Career mobility is a near and dear topic to my heart (you can read about my career journey in a post called 3 careers by mid 30s). By now, I’ve been on both sides of the interview table (seeking as well as giving a job), so I’m going to share my lived experience as well as the tips and tricks I’ve gotten along the way that I have found to be most impactful.
To be honest, I don’t like interviewing for jobs - seeking a work opportunity requires you to open yourself up to scrutiny and potential rejection. In my professional career, I have been rejected at seven companies (these are ones I got past the recruiter screen with) and have succeeded at three (and every time I have landed in awesome places). I have learned as much from the rejections as I have from the wins and have come to believe that an outcome of a job interview has very little to do with my worth and everything to do with preparation, circumstances and culture fit. However, since preparation is the only thing in our control, I thought I’d share how I prepare.
When I help people think about their interviews, the first thing I recommend is they read Cracking the PM Interview. The rest of this write up is gravy, but really, if you are actively seeking a product role, stop what you are doing and go buy this book.
Who is this write up for?
Career switchers hoping to become product managers - As someone who joined the product manager ranks later in my career, I really enjoy helping others do the same. So this post was actually inspired by a couple of candidates I have been talking to about the product manager job lately and how to prepare for the interview.
If you find yourself beginning this journey, I highly recommend you learn about the job – Marty Cagan’s Inspired is hands down the best resource for this.
Current product managers or marketers looking for their next opportunity – interviewing is hard and most of us don’t practice. This post will remind you what to expect and hopefully give you a crash course on preparing (but really, read Cracking the PM Interview too).
Have a personal pitch – why you, why now, why this company
When I worked in politics, the first exercise I’d do with a candidate is help them develop a 30 word and a 3- minute pitch on why they were running for office. I told them that success is if a constituent, donor or an endorser could name the top reasons why she was running for office. This same advice applies to interviewing. You should be able to tell a compelling and memorable story – why you, why now and why this company. I recommend finding an opportunity at the beginning of the interview/conversation to get your pitch in.
Why you. This question is always asked in some form. You may hear questions like “tell me about yourself” or “how did you get here.” This is your chance to be concise, humble and preferably memorable. I’ve used lines like “my career has been more of a walk through a jungle with a machete rather than a career ladder” - which I have found people have remembered. Whatever your tag line is, I’d spend some time figuring it out and inserting it into your pitch.
Why now. Stay away from why you are leaving your current role - it is well understood that changing jobs doesn’t happen because everything is perfect where you are. Lead with excitement about the new opportunity that has come you way and its timeliness. Examples of things I’ve said in the past:
”I just completed a big deliverable so I’ve had a moment to look around.”
“I read an article about this cool new area of tech/investment/growth, and your company/team peaked my interest, so I wanted to learn more.”
“I'm on parental leave and I’ve had time to think about my career growth and what’s next.”
Why this company. If you are changing jobs externally, be prepared to answer this question. The bigger the company – the harder the question. For example, when I was interviewing for Microsoft, the answer of “I’m really excited to work on problems that impact the whole world” is a B- answer – because you can easily substitute Amazon, Google, Facebook, and the answer will not change.
If you are interviewing for a mission-based company, calling that out as a primary reason you want to work there falls into the same bucket – you can go work at a bunch of other mission-based companies, so why this specific one is the question.
Behavioral questions – dig deep and make a table
Almost certainly you are going to get questions that will ask you to reflect on your past experiences. These usually start with “tell me about your biggest professional accomplishment” or “tell me about a complex project you led and the challenges you overcame”
To prepare for these kinds of questions. I usually make a table with 1-3 rich examples from the past couple of years. I try to pick stories with many things that went well and didn’t go well and then I use that to draw upon when interviewing. This approach helps me organize my thoughts and not be searching for new examples/experiences in the moment at the interview.
As an interviewer, I really appreciate when interviewees have structured answers – in business school, I was taught to follow the STAR method by describing situation, task, action, result – and it’s easy to tell what the impact was of the outcome (moved key metric by x or impacted y customers).
Embrace the case questions – showcase your curiosity, organized mind and customer empathy
As a hiring manager, I can teach new employees (including career changers) many things on the job – how to create a backlog, how to do a competitive analysis, how to present an idea, and so on. But there are “unteachable skills” that are almost impossible to teach some examples include passion for the product, customer empathy, product judgement, and organized thinking.
