Co-written by Alexis* and Adrienne
I* was at Facebook for five years, and managed products ranging from Instagram Video Chat to algorithms for Facebook News Feed. I’ve had many friends reach out to me over the years for advice on how to prepare for PM interviews. I’d often get frustrated because they’re highly talented, yet not prepared for the interview. There are countless resources online for interview preparation, but the problem is that very few of them give you concrete exercises to help train your product sense muscles. The best way to get better at interviewing is through exercises that help you internalize product sense best practices -- not reading more frameworks.
I’d like to share some exercises that, if you master, will help you not only be better at interviews, but also a stronger PM. I focus on “product sense/product design/product insight” interview questions, which tend to be hardest for people.
1. Most candidates recite PM frameworks, but successful product managers deeply understand what will make the biggest impact on a product’s success
When I was a PM interviewer, for every product sense interview question, there were always 3-4 things I needed to hear from the interviewee. PM interview books have frameworks, but if you cover everything in the framework -- users, competitors, etc -- you sound like a robot. The interviewer is looking for you to pick out the most important components and go deep into them; covering every component with equal depth is a red flag.
A typical PM framework covers competition, experience/design, economics, technology, market, user segments and business models. The best PMs never get lost trying to do all of them well. They instead ask themselves, “given the nature of the problem space, what are the most important components I must nail in order for the app to be successful?” They pick out the top 3-4 components that have the biggest impact on the success of the app, and focus on them heavily.
Let’s say your product sense interview question asks you to build an apartment hunting app. Here, the interviewer needs to hear that in order for the app to be successful, the three most important components are (1) business model, (2) competition, and (3) user segment.
Business model: You must mention that it’s a two-sided marketplace and that a solution must resolve marketplace-inherent issues like the cold-start problem.
Competition: You should recognize that apartment hunting has many incumbents (e.g. Craigslist, Zillow), so meaningful product differentiation is key.
User segments: Apartment hunting is a space that spans many needs and user segments (e.g. college students to families), so it’s important for the solution to focus on a narrow and clearly defined user segment.
How did I know that these were the three key components? It’s a trainable skill.
To get better at identifying the key components, establish a shallow working knowledge of a wide range of subjects. The breadth of knowledge will give you enough context about the business and technology trends for any product. You want to know enough so that you’re able to say “hey, competition matters in this market.”
If you’re studying for a generalist PM role: (1) Google search trends for each Apple App store category, and (2) research recent news articles about top 3-5 apps in each category.
If you’re studying for a non-generalist PM role (e.g. fintech, marketing tech, blockchain, health tech), then go deep on the latest trends for that industry.
Practice articulating why the 3-4 components you chose (among the 10+ components in a typical PM framework) makes a material difference in increasing the chance of success for an app. For every product sense interview question, ask yourself:
I’m the real CEO for this product. What do I absolutely need to get right to win in this market?
Think about all of the PM frameworks: competition, user experience/design, economics, technology, market, user segments and business models. Then, pick five and number them in order of importance. Then, articulate why #1-3 are materially more important than #4-5. Practice until you can give compelling reasons, or shift the priority and practice again.
2. Regular consumers see an app as good or bad, but the best PMs see the intentionality behind every pixel of the app
The best PMs I know are early adopters of the latest products. They try dozens of apps, tear them down, and develop an eye for what makes an app tick.
It’s easy to overlook just how many intentional decisions go into a product. Let’s say that Kayak is the only travel booking app you’ve tried. Everything about Kayak’s landing page may seem obvious to you: “of course you need a search bar, filters and a destinations list.” However, once you compare Kayak against other travel booking sites (such as Travelocity and Booking.com), you’ll realize that even a simple feature like the destinations list is presented differently in each site.
Interviewers are looking for interviewees who treat every pixel as an intentional product decision. Further, they expect interviewees to explain why a certain product decision was superior to all other alternatives, given a product’s goal and target user. This is especially important in two parts of the product sense interview:
Brainstorming and prioritizing features. The interviewee is asked to brainstorm a wide range of features that could serve a product goal, and create a prioritization criteria to choose the best one. The prioritization criteria should demonstrate intentionality, and be clearly aligned with the product goal and target users.
Wire framing. The interviewee is asked to sketch out a product. Even a simple navigation bar could be designed in many ways. The interviewer is looking for one that’s most aligned with the product’s goal, and the interviewee’s ability to defend their thinking on why the particular design is the best solution for the goal.
Go to the App Store and download the top five apps from each category. Then, use pencil and paper to copy the design, and do this a few times for each app. Copying designs on paper helps you clearly see the nuances in product decisions. Once you’re familiar with the design patterns and ask yourself:
What were the PM’s goals for the app?
What types of users is the PM building for?
How does each feature contribute to the app’s goals?
What are some alternate features or designs the PM could have built, but did not? Why do you think the PM made that decision?
What would the PM build next?
How does the app compare against other apps that serve a similar goal and user base? What’s special about this app?
Make a habit of doing this, and you’ll feel more comfortable articulating your product decisions during a product sense interview.
3. How do you know when you’re ready to succeed in a real interview?
Most candidates count the number of mock interviews they’ve done, but successful candidates count the number of consecutive successful mock interviews they’ve completed.
The best PMs don’t get lucky. They make high quality product decisions, consistently. As a result, companies like Facebook require at least five interviews before a hire decision.
Because demonstrating consistency is so important, it should be a criteria for deciding when you’re ready to interview. Personally, this was tricky. Juggling interview prep with a 70hr/wk job, I often caught myself thinking that “I’ve prepared enough” simply because I was tired, not because I was truly ready. In fact, my PM interview performance used to have a huge variance.
I recommend that interviewees don’t stop their preparation until they get three consecutive “hire” decisions from mock interviews (preferably conducted by current PMs who are also interviewers). Three consecutive “hires” mean that your average performance is in the safe zone.
Set aside an hour each week to reach out to people to request mock interviews. Having enough mock interviews scheduled to get three confident “hire” decisions is key, not only to confirm you’re in the safe zone, but also because it’s a huge boost for your confidence, a necessary state of mind for a successful interview.
Take care of the quantity, and the quality will take care of itself
I played soccer growing up, and while my performance during matches varied, nothing could beat practicing the corner kick a hundred times. A lot of these things will not be intuitive at first, but repetition will transform them into instincts, even when under pressure. Product sense interview exercises are the same thing. The exercises train your product sense muscles for high impact scenarios during the interview, and enable you to achieve stepwise improvement in performance.