Tips for Product Management Interview Preparation
I could fill up a book with awkward questions and statements that I’ve encountered while seeking a new product position. Take this startup, operating in a cool and unique domain: IOT, environment, and data AI.
Following a good interview with a product manager and a chief officer, I was invited back for a final interview with the VP People and CEO.
The VP was 45 minutes late. His first comment, while holding my resume, was that he hadn’t read it. He continued by saying that other people thought I was a star and a perfect fit. I thought to myself, ‘This one is going to be easy.’ But then he continued by saying that he had concerns and didn’t think I was a star.
I started giving my pitch, with passion and focus. He didn’t let me complete my 90-second pitch. Instead, he said, “You should be a teacher, you have a gift for it. Let me call in the CEO.”
Following a quick introduction and a shorter version of my pitch, the CEO asked if I work well with development. I started with an introduction to my answer, that I definitely work well and do so by trust-building, ownership, teamwork, and process/formalities and non-formalities at work. I outlined some recent examples of major product successes. Not even ten minutes after we met, the CEO stopped me. He said that my answers were too vague, that he didn’t understand me, and that he had another meeting.
WTF? You probably don’t want to work for such a company.
I finally found my dream job at AnyClip. In this post, I want to share how I prepare for a product management interview. Specifically, I’ll discuss how I prepare to speak about the main topics that I may be asked about at any company.
The short version
If you don’t have the time to read the entire post, check out these highlights. You should be prepared to answer and discuss the following in a product management interview.
I find this useful for any type of interview. Some interviews will be around these questions. Others would cover your work experience. These topics empower to focus on what matters in your work experience.
The Long Version
Grab a coffee and enjoy the long reading below.
Interviews may vary dramatically from one company to another, as well as from one interviewer to another. However, I found out that set content, prepared in advance, will fit any company and any person. Over the years, I’ve created the following template (“Cheat Sheet”), which I continuously update, practice, and memorize.
Note that this template is based on keywords, each of which represents a concept in my head about which I can speak briefly or at length.
The order of the following topics doesn’t matter. You should be ready to adapt to any type of interview.
This is what my template looks like. The handwritten comments are added before I am interviewed by a specific person in the company or by slightly adjusting this content to another company.
Sometimes I create a template as per the industry of the target company—for example, a template for business SaaS and a template for e-commerce.
Your pitch, telling your story
I prepare a short pitch about myself that starts with my value proposition (why I’d be competitive for the company as compared to other candidates) based on my experience. This means that I speak not about a specific role or achievement but, rather, about the fact that I’ve gained expertise and succeeded with it. This includes markets, products, technologies, and areas of expertise I’ve gained.
The next step is to connect this naturally to my most recent position or couple of positions. Here, I focus solely on achievements.
This intro story is a good way to break the ice and also to provide a wider overview of yourself. It is also a good opportunity to mention your achievements and related experience if you’re not given the opportunity to do so.
If your interviewer doesn’t want to hear it, just skip it or do the short version in 90 seconds.
Each bullet point represents a topic that I can simply mention or that I can speak about, either shortly or in detail, by providing real-life examples.
For example: “I’ve been doing product for over 10 years now in addition to being an entrepreneur, either on my own or leading innovation in startups. I have worked for various industries from … to … Every few years, I like to enter a new industry … It's challenging to get hired but the process allows me to bring wide expertise as well as remain highly motivated … In all my jobs, my products demonstrated hundreds or thousands of annual growth in revenue....”
In the event that I might seem to lack specific experience in the company’s industry, I prepare examples of how my experience relates to the industry, with specifics. This is also your chance to demonstrate your ability to identify opportunities and build products for growth.
Why I’d like to work for this company
Good interviewers will ask why you are looking to work for their company. This is an opportunity to show both passion and product management expertise.
This is a good opportunity to complement the company for something they are proud of. It’s also a great opportunity to demonstrate market sense by explaining the company’s market and how it could expand based on trending and growing market segments.
