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Product Management Interview Tips

So you want a product management job? How should you prepare for the interview? Especially if you are junior or looking for your first step on the product management ladder. I will share my experiences of several hops, and over 20 years of experience, on both sides of the interviewing process.

Or you have been a product manager and are looking for a new gig for whatever reason. How should you prepare, and how to nail the interview. I will let you in on my secrets, and share some tips.

Many (or most) of these are common sense for job seekers, but there are some product management specific recommendations.

The Résumé (or CV)

Your résumé should be crisp. It must have a section up fron that describes you, what you view as your strengths, and, as importantly, what your goals are. Do you want to get to a GM role? or a senior leadership role? Mention it. If you thrive on the product side, then emphasize that. I have been doing this for more than two decades, and I am perfectly happy doing this, and not really looking for the next rung on the ladder (been there, done that, got the T-shirt).

Your experience section should have brief overviews of your role, what was expected (this is important, as product management means different things in different companies,) and your two top accomplishments. Make sure the accomplishments are things that you are proud of, and can talk at length about. It is also good if from oldest to newest you show some incremental learnings or expansion along the way. More responsibilities, more products, more strategic effort, you get the picture. Make it obvious that you are growing, but don;t hit the reviewer on the head with it.

Do not worry about the old adage of 2 pages for the résumé, just don’t let it run on for enough pages that it isn’t interesting. My current résumé is 5 pages, and I really don’t want to cut it further.

Do not use weird formats, graphical elements, or CSS tricks to call out sidebars and the like. Don’t get me wrong, they look great, and can draw the eye to the things you want to emphasize, but today, the vast majority of CV’s are dumped into a system to manage the hiring workflow, and what is the first thing that goes? Yep, the fancy formating flourishes, as it gets reduced to ASCII text and dumped into a database.

My recommendation: Output a copy of your resume in plain text, Courier font, and make sure that it is readable.

The Cover Letter

Early in my career, and even when I was hiring product managers or technical marketers, I pretty much ignored the cover letter. I knew it was frippery, some fluffy bullshit that a candidate was trying to influence my initial impression. Sneering at that, I rarely submitted a cover letter.

But that is/was a mistake. A big mistake. The last time I had a position to fill (Applications Scientist role) I got over 500 resume’s in the first week alone. Of course they were stripped of formatting, and dumped into a database to simplify the search as mentioned above. I absolutely read the cover letters. They told me a lot about the candidate without even opening their CV.

  • Did they understand what we are looking for – I should have been shocked at how many of those 500 applicants really didn’t read the job requisition. However, I was able to eliminate at least 50% from consideration, solely by the first paragraph of their cover letter.

  • Did they do any research on us – A wise applicant will do some research, try to ferret out the job, and connect the dots. A world class enterprise software company has a lot of different areas, did they figure out what division, and what products might be in scope? If you are a product manager, or product management material, you can – and should – be able to put two and two together. Show it on the cover letter.

  • Can they write? – Don’t scoff. Especially early in a product management career progression, you might be able to get away with poor or mediocre written communications skills, but a real product manager has both strong communications skills, and an ability to write impactfully, in a short passage. Use your persuasion skills. You have one chance to get noticed, don’t screw it up.

  • Keep it short – Seriously, two, maybe three paragraphs, no more. And it must be 1 page with the correct letter header block, and a signature block at the end. No exceptions. Recruiters will scan this in less than 20 seconds, and if it is too dense, or not succinct, it will go in the “reject” pile so fast it will not even pause on their desk.

  • Customized per Position – sure, you can have a few templates and generic passages, but, put some effort into targeting the hiring manager. Alas, it is getting well neigh impossible to know who the hiring manager is, but if you have a LinkedIn connection at the company, they might be willing to look up the hiring manager. But, it is OK to use as a salutation “Hiring Manager”.

If I spent a lot of time on the cover letter, it is because it is crucial. You are a single fish in a school of sardines, and you have maybe 20 seconds to get a recruiter to notice your package and put it in the “to consider” file. Don’t miss this opportunity.

I will note that there is one case where the cover letter is irrelevant (or trivialized), and that is where you are working with an outside recruiter who contacts you. There, something in your background, your LinkedIn profile, or someone in your professional network brought you to their attention. You start on first base with a long lead to get to second base.

Preparation

So, either a retained recruiter, or your cover letter has gotten you a call back. You know enter the most crucial aspect of the job interview, preparing for the phone screen and in person interviews. As a product manager, you should be an expert at doing research, building a model, and testing that model. Use that to prepare for the interview. Of course, this phase of the process is where you get some dribbles of the “what” and need to build up your chops in the “what” to impress the people you talk to.

Time to set aside the time to dig in. Google, SEC filings (if it is a public company), do they have transcripts on Seeking Alpha? Who are their competitors? What is their position. Dig through their website, their “About page”, their leadership team (this is seriously trivial now, in the late 1990’s it was, uh, painful). Who are their customers? What are their products? Can you reverse engineer their strategy (NB: I once got a job when I laid out their strategy, their evolution that they had just planned with an executive offsite solely by taking my best stab at it).

