Product Manager Interview: How to Get Hired

You Just Landed a Product Manager Interview…

Congratulations! You’re on the verge of one of the most exciting and fastest-growing careers today. Over the past several decades, I’ve interviewed hundreds and hired dozens of Product Managers at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and burgeoning startups.

What do you do now? If you’re like most people, you Google the company you’re interviewing with the term “product manager interview”. You scour typical product manager interview questions they ask and highly curated suggested answers. You memorize some and try to present yourself as the “perfect Product Manager”.

However, note that there isn’t one definition of a Product Manager. Companies look for different things and have different definitions of the role. Below is a graphic of the “perfect Product Manager” encompassing all possible PM skills and traits.

  • Product – understanding customer needs and conceiving products to meet them
  • Business – building businesses and go-to-market skills
  • Technical – developing technology, particularly software development
  • Industry – knowledge of/experience in the product’s industry
  • Leadership & Execution – influencing cross-functional teams to a vision or strategy

Who Are You?

The realization of this “perfect PM” is a myth and the hiring companies realize this. You should understand which aspect(s) of this “perfect PM“ are most important for the role, where you might be deficient, and how to compensate.

The company is really evaluating that you are:

  1. Smart
  2. Can get things done

In the realm of product management, it might look like below:

Depending on your background, there will likely be a certain bias with respect to how they view you (red and orange areas are deficiencies, and green areas are strengths).

With an analysis of these figures you should know where you stand and what potential biases and gaps you likely need to address in the Product Manager interviews. Look for opportunities to dispel these by relating experiences you had or, if you have no experience, own up to it stating you are excited to learn new skills.

The Interview

With an understanding of what they are looking for and how you stack up, what can you expect from the interview?

In general, there are four types of questions:

  1. Behavioral
  2. Product Design
  3. Estimation
  4. Case Study

Behavioral

These are the most general questions and often comprise of “So, tell me about yourself…”. You can leverage these because they are prime for you to: 1) address potential gaps from your analysis above and 2) show potential for leadership by controlling the agenda. Sometimes the interviewer is trying to assess your character and/or determine if you’re a cultural fit. So, research into the company to understand their culture and evaluate alignment.

You will need to tell a story; engaging the interviewer is the main assessment here. Communication and style can be as, or more, important than the content. Structure your story in the SAR format: Situation (what is the issue?), Action (what did you do about it?), and Result (what was the impact of your action? Quantitative impact is best here).

A few common mistakes to be avoided:

  1. Too much “we” and not enough “I”. The interviewer is not considering hiring your great team, but you!
  2. Too little action. Point to capabilities, skills, and smarts that you possess as a reason to hire you.
  3. No message. You are telling a story and there should be an arc to it with clear objectives and impacts of your action.

Product Design

These questions typically include “How would you design a…” Some examples would be: “How would you design an alarm clock for the blind?” “What’s your favorite app? Why?” “Pick a Google product. How would you improve it?”

They are trying to assess four things: 1) User Empathy, 2) Creativity, 3) Judgement and 4) Communication skills.

Follow a four-step process:

  1. Start by defining the user. You are encouraged to ask the interviewer questions about the user(s) of the product.
  2. Discuss use cases, problems, and goals. How does the product address specific user(s)’ needs/goals (or not)?
  3. Design the product that would address these needs/goals.
  4. Wrap-up. Lay out why your solution is best and what are some potential alternatives you discarded and why.

Do not forget the user (again!) and, if there is a whiteboard in the room, use it. To prepare, you should walk into the room knowing your favorite website, mobile app, physical product, and company product. Download the Product Manager Interview Planner and Workbook below to help you prep for these.

Consider for each:

  • Why do you love it?
  • Who are the users?
  • What do they use it for?
  • How do they compare to competitors?
  • What problems are there?
  • How would you improve it?

Estimation

This question type involves numbers and estimating a guess based on estimation and defining some set of parameters. Examples include: “How much money does Gmail make in a year?” “How many airplanes land in a day?” “How many golf balls can fit in a bus?”

The interviewer is trying to assess your smarts, comfort with numbers, and if you can make a decision with imperfect information.

Start out by asking questions of the interviewer to resolve ambiguity in the situation. Don’t make assumptions – at least not yet. Then outline the structure or approach you will take to estimate…top-down, bottom-up, or some other methodology? Then break down the components of how you will build your answer. Here it is fine to make assumptions – but make them explicit. Then sanity check your numbers to ensure they make sense.

For example:

If you were asked to estimate how much money Gmail earns for Google in a year, start by asking if this is in the U.S. or worldwide; are we talking revenue or profit; in the last year or an average year; are we including just Gmail or including complementary products. Then outline your approach – start with an estimate of the number of Gmail users, layer on the number of annual clicks per user and the average revenue per click. Then break down each of those components. For users in the US you could start with ~300 million people, with ~200 million in the target market for Gmail (maybe exclude <12 or >65 years of age), about 80% use email at home and 80% use Gmail as opposed to competitors. And so on for the other components. To sanity check, let’s say you get a number like $5 Billion. You could say that this feels high as the total revenue of Google is ~$30 Billion and would break down to $16/U.S. citizen.

Case Study

These questions take a specific situation and ask how you would react or what you would do in that scenario. “How would you launch Amazon in Turkey?” “How would you price a new E-Book reader?” “User sign-ups drop after launching new profiles. What would you do?” They are looking to understand your problem-solving skills and how you work under pressure.

Make sure that you are driving the discussion. Start by building understanding of the situation, asking questions to better define the problem. Then lay out a framework/structure to analyze the problem. This could include anything from SWOT analysis, to marketing mix, to Five C’s, to Porter’s 5 Forces. This is not a test of the frameworks, but showing that you are familiar with strategic tools of product management. Then use that framework to provide perspective on the case and help “solve” the case. Use your instincts; don’t be afraid to make assumptions.

Final Word for Your Product Manager Interview

While there is a lot here, do not fret, you have the smarts. A little preparation will go a long way. If you do nothing else, focus on these three points:

  1. Know who you are and how you will be perceived as a Product Manager.
  2. Focus on the user. They are the key to developing great products.
  3. Structure your response. Building a structure will keep you more focused and your interviewer more engaged.

Download the Product Manager Interview Planner and Workbook

DOWNLOAD NOW

About the Author

Ken Kranseler - Principal Consultant and Trainer
Ken Kranseler is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at 280 Group.
Ken Kranseler is a Principal Consultant and Trainer with 280 Group and Instructor for the Product Management certificate program at the University of Washington. He was a Principal Product Manager at Amazon, where he drove product strategy for the Kindle ecosystem – hardware, software and services – to enhance student learning in higher education markets. Prior to Amazon, Ken drove product strategy at a number of Seattle area startups. Before his work with startups, Ken spent 10+ years at Microsoft launching new consumer and business software initiatives and worked as a brand manager introducing new products and concepts for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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