It’s a Sunday night in March 2020, and I have five product interviews coming up this week. Even though I’ve worked in product for three years and am perfectly qualified for most associate PM roles, I’m unusually stressed out because I have no idea what to expect.
One company told me to “prepare for a case study,” but gave me no other details. Another company asked me to write up a sample roadmap for them, but I feel ill-equipped because I’m not very familiar with their industry. The other three companies only gave me the titles of my interviewers. I search online for product manager interview tips, but I mostly just find very specific articles about interviewing at Facebook or Google.
Why are product manager interviews so stressful?
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because my most requested article is to write up a guide about how to interview for product roles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned pro or a novice trying to break into the field, mysterious product manager interviews — especially at big-name tech companies — that spikes the anxiety of interviewees. I’ve been hesitant to write this guide because it is challenging to give advice when every company approaches product interviews differently. That’s the problem though: How do you prepare for interviews when you don’t know what to expect?
I’ve been through a few periods in my career where I interviewed nonstop for product roles. Most recently, in the spring of 2020 I went on 32 interviews at 16 companies in 10 weeks. This consistent, repetitive practice taught me that there are a few ways to prepare for product interviews — even when you don’t know what awaits you on the other end of the call.
How to Prepare for a Product Management Job Interview
- Study your frameworks.
- Research the “Four Mindsets of Product Management” and weave them into stories about your real-world experience.
- Become a product management nerd.
- Don’t be shy about asking your network for help.
- Understand the problem the company is trying to solve and how they define success.
- Know your values, and be willing to walk away.
1. Study Your Frameworks
Great product managers aren’t defined by their ability to execute projects alone. Great product managers differentiate themselves by knowing how to approach a problem, foster creative solutions and pick the best path forward.
When I interview product candidates, I want to know how they think. How do they approach problems with limited data? What is their thought process when making decisions? I don’t expect them to be subject matter experts in our industry (I certainly wasn’t!). But I want to know that they have the ability to work their way through problems and make a decision that they can stand by.
There are lots of great product management frameworks out there. Rather than trying to memorize them all, pick two or three that resonate with you and practice by applying them to problems that you’ve faced in the past and problems you think the company you’re interviewing at could be facing.
While I was interviewing for roles in 2020, I developed two of my own frameworks, which helped me communicate the way that I approach product management. These became two of my first articles:
2. Research the Four Mindsets of Product Management
There’s no question that product management is a challenging role that requires a wide breadth of different skills. A few years ago, I discovered Ken Sandy’s Four Mindsets model, which taught me to view product management through four distinct personas:
When I was preparing for my interviews, I looked for examples in my work experience that met each of the four mindsets so I could clearly communicate the breadth of my skills to my interviewers. This framework also helped me identify the skills that I needed to improve, which drove my study plan to fill in those gaps.
3. Become a Product-Management Nerd
There’s no shortage of books, articles, podcasts and classes about product management. It surprises me how few PMs actually engage with the material. When I interview PM candidates, I always ask about their favorite product books or podcasts. There are no right or wrong answers here; I’m simply looking for a curious mind that studies product management as a skill to be learned.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I myself didn’t start studying product management in my free time until three years ago, and now it’s part of my daily habits. I read product articles on Built In and Medium. I listen to The Product Podcast and This Is Product Management. I also attend events hosted by my local product organization, the Boston Product Management Association. As an interviewee, spending at least half an hour per day researching product management will solidify your foundational knowledge and build your confidence.
4. Ask Your Network for Help
When I was laid off from my last job, I pushed myself far out of my comfort zone and called seven PMs with whom I had worked in the past and asked them for interviewing advice. They all had great feedback for me; one even gave me an interview prep worksheet that I still use today!
Each of them told me how they interview product candidates at their companies and what they’re looking for in candidates. Their feedback informed my whole interviewing strategy and helped me focus on what matters.
5. Go Beyond the Problem the Company Is Trying to Solve
I’m sure you’ve heard that you should research the companies where you’re interviewing, though I encourage you to go one step forward. Answer these questions:
- Who is the product’s customer?
- Why would they use the product?
- Why wouldn’t they use a competitor’s product?
- How does the customer measure success?
- How does the product team measure success?
Spend some time really thinking through these questions and write down the answers. It’s okay if your assumptions are wrong. This is all about getting in the mindset of the product’s PM before you start the interview.
6. Know Your Values and Be Willing to Walk Away
The hardest part of interviewing to become a product manager is knowing what you stand for and being willing to walk away from mismatches. There’s a fervor around product roles, especially at big tech companies, that leads candidates to saying yes to anything if it gets their foot in the door.
Speaking from experience, there is nothing more draining than working on a product or at a company that is misaligned with your values. Use this guide to determine if the product and company that you’re interviewing at is a good fit for you.
When I began using these six steps as part of my interview preparation process, my product interviews actually became enjoyable. Rather than being nervous about having all the right answers, I was able to engage in great conversations with my interviewers and get a feel for the role and company. When I was asked a challenging question, I was able to use my experience, research and practice to provide a thoughtful answer.
Most importantly, this rigorous preparation helped me feel more confident and better articulate my product management skills. If you do your homework, I know it can help you, too.