- Framework: SWOT Analysis, Porter’s 5 Forces, Metric Categories, Metric Tests
- Example Question
- Best Practices
This past summer I interned at Microsoft as an Explore intern. Their Explore program is a 12 week internship broken up into two parts:
- 4 weeks of product management
- 8 weeks of software engineering
I took this internship to figure out whether or not I wanted to pursue software engineering or not and it was a really difficult journey but I ultimately came to the conclusion that I really liked product management and wanted to work on it in the future.
I’m writing this post because I basically had to do a lot of networking and running around and cold DMing and research to figure all this out and it was super difficult to compile information and prepare, so I was hoping to make a comprehensive resource just to give people a primer and look into what it’s like to prep for these kinds of interviews. This is not meant to be an end all, be all guide to PM work, but more of just like a “Hey, here’s a quick briefing.”
Disclaimer: I’m literally a child. I’m like 19. So I don’t know how exactly qualified I am to write this, but I thought I’d just give my two cents in for how the process was like for me and how I personally prepared for it.
How do I know if product management is right for me?
I think this is a really important and difficult question. Frankly, I don’t think there’s an end all, be all answer, but I can talk about my thought process to maybe help people think about their decision.
Ultimately, I chose product management for a couple of a reasons.
I’m a People Person
Contrary to what I originally thought growing up, I love talking to a lot of different people and I love giving presentations and just chatting around. Software engineering, while very fulfilling, was also pretty isolating. It was a lot of just staring at code by myself, not really talking to anyone. The only reason why it wasn’t super lonely was because I was living with my roommates who were also working remotely and could keep me company as I coded.
If you do not like talking to people a lot or hours and hours of meetings and negotiations, PM work is probably not for you. But if you’d prefer a job that has you interacting with many people every day, it’s something to look into!
I like playing a lot of different roles.
Throughout my time in college, it was pretty evident my interests couldn’t be really boxed. I found engineering super interesting alongside design and biology and just a whole slew of other things. One of the pros of being a product manager is that you wear a lot of different hats. You’re going to be collaborating with so many different people in a day, ranging from design teams to engineering teams to business teams to actual consumers of your product, so you’ll need to be able to think and act like all of those different kinds of people on any given day. That’s why I think PM work is super fulfilling for people with multidisciplinary interests.
I like variety in my day.
What I personally found super intriguing about PM work was that every day looks very different! It was something I heard a lot about from every PM I talked to, that there was no “typical” day in the world of PMs and so if you are someone that needs variety to stay engaged, this is definitely a world for you.
Something to keep in mind…
I personally chose to pursue PM work because I found the challenges and day to day work interesting. The role of a PM varies vastly according to company. Different companies give different amounts and kinds of responsibilities to PMs and sometimes the ratio of PMs to engineers varies, or the amount of collaboration, or some time even the amount of input. Thus, it’s important to talk to PMs of a certain company before you run straight into it.
The interview is very, very different from software engineering in terms of questions and sometimes processes entirely.
PM interviews are meant to test how you think. They don’t require a great amount of technical skill, as a coding interview would. They also differ from software engineering interviews in that there are no correct answers. For better or for worse, PM interviews are completely subjective.
Because PM interviews are so focused on thought processes, there will be a lot of recurring themes in how you approach questions to show off your thinking. Really, the biggest things to follow are:
- Ask clarifying questions. Never tackle a PM question straight on. Always, always clarify. It does not matter if the clarification sounds silly or stupid — it probably isn’t. It doesn’t hurt to understand what your interviewer is asking before you deep dive into a question.
- Use frameworks. Frameworks are essentially formulas/steps you take to answer questions. They are super helpful not only for you in organizing your thoughts, but for interviewers to follow your thought process and understand where you’re taking your ideas.
- Do not be afraid to ask for more time. Some of these questions are large and vague and difficult and so you are 100% allowed to ask your interviewer, “If you could please give me a few moments to gather my thoughts?” This is not only valid, this is expected. Interviewers will even encourage you to take some time to think. Use that time! You usually can ask for 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes to gather your thoughts before deep diving.