Products: yours, others and the company’s
Products you are proud of
Whether or not you are asked about the products that you are proud of, this may be one of the most important topics to discuss.
Pick up the products that were successful and for which your contribution was instrumental:
Other products you like
Talk about one (or a maximum of two) products you love, so that you will be passionate about them. This is another opportunity to demonstrate your product thinking: Explain how the product solves a pain point or creates a new opportunity, growth, market sense, and product design.
What to improve on the target company’s product
You are not expected to be an expert in the company's products. You are expected to think like a product manager. Analyze the product users, including what makes them tick, and connect it to the business model. Bring up the challenges that the company faces: market, trends, and competition. Explain your methodology for tackling these challenges or growth opportunities from current products.
Prepare yourself to be asked about how you handle dilemmas, whether they involve products or are interpersonal in nature. It is essential that you explain the situation, the conflict, the data, the key people, the alternatives, your actions, and the results.
This is another opportunity to demonstrate your ability to analyze and plan as well as your leadership.
You may be asked about failures. Prepare examples of failures for both product and organizational aspects. Specifically, explain what you have learnt and how you are implementing these lessons.
A difficult situation may be to make the decision to kill a product after a major investment or getting management to buy into a new direction.
Simulate, with yourself or with another person, how you handle these questions.
Another type of difficult question involves handling a situation in which there is a sudden drop in one of your product metrics, with no explanation. Prepare to ask questions and create a methodology to get to the root of the issue.
And, of course, there are the good-old questions about your strengths and weaknesses.
These may be the core of many product interviews. It’s recommended that you practice the answers again and again, with different products. On Glassdoor, you can find plenty of questions about “define a product for…”.
First, you may be asked what you believe product management is. It is critical to state what should drive you as a product manager and to describe the wide scope of your position.
In many interviews, you will be asked to design a product—for example, an SaaS-driven smart bus service. Prepare a methodology to tackle such questions. Start with questions that clarify the product, need, market landscape, and constraints to consider. Many interviewers will say that there is no additional information. Next, state your assumptions regarding the existing situation without the new product, market, competition, users, or data that will back up your reasoning. Define the product’s goal, how it differs from others, how it solves a pain point or creates a new opportunity, and how you measure it. Explain the fit to the company, utilizing technological, user base, and organizational assets. Summarize by explaining the plan for the product roadmap, the KPIs, and your projection.
Many applicants forget to prepare their questions for the interviewer. There won’t be a situation in which a product manager doesn’t have questions. You should always ask questions of users, market players, development, data analysts, management, and anyone else.
Prepare questions that will demonstrate your passion for working for the company and that indicate you are ready to take ownership. Show your interest in the company’s culture. Ask a question that connects to one of the company values.
Ask questions at the end of the interview if you are given the chance to do so. Don’t ask too many questions. Three should be fine.
In addition to the generic prep, before the first interview with a company, I learn about the company’s products, business model, market, and competition.
Prepare a short pitch for the company’s products. You’d be surprised at how amazed the interviewer will be about your knowledge and ability to describe the products in a straightforward manner.
Remember that because you are being interviewed by different companies, your view of the market and technology is wider than the view of your interviewers. That’s your added value.
Good luck with your next interview..
Click here for a sample interview preparation.
See also: 5 Tips for Product Management Resumes that Stand Out
I remember clearly how, a few years ago, colleagues, customers, and business partners expressed surprise at how young I was while marveling at the extent of my knowledge and skills.
I had spent a few days off-site (mainly next to a whiteboard) with the VP of Sales and the Technical Account Director, reviewing the needs of a multi-million-dollar customer and presenting the product design. At the end of this fruitful week, after both sides had worked and socialized together, I was asked how old I was. I responded that I was 26. First, they were quiet for a moment. Then they said that now they were really impressed.
Those days are over. Time passed and nobody is impressed by my age anymore.