The best way for me as an interviewer to try to understand if you have the “unteachables” is to manufacture a scenario for you to reason through. Examples of case questions can be found here.
As an interviewee, the goal is not to come up with the perfect answer but to share your thinking process and showcase that you can organize your thoughts, clarify assumptions and lead with customer needs. There is no right answer to a case interview – so most importantly think out loud and bring your interviewer along on your journey.
One more quick tip - if you get to pick the product to analyze, pick something that your interviewer is likely to be on equal footing with you and do not pick a product the company you are interviewing for works on. Only pick the company’s product if you are explicitly asked to do so.
Things I’ve picked in the past for my “case” were Apple’s Fitness + program (and then I compared it to Peloton), Hydroflask and InstaPot.
Ask good questions – People love to talk about themselves1
An interview is a two-way conversation. You are interviewing the company for culture and fit as much as they are interviewing you. As an interviewer, I look for whether or not the candidate has good questions because it tells me if they are thinking seriously about the role. But don’t stop there – the candidates I’ve been impressed by were those that could then carry on the conversation and balance letting me talk (who doesn’t like to talk about themselves) as well as engaging in the back and forth – following up and digging deeper to find that common ground.
Here are some questions that helped me achieve a great conversation as an interviewee:
“What does your day look like?”
“What’s the biggest challenge you are facing at work today?”
“What is your team’s culture?”
Reality check: Practice is key – put on your “heels”, and record your “pitch”
Interviewing is a muscle. If you haven't interviewed in a long time, don’t expect it to come back naturally. I have always hoped to do a practice interview with a company I didn’t care about, but really, every time I’ve gotten into the process, I got excited about the opportunity – so “practice” in a real interview never really worked for me.
To that end, the best advice I’ve ever gotten is to actually practice. So I put on my heels, stand up tall and record my “why me” intro pitch. Then I listen to myself (cringing) and adjust my talk track.
Second best advice I got is to do a mock case interview with a coworker or a friend. I have found this to be a very vulnerable practice but so helpful every time. If your friend doesn’t know what case to give you, Cracking the PM Interview has a section of them and they can follow along the guidelines.
Pitfalls to avoid
On average, I’ve interviewed every few years proactively or reactively. I always ask for feedback and while I don’t always get it, here are some of the patterns that I have collected and reflected on of where I have fallen short:
Listen carefully. Jumping in too quickly without hearing the question has backfired on me multiple times. When I did that, I wasted precious interview time answering the wrong question. I chalk this up to nerves and lack of interview practice so to combat this, I paraphrase the question before I start answering it.
Informationals are really interviews so prepare accordingly. While you don’t need to be prepared for a case, I have found that you really need your personal pitch ready on why you, why now and why this company (even if you are trying to get this latter question answered to begin with). Be enthusiastic about the company by researching what it’s all about (product line, latest announcements) and ask thoughtful questions. I once asked a late stage start up on what their exit strategy was. I didn’t get a call back. While I don’t think that was a bad question to ask, I likely didn’t do a great job conveying that I was excited about what this company was working on.
Try instead “what is your competitive advantage” or “what do your customers love most about [specific product]”
Cramming the night before for an interview has never worked well for me. Good night’s sleep, exercise and a meal have taken me farther than reviewing my pitch, or case questions. Also take breaks during the interview if you are back-to-back – most interviewers will offer you a chance to get a glass of water (if you are doing interviews remotely) or to take a break if you are in person. Take the breather and rest.
Dwell less, follow up more – I often find myself spending time after interviews double guessing and rehashing my conversations. As Ted Lasso says, be a goldfish (happiest animal on earth because it’s got a 10 second memory) and move on. However, do send a compelling follow up note where you thank the interviewer for their time and share an insightful takeaway or an interesting resource.
Cracking the PM Interview has been the most effective resource to prepare for product management interviews. It will walk you through how to write your pitch, how to answer behavioral questions and prepare you for case questions. If you are interviewing for a product job, this is a must read. No other book has come close for me.
Guide to reading PM books by Nils Janse - This is a reading guide for you as a product manager. It is a curated list of the best book on product management. But it not just a numbered list of books to read. Instead, this guide is guided by your preferences, with visual guide to go with. Let's get into it.
What Are Product Management Case Study Interviews? - A good overview of what they are, examples and how to ace them
I hope you found this write up helpful. If you have other tips and tricks that have worked for you, please share. Good luck and enjoy the journey. Remember, it only takes one yes.