Different companies look for different pockets of skills that align with their culture, or for a particular role they have in mind.
Passing or “failing” an interview isn’t a measure of your value as a PM. It’s mostly a reflection of how your style meshes with a potential employer.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of Facebook and Google PM candidates over the past 4 years, and I’ve been on the opposite site of the interviewing table several times in my life, too.
A quick search on Google for “PM interview tips” will offer more than enough articles, frameworks, courses(!) and books on how to “nail” the interview. But I have some news for you: there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to “acing” these things. Sorry!
The best that you can hope to do is clearly communicate your approach to solving problems and walk your interview through what your solutions are.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of “hard skills” that you’d benefit from reviewing from time to time (my friend and mentor, Ravi Mehta, has some great advice on the matter.
This post is my first of what will likely be several pieces of general advice I’ve given to friends and colleagues over the years on how to authentically answer tough questions, and in ways that help you and your prospective company better understand each other’s thought process.
The standard disclaimers apply: This is strictly an opinion of one person, and I encourage you to incorporate and adapt the parts that speak to you, and toss out the rest. It should also go without saying that this is my non-employer specific advice, so take it with a grain of salt :)
1. Clarify, but be opinionated.
It’s true: many questions that you’ll be asked are designed to leave the problem and solution space unconstrained.
This isn’t to trick you or watch you squirm—it’s to learn more about how you approach ambiguous situations, understand the problem space and assess the opportunities that may lie ahead. (Example: “How would you design an alarm clock for elderly people with vision impairments?”)
Clarifying isn’t just for ambiguous questions. Even questions that seem straightforward can benefit from a once-over. (Example: “How would you change Twitter’s signup process to screen out inauthentic users?”)
When you’re first diving into a problem space, it can be tempting to start asking the first questions to that come to mind:
- Do we have an age range in mind for elderly users?
- Should we focus on a subset of countries or the entire world?
- Should we limit “visually impaired” to people who are entirely without sight (blind)?
- What does Twitter classify as an “inauthentic user?”
Before you ask your interviewer, first ask yourself: how will I use this information?
For example, the actual age range for someone to be considered “elderly” is probably not super useful on its own—and diving into this detail may be more distracting than it is helpful. If you found yourself wondering this because of, say, the ability for government assistance to cover costs based on a person’s age, that’s a different story!
As another example, knowing which markets to prioritize is a legit input that can inform your approach.
Resist the urge to ask open-ended questions back. Instead simply asking “Should we be focusing on a specific country or locale?,” consider making it more opinionated:
“The most effective solution may be different depending on the country or even region. I’m going to start with Australia, because…”
For good measure, you can follow up your assumption with an invitation for them to ask questions: “Sound like a plan?”
Even if it turns out your assumption was wrong, half the battle is communicating how you got there.
2. Create the mental (and ‘physical’) space for the different components of your answer.
This is my micro-”framework” that I personally use when answering big unstructured questions:
- Who are the “customers?”
- What are their problems? (and how do we know)
- Why is it important for [the Company] to solve this? (mission & metrics)
- What are our hypotheses for addressing them? (how would we validate?)
- What are our solution proposals? (and how do we know they’re successful?)
As you answer questions, there will be some parts that come easier than others, and you may find yourself naturally drawn to them first.
The order doesn’t matter so much. You can try working your way up, down, or outwards. What’s really important is making sure that you’re able to demonstrate an understanding of the present state, future state and explain how you’ll get there.
It’s a little tougher with remote interviews vs. whiteboards, but I try to map out these columns at the beginning of my answer. It helps me categorize “like with like” (solutions with solutions, problems with problems, personas with personas) and make sure I don’t neglect anything.
3. When you find yourself making a list, describe how you’re generating and prioritizing its contents.
You’ll likely be creating a list as part of your answer. It might be of possible customer journeys, solution proposals, marketing strategies, etc.
Unless it’s a totally well known list (e.g. colors in the rainbow), it’s super important to make sure you communicate how you’re coming up with ideas for the list, and ultimately, how you’re prioritizing it.
If you’re like me, you probably won’t realize you’re making a list until after you’ve blurted out two or three items in it. And that’s fine. It’s good to get the top of mind stuff onto a whiteboard or Doc so you don’t forget.
When you have a moment, though, tell the interviewer how you’re populating the list.
For instance, if you’re thinking of places to advertise a hypothetical product and just blurt out the top 5 or so places that come to mind, it’s tough for your interviewer to follow your thought process.
When you describe how you’re developing the list, you give more insight into your thought process.
This can be helpful to share, especially if you may be missing an item or two. It’s like getting the answer to a long math equation wrong, but having mostly sound work to back it up. You can still get a great deal of partial credit.
TIP: If you’re looking for ways to structure lists of things, check out MECE as a strategy. It’s super helpful.
So, as an example, instead of “I’d want to run advertising campaigns on the big networks: Google, Facebook and Instagram,” you could say:
“There’s a ton of different advertising mediums we could consider: offline (like billboards & print), TV, and digital (like SEM, display ads, etc.). The easiest and cheapest to get started would be Google and FB, so…”
Don’t worry if your list is incomplete, or if you’re not sure about an item. It’s important to keep moving forward and you can always revise your hypothesis (we do it all the time!) Generally, standalone lists aren’t very helpful on their own (even if you described your approach to populate it).
Being able to prioritize lists on your own is essential. The approach to ranking your list is similar to generating the list: how you come up with the criteria is more important than the actual rank itself.
- If you’re developing a list of problems, it’s usually a good idea to factor the population size, the frequency and the impact of a specific problem.
- When thinking about solutions, it’s good to include similar population estimates, alongside the costs (e.g. effort, money, risk) and benefits (revenue, engagement, retention, etc.)
4. You can always change your mind.
Nobody’s expecting you to immediately answer a hypothetical question perfectly right off the bat. If you unearth something later in your answer that invalidates a foundational component of your solution, don’t sweat it!
Part of the job is dealing with new information. It’s better to amend a hypothesis than it is to dig your heels into a solution that you know isn’t ideal. In fact, being able to observe how you roll with the punches and move forward in spite of new and changing information is useful insight for your interviewer to get a glimpse of you in action.
Remote interviews make this a little easier, but try to keep a stopwatch -- or find some other cue -- to remind you to stop talking at least once every minute or so. Take a breath. It gives your interviewer a chance to jump in with any questions, and you can use the opportunity to direct the conversation: “I think I’m approaching diminishing returns in identifying new customer segments; if nothing else jumps out at you either, let’s discuss how we can serve them with Product X.”
I hope some of these techniques can help you feel more grounded, present and authentic in your interview, and welcome your feedback! What’s worked for you (or against you) as a candidate? As an interviewer?
More to come on this topic, I’m sure :)