I wanted to share the lessons I learnt over the years on how—despite one’s age—to stay on top of things, specifically in the changing environments of technology, work culture, and methodologies.
Tip 1 - Shake up your comfort zone.
It’s easy to find yourself in a comfort zone, especially after you have spent many years in the same industry and position, doing the things that you know and that you are good at. However, stagnation can result in the loss of motivation and creativity. The bigger risk is that, if you ever need to find a new job, doing so may become difficult because of how you would be perceived.
Every few years, I force myself out of my comfort zone. For example, after shutting down my startup, I took a product position at a cloud infrastructure company. The product was highly technical—far beyond anything I had ever done. I didn’t have technical education or expertise. However, the new position pushed me out of my comfort zone. It made me learn new technologies, a new market, and a new approach toward doing business with technology-oriented users. Following the learning curve, I was able to contribute to the product and the company’s success. Even more than that, I was full of energy and the confidence that I could learn and do anything I desired.
Set a timeline according to which, every few years, you will switch markets, technologies, and types of organizations. You’ll enjoy learning new things as well as meeting new people.
Tip 2 - Get hands-on: Move up and down the hierarchy.
Years pass and many employees get promoted to managerial positions. With promotion comes compensation. However, the caveat is that you lose contact with the hands-on work. Even worse than that, you never get the chance to use current technologies, tools, and/or methodologies to do the “real” work. This lessens your ability to understand the current work environment as well as to make a shift if necessary. You may also lose the common ground that exists between you and the people who are actually doing the hands-on work.
To keep up with the hands-on activity, you should feel confident enough to take a less-senior position in your next job. Possibly earn a smaller salary for a couple of years. You’ll benefit from proving that you are capable of handling both hands-on and management work, as well as that you can adjust over time. This will remove another barrier between you and your next promotion or job.
Tip 3 - Be an expert in whatever is your weak point.
It’s crucial to identify the weak points that will prevent you from getting your next job. My weak point was user experience design. After working for many years at the level of director and VP, I didn’t have the skills or the experience to demonstrate that I could design UX. This was because the tools, methodologies, and responsibilities had changed dramatically over time.
I decided to become an expert in this domain. I learnt the latest tools, built my own methodology, and offered my services as an expert. I used platforms such as Fiverr, plus I spread the word to everyone I knew. Soon, I had become an expert and was offering an innovative approach, both in my day job and as a freelancer. In addition, I published articles on my approach, which gained interest.
Whatever your weak point is, you can easily turn it into a competitive edge.
Tip 4 - Find out what you love and learn from the young.
Doing what you love will fill you with energy and help you learn and stay relevant over time. “What you love” doesn’t mean simply “I love doing business development.” Rather, it is those aspects of business development that are fun for you and that make you happy. It could be the actual deal-making. It could be the long-term relationships you create. It could be the impact of a partnership on so many users. Or it could be simply the impressive list of partnerships established thanks to your efforts.
Find it and focus on it. Focusing on what you love will enable you to learn new things. It will also help you learn new approaches from your younger colleagues.
In recent years, many innovation officers and managers, experts, consultants, and courses, as well as endless content, have focused on how to embrace and promote innovation.
These methodologies offer great insights but you should start at the basics.
Forget most of what the innovation experts have to say. I want to share, from my experience, tips on how to engage in innovation as an integral part of your day-to-day work.
Tip 1 - Engage in tactics, think strategy
Many companies appoint a person or team to lead innovation. This is wrong. Don’t place the responsibility only on a director of innovation or any other such role.
Instead, use a hands-on approach, dealing with ongoing tasks and deliveries. Discover the tactics of users, data, development, sales, and the market. This is the best way to understand your users’ motivations and the actual assets that you have. Innovation will naturally follow.
In other words, you can’t really understand what makes your users act and what makes the market tick if you don’t deal with the daily specifics. You can’t really know which aspects of your product and/or technology are actually unique and which parts create substantial value, unless you directly engage.