The format of the PM interview process varies from company to company, but you can expect it to typically look like this:
- Phone Screening. These are typically checks to see if you’re a valid candidate for the position. These are typically done by recruiters but can sometimes be done by PMs of a company. They can range anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes long and consist of some logistical questions like “When do you graduate?” or “Can you confirm your major for me?” They’ll also throw in product design and behavioral questions here, sometimes.
- PM interview. This will usually be an hour long, with the first fifty minutes dedicated to asking you questions and the last five to ten minutes to ask questions about the company. These will be a mix of all kinds of PM questions.
- Super day / Batch day. This is typically a final round where you’ll have 3-4 interviews in a row with different focuses.
PM interview questions can be broken down into multiple categories:
- Product Design
- Product Strategy
There can definitely be overlaps within these categories with regards to questions, but I think this is a good place to start.
This is probably the more straightforward, well-known ones. These are questions typically about past experiences you have to get more insight on you as a person, you as a worker, and you as a teammate.
These are also referred to as “Tell me a time…” questions because that’s usually how they open up.
Some examples include:
- Tell me a time you had to build rapport with a higher-up.
- Tell me about a time you had to make a difficult decision in the work place.
- Tell me about a time you were placed in a difficult situation on a team.
Behavioral Interview Frameworks
The STAR Method
The STAR method is a pretty well-known framework and it’s typically how interviewers want you to break down your answers.
- Situation. Paint a clear picture to your interviewer what your situation is when answering the behavioral question.
- Task. What did you have to do in this situation? Make clear the problem at hand and your duty in it.
- Action. What actual decisions and actions did you have to make to help the situation?
- Result. Did you action have any impact at all, and if so what was it?
Q: Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you did not get along with.
A: This past summer at Microsoft I worked with an intern team of three. It was our duty to work together to redesign the OneDrive Settings page. There was a point in the summer where one of the interns tended to work on his own a lot and didn’t really fill me and my teammate in on what he was doing. This was really difficult for us, as we’d often repeat work that he already did or were just left in the dark, and the communication pipelines were essentially super clogged. So, my teammate and I decided to confront him about it, politely, and tell him that we had felt super left out. We made it clear that it was overall less efficient for us as a team to not communicate well and we suggested that we hold daily stand up meetings at the beginning of each day to say what we worked on and a stand up meeting at the end to say what we accomplished. Our other teammate apologized, not realizing he was doing what he was doing, and agreed to the stand ups and from there things ran smoothly and we were able to successfully complete our project.
This is an example I gave in an interview recently. It isn’t the most impactful but it’s an example nonetheless. If we were to break it down into the STAR method…
Situation: This past summer at Microsoft I worked with an intern team of three. It was our duty to work together to redesign the OneDrive Settings page. There was a point in the summer where one of the interns tended to work on his own a lot and didn’t really fill me and my teammate in on what he was doing. This was really difficult for us, as we’d often repeat work that he already did or were just left in the dark, and the communication pipelines were essentially super clogged.
Task: So, my teammate and I decided to confront him about it, politely, and tell him that we had felt super left out.
Action: We made it clear that it was overall less efficient for us as a team to not communicate well and we suggested that we hold daily stand up meetings at the beginning of each day to say what we worked on and a stand up meeting at the end to say what we accomplished.
Result: Our other teammate apologized, not realizing he was doing what he was doing, and agreed to the stand ups and from there things ran smoothly and we were able to successfully complete our project.
A common pitfall with the STAR method is that it can sound super robotic, so it’s important that you practice making sure the stories flow smoothly.
Best Practices for the Behavioral
The best way to prep for behavioral interviews is talking to your friends about your work. I would tell my roommates a lot about my project at Microsoft to check if the way I explained things was coherent enough that people separate from my situation and job could understand what I was doing. Storytelling is also a big factor of it, so if you’re a person that’s not good at telling stories or situations, you should probably practice for this.
The product design interview is exactly what it sounds like: You are given a scenario and you must design something for it.
They can typically fall into two main categories:
- Design a product.
- Improve an already existing product.
