? What is a product manager to you?”
  5. “Tell me a time where you had to work with engineers, designers, sales people, etc.”
  6. “Sales wants to do this. Design wants to do this. Engineering also wants to do this. How would you communicate to them what feature or bug to prioritize first?”
  7. “Tell me a project you are proud of, what did you learn?”
  8. “Tell me a time you had to have a difficult conversation with someone. What did you say, and how did you handle it?”

The point of these behavioral questions are to gauge a few things — your leadership skills, how you handle disagreements, how you make decisions, how you think, and how you work in a team setting.

Be yourself, be genuine, and be honest

Whenever I can, I always talked about how I handled these situations in the past. If I didn’t handle a past situation well, I talk about what I learned from it and how I would have handled it in the future — this is what happened when I worked on Schedulizer when I had to let a teammate go.

2. Do prepare questions for your interviewers

A good interview is like a conversation instead of a one-way I/O

Always prepare targeted questions for each interviewer you talk to, whether this is during a phone screen or on-site — most companies will give you a list of the people you will be talking to at the on-site stage.

Spend a little time before each interview to check the person on LinkedIn or Google to understand their role, how long they have been at the company, their previous companies and positions, and any interesting blogs or hobbies they have. More importantly, this helps me put a “face” to the person I am talking to — it reminds me they’re just human like me, and it isn’t some scary “obstacle” I must go through.

You also demonstrate your interest to not just the company and product, but the people there. It shows you want to know more about them (which you do, right? Hopefully). It also helps turn the interview into a conversation, which is very pleasant! Building rapport with your interviewer is super underrated.

Remember, you are trying to gauge your fit within the organization as well, so preparing questions will help you do this assessment.

3. Do follow up after an interview

After a phone screen or on-site, always follow up at most a day later to thank the interview for their time. A short and concise message goes a long way.

“I got an offer!”

Congratulations 🙌! I know you worked hard on this. It wasn’t easy, but your effort paid off!

Harold understands what you went through. And he’s proud of you.

Thank you for reading part three of the guide to transition from Engineering to Product Management! In part one, I talked about why I transitioned and how to craft the perfect PM resume. In part two, I talked about how I compiled a list of hundreds of companies to apply to, and special tips on how to get noticed. I hope you liked this three part series!

I really want to hear from you on what worked, didn’t work, what you learned, and what you would have done differently. Feel free to leave a comment below!

Also, if you enjoyed reading this article, it would mean a lot if you could give it some claps. Feel free to share with your friends as well!

This story is published in Noteworthy, where 10,000+ readers come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

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