Tip 2 - Team diversity
I hear my colleagues saying that they will interview only candidates who have years of experience in our industry. This is wrong. The more diverse your team is in terms of culture, education, and background, the more creative, motivated, and synergetic it will be.
A range of expertise will expand the overall scope of your solutions. It allows you to benefit from the knowledge and experience of other domains. For example, working on a consumer app from the perspective of a background in networking will lead to superb performance.
Fill your team with people who have a mixed background in terms of technology, platforms (desktop, mobile), types of users, and types of solutions. People working in a new domain also tend to be more motivated and creative.
Tip 3 - Think & plan annually, act daily
Structure your mindset, and that of your team, toward delivering on innovation. I do it by setting annual goals that represent new product domains, new business models, and/or new audiences.
For example, “deliver a data product” or “tap into the workflow of…” or “migrate to … pricing model”.
I start every day (after I’m done with the daily standup meeting) by looking again at my annual goals. Then I update my daily goals and ensure that my weekly and monthly goals include elements of the annual ones.
This way, I ensure that, every week, I pursue the long-term goals that require innovation.
Tip 4 - Load yourself by offloading your official job
People tend to think that if they’re overloaded, they need to handle fewer tasks and be more focused. This is true. However, to offload pressure from your brain and motivate it to be creative, you actually need to “overload” it with a wide variety of activities and topics.
The best advice I can give you is to take a side project or job, a voluntary responsibility, and/or help others with what you are good at. You’ll benefit in two ways. First, you will be very focused on what matters the most in your daily activities. Second, you will discover new directions for thinking and will generate creativity.
It’s like magic. Suddenly, the urgent, ongoing matters won’t put so much pressure on you and ideas will start to float.
The First and Essential Step to Landing Your Dream Product Job
It’s great to start a hiring process by getting a phone call from a top company’s recruiter, saying, “Your resume is awesome. It’s the best I’ve seen so far,” or, after you directly approach a CEO, getting a reply email with, “Love your resume, simple and informative. I have forwarded it to … We will be in touch.”
That’s the way to start: with a first good impression.
Writing product management resumes is challenging. The resume of a product management professional has unique characteristics and focus areas that resumes for other positions don’t have. That’s because product managers have many expectations, from market strategy to technology and data, up to leadership. Also, each company has different expectations ranging from product ownership responsibility to product marketing.
I help other product managers boost their resumes. I also help others get into product management and find their first PM position. Many of the resumes I see are missing the point, or they neglect the target audience: the first person (or machine) to read it.
Let’s see some basic tips.
Check out Toptal's most comprehensive guide to hiring product managers
Tip 1 - It’s All About Achievements
Let’s start by looking at the challenges of our “end-users”: the people at the company that is hiring a product manager. Unlike with other positions, such as development or marketing, product management hiring is risky. In other positions, evaluations of previous experience with a hands-on interview or short assignment will do.
Product management is different. Experience is important but doesn’t necessarily lead to success in the new company. The reason is that success in product means more than performing a single, well-defined task. Product managers are expected to research, lead, deliver and generate revenue in uncertain conditions, without managing anyone and usually with no clear boundaries of responsibility.
If you worked for a well-known giant company or for a company that was acquired for a substantial amount or that went public, a new company wouldn’t consider it risky to hire you. In other cases, you must build confidence using your previous achievements.
Many of the resumes I have seen don’t focus on – or don’t mention – achievement. For example, they’ll include a long list of bullets:
“planned, designed and executed a SaaS platform, from concept to launch, including mobile and web apps”, or
“led UI/UX, creating flows, wireframes and working closely with UX department”.
You can assume that other applicants have done the same.
Instead, take the time to list all your achievements and things you are proud of. There are many of them. Quantify each achievement with a well-known and easy-to-understand measure.