Attack this problem as you would a competitive analysis, head on, and use your skills (you have them right?)

The Phone screen

The phone screen is usually with the recruiter, and not with the hiring manager. They are looking for a few things:

  • Did you lie on your cover letter and CV. They won’t ask too probing of questions, but they will look for you to expand on a couple of things from your past. Probably your current job – 1 will be their focus. Make sure that you are consistent, and clear.

  • Any personal ticks or oddities. Can you hold a conversation? Can you sound natural? Do you stumble on words, are you nervous? (or is your nervousness obvious). You aren’t interviewing to be a coder, or an assembly line worker. Be natural. Banter with them, Engage, but don’t dominate the conversation. Do ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question or if you need a moment to compost yourself. You likely have a benefit in that you are on a cell phone, and you can safely ask them to repeat something, giving you a few more seconds to craft an answer.

  • Will you fit their culture? Are you able to fit in. A product manager is a central role, with crucial interactions across a large swath of the organization. A bad cultural fit, regardless of how perfect your skills and knowledge are, will mean a painful experience both for you or the company. Better to figure that out up front.

Expect a phone screen to last 30 minutes. But be sure to block enough time to let it run its course. Once I had a 30 minute screen lasted almost an hour and a quarter (I got the offer but didn’t take that job for different reasons).

Also, especially if you are a senior product manager, the topic of desired salary should come up. This is not to put you on the spot, but to make sure that their budget is in line with your expectations. If they have $110K, but you need $150K, it is better to recognize this now than after a lengthy interview process.

I will note though that if they want you, if you sell yourself, if you build the desire of the hiring manger that you are perfect, they can and will get the budget changed. Don’t dispair. But if you need $150K, don’t cave in.

The Interview

You passed the first two tests. Your résumé was noticed and selected, you had a successful phone screen, you got the call back, and now it is time for the in person interview. Some tips:

  • Dress for success – I don’t give a damn what the culture is, if cut-offs, Grateful Dead tee’s and flip-flops are de riguer, wear a suit, and a tie. You are not interviewing for a developers position after-all. You need to prove that you can clean up for crucial customer meetings, or to present to the executive leadership. Trust me on this, it is crucial.

  • Be early – They likely have a full day planned for you, including lunch, and you can blow it by not being in the lobby when expected. Be 10 minutes early. Not more (if there is any doubt, sit in your car, or go to a local coffee shop). Pre-run the trip to make sure you aren’t late.

  • Take their hospitality – the interviewers will offer you coffee or water. This isn’t only to make sure you are comfortable, they are gaging how you respond socially. (I personally take water, as coffee leads to the need to eliminate more often, being a diuretic). They will buy you lunch, either in a cafeteria, or at a local restaurant. Be sensible, but don’t expect to eat much. You will be on display, so keep focused.

Do make sure you use the bathroom. This also gives you a clue to their attention to details. I have seen some truly disgusting employee bathrooms.

  • Have ample copies of your résumé on hand – odds are good that they only have the formatting stripped version to refer to.

  • Relax – Product management is inherently stressful. They will likely ask questions about your past that will raise your passions, or that might get your hackles up. This is to be expected. How product management responds to stress, and stressful scenarios is crucial. Be rational, refuse to rise to the bait, argue calmly and you will do fine.

Every product manager has some horror stories from their past. Perhaps it was a major defect that shipped, or a major customer relationship blew up, or … well you get the picture. Be sure you have a couple of these in your repertoire, and be able to tell a compelling story (I like to think of the amusing anecdote about a drug deal gone bad from the movie Reservoir Dogs. A masterful tale of a tough situation, and how to get through it).

The last interviewer will likely be the recruiter – if it is in house – or the hiring manager. The last question you should ask is “What are the next steps?” They are expecting this question, as it lets them know that you are still interested, and that they haven’t scared you away. (Here in the Silicon Valley, it is not uncommon for them to hand you an offer as you leave – outside Silicon Valley, the pace is much more measured).

At the end of the day, you will be completely obliterated, put through the wringer, and you will be exhausted. As I like to say, the dice are in the air, but hopefully you had a good throw.

It will usually take a few days to get back to you. Almost never is there only one candidate, so don’t be too anxious or needy (that is a huge red flag).

The post interview process

It is common courtesy to send thank you notes. However, increasingly it is difficult to get the contact information of the people you interview (they are often instructed to not give you name cards) so you can filter it through the recruiter. A heartfelt email is fine. A hand written card is better (but takes longer to arrive). Regardless, this is not necessary, unless you were on the edge during an interview. A thank you note has not once pulled a candidate out of the “meh” pile when I was interviewing, and a strong candidate doesn’t need that reminder.

Don’t bug the recruiter too soon or too often. If the “next steps” question said a week, give them a week. Too eager is a turn off.

Keep looking. The job may be perfect, and you may be a good fit, but there are other candidates, and they might be better than you. If you don’t get the job, at least you got to hone your interviewing skills, and get your suit cleaned.


Samuel Zeller

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gander2112
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Written by gander2112

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