For example, “revenue increase of 1,000%” or “increased user engagement by 80% in less than ...”. Now prioritize those achievements you would like to mention and build your resume around them.
Finally, add the right keywords to each achievement description. These may be technologies, business terms (such as CPM and CTR), well-known clients (such as Apple and AT&T) and methodologies (such as agile terminology).
For example: “Development from idea to 50,000 active users’ acquisition and initial paying users, including team buildup, delivery & online marketing”, and
“Building & designing disruptive B2C social loyalty program and app, dramatically increasing reward programs' engagement by over 500%”.
Tip 2 - State Your Value Proposition
This may be the most challenging task in positioning yourself, building your personal pitch and resume. Think about yourself as a product competing against hundreds of other good products. The person reading your resume should understand the benefits of hiring you instead of others.
Don’t fall into the obvious, like mentioning “team player”, “hard-working”, “self-learning”, “analytical”, “creative” and “problem solver”. A head hunter once told me: “Well, everybody says they are … Tell me something unique about yourself.”
Highlight your own value proposition and how an employer can benefit from it. For example, if you have experience in entrepreneurship, mention it and how an employer would benefit from it. Alternatively, connect your achievements to your unique expertise – for example, how you can deliver successful products from your own invention up to growth, while drilling down to technology, user experience, onboarding, analytics and revenue. If this is the case, I would refer to it in two ways. First, for each of three recent jobs, include a separate description of invention, hands-on and growth. Second, create a section in your resume for “most proud of” and describe it there.
Tip 3 - Personalize, Be Data-Driven
Personalize your resume to the company, the direct manager and/or the recruiter. Start by carefully reading the job description. Then focus your resume on the stated requirements. Even more importantly, try to understand the company culture and the background of the people you would meet. You can do this by reading about the company and looking at the profiles of key people – specifically, those who would be interviewing you – in articles and YouTube clips. This will allow you to fine-tune your achievements and value proposition to their past experiences as well as to the culture and what the company is looking for.
It’s critical to estimate who will be the first to screen your resume. I found that I had to adjust the resume format when I would first be approaching a CEO or VP as opposed to a hiring manager. For example, I found that there is an 80% probability of getting an interview when I approach an executive directly, following a post on LinkedIn (even if we’re not connected and if one of my contacts had only liked it). In this case, a single-page resume that is focused and has only the last three jobs will work best, like many of the examples on Enhancv. If the contact person for the position is a hiring manager, a standard resume would work better, listing all experience, education and details about each position.
In the case of automatic screening by software, I assume it would be best to stick to the job description and use as many relevant keywords as possible.
I like to tackle this as a product analytics challenge. I have a spreadsheet in which I collect data, including: resume format, company type, target audience (first screening), whether I get a response, getting-an-interview success rate and whether it is a company I’d like to work for. Following some job applications, I can optimize the resume by the target company and audience.
Tip 4 - Demonstrate Leadership, Market Sense, Design and Creativity
Each manager and company has a different understanding of what product management is. While writing your resume, you will want to show your practical experience and success in leadership, market strategy (being market-driven and data-driven), product design and specification as well as being creative.
It’s best to mention the specifics of these characteristics for every past job you’ve had.
For example: “Product innovation using automation / ML resulting in 100s times faster user flow & lower friction”. This demonstrates leadership because you can get management buying for new products. In addition it demonstrates technology sense, data-driven capabilities and being creative.
Tip 5 - Your Resume Is Your Product
You are a product manager. The people who read your resume, as well as those interviewing you, would like to assess your product skills.
Consider your resume to be the best product you own and the one you are most proud of. Design this product to your target audience by giving its readers what they need at a glance: achievements, value proposition, skills, product measures and the names of well-known brands/companies you worked for as well as those using your products.
Tell an interesting story. It may be about your entrepreneurship skills, being an inventor, creating products for millions of daily users or anything else that represents you. Product managers are expected to think methodologically, analyzing the need, understanding the users and the market landscape, evaluating alternatives and hacking growth. Build your resume (and your interview pitch) this way: your highlights; overall experience, achievements and value proposition; experience, focused on the audience; and fit to the job (the summary), connecting your experience and advantages to the open position.
If you were a backend developer, the look and feel of your resume wouldn’t matter. However, your resume must look great, like any of your products. It must also be well-written and easy to navigate. The reader must be able to quickly find the information he or she seeks.
I would be happy to hear what you think about this post. I would also like to help others improve their resumes or get their first product positions.
About the author: Gal is an experienced product manager and entrepreneur with a passion for breaking complexity by using disruptive technology, business models and/or user experience.
Recommended further readings and resources from the author of this blog:
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It can be a disaster
Let’s say you’re window shopping on Main Street. One of the shop windows attracts your attention and you decide to walk in. You enter a reception room and in front of you sits a person behind bullet-proof glass. There aren’t any products on display, nor any information about the shop’s products.
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How Uber could read my mind
I recently returned from a business trip in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore.
I was amazed how people are in love with Uber and how it changed their daily habits.
In Manila, the people I met with came smiling to our meetings and one of the first things they said was that they’ve just used Uber.
(They actually use uberX and call it Uber)
Why were they so happy?
In Hong Kong, I used Google Maps to navigate my way by train and foot and whenever needed, Google suggested completing the trip with Uber in a click.
I also found out I could get a chopper! I would definitely get one on my next family trip (although it seems to be taken off the service in Hong Kong).
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Mobile applications are at the core of most internet strategies. Internet, SaaS and e-Commerce businesses depend on mobile apps to reach their business goals, whether they are constantly looking to increase retention rates, reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) and increase monthly recurring revenue (MRR) and lifetime value (LTV).
Standard and Innovative
Three simple rules will let you stay on top of your app users and focus on optimizing your business goals. We believe an innovative user experience approach tightly combined with standard and common user flow would work best.
Tip 1 – The Single Hand Rule
Put yourself in the place of your users. When are they using your application? Are they doing other things at the same time? Are they at home, school or walking in the street? Are their hands free? Are they holding and operating other objects?
I can think about myself taking the train to work. In one hand holding the handle and with my other hand the smartphone trying to check at what time I will reach my destination or quickly cleaning my email inbox.
There are many other examples involving a quick look and action: account balance, money transfer, like, share, accept and reject, find movie or TV series and watch.
This is quite different than designing, developing and testing the application in your office while sitting at a desk.
Now, envision your app on the smartphone while holding the device in one hand. Does it work? Are all major actions within finger reach? Can the user complete the actions that are important for you to achieve your business goals?
Mobile Phone Interaction
According to recent usability studies, most people are touching their screen only by using one hand:
Pinterest got it right
Want to be cool, redesign your app
Pie menu (or radial menu) provides users with a choice of three to eight options. Keep the menu as simple and clear as possible. It should offer relevant choices to the user at the point of decision and increase conversion rates.
Draw an invisible circle at the center – center bottom of the screen:
Put the main actions around it:
Fewer as possible options are better:
Position in the center of the circle the entity to take an action on: person, post, location:
Now experiment and measure
You need to measure your application events, compare them to each previous design and then again and again until you’re satisfied. Are you getting more actions from your app? What is the most popular action? It is related to its location on the pie menu?
Improve: add/remove items from this dialogue and/or change the location of buttons, change the flow: dialogue always on, appears on context, appears on touch.
First, your app may not require the single hand approach. It may be a business application used to enter customer information while meeting a customer. In this case your app is fine.
Second, you may add another UI layer to your app. This will boost the experience of your app without changing the existing layout and functionality.
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Gal Ofel is an experienced product innovation manager, marketer and entrepreneur. Recently, Gal founded and launched Zoostr, the mobile and desktop solution for entrepreneurs.