They also range from short product design questions and long product design questions. The ones regarding already existing products, favorite products, and least favorite products are typically shorter design questions. They should be answered relatively quickly.
Scenario-based product design questions are your multistep long questions.
Some examples include…
- Tell me your least favorite product and tell me how you would improve upon it. (short)
- Tell me your favorite physical product and why. (short)
- Design an alarm clock for a blind person. (long)
- Design a refrigerator for kids. (long)
- You are the PM for X company and they have just created a new technology that does Y thing. How would you make a product based on this? (long)
Product Design Frameworks
There exist a lot of different product design frameworks out there. You can mix and match them as you please and it’ll vary from situation to situation, but I’ll describe the one I follow and we’ll do it in the context of the design a refrigerator for kids question. Italicized are more meta talks and nonbold, nonitalicized is what I would actually say in an interview.
- Ask clarifying questions. This is your chance to make the very, very broad question more specific. So before we get started, just a couple of clarifying questions: Do we have an age group in mind? Are there any resource limits we need to take into account? What kind of company are we, are we known for selling hardware typically? What is the goal of this refrigerator?
- Identify a user group, goal, and their pain points. Once your interviewer answers your clarifying questions, you should have a narrowed down idea of what you’re going for. Let’s assume we are a moderately sized electronics and furniture company that is looking to break into the refrigerator for kids industry because no one really has and it’s interesting. There are no limits on you resources-wise and the age group is up to you. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be going in the age range of elementary school kids because I think they have enough autonomy to make decisions, but not old enough where it doesn’t really make sense for them to have their own dedicated children’s fridge. At this point in the interview, you can tell your interviewer you’d like to jot down a couple notes and ideate some potential pain points for this user group. So some pain points I’ve come up with are that kids typically have difficulty finding things in the fridge due to their size so something that is fit for their height and size and is pretty organized would be nice. Kids also tend to get bored of products really easily so we want to make sure the product is visually interesting. Lastly, I think kids aren’t super great at eating their vegetables so maybe a system that takes that into account would be good. Do these sound good to you?
- Come up with solutions for their pain points. If you could give me a few moments to collect my thoughts on some solutions. [some time elapses] I think it’s really important to remember that while the product is for the kids, it is ultimately being bought by the parents, so we want to make sure we keep them in mind during this process. So I’m thinking of a color / theme customizable IOT fridge with a screen on front that shows the contents of the fridge at any given time so kids always know what is in it and shows the location of the item in the fridge so they know exactly where to look first. By color customizable, I’m thinking we can have really fun colors or even released themed fridges relating to new trends like maybe a Minecraft themed fridge or Marvel themed fridge. Relating back to the parent thing, maybe we can give the fridge settings that parents can toy with and mess with. Some features can be things like reminding the kid when to eat, or if they should opt for a healthier snack instead of they’re removing something like ice cream from a fridge. We can also maybe gamify the fridge by rewarding kids for choosing healthier options and giving their virtual reward points that the parent can use. What do you think of this solution so far?
- (Optional) Rank your solutions. Sometimes in questions you can give multiple routes to take a certain product. Here you can decide how you want to prioritize and rank. Since in the last question this was one cohesive product we don’t need to rank our solutions.
- Talk about any implementation issues you can see. Here is where you would identify any issues you anticipate with the product. Some things to note about this is that customizable themed fridges can go out of date quickly. People typically do not buy fridges that often so we have to make sure the hardware is really up to date and isn’t lacking. This will also require us to dedicate a lot of time to maintenance of the fridge servers so that might be where some of our resources go.
- Talk about metrics for success. Here you will talk about how you anticipate tracking the success of your product. In terms of metrics for success, the obvious one would be to track purchases of the fridge. But to see if the color customizable or theme customizable ones are a hit we can compare themed fridge purchases to color ones to see if there’s any stark difference between those. We can also track the experience points/reward points given out by the gamification system to see if the system is actually being used. I think also user feedback is generally just important so maybe just a survey link somewhere on the screen to report feedback regarding our system.
Best Practices for Product Design Questions
Some good practices are typically just checking in with your interviewer often. Sometimes interviewers have a direction they already want to take a product and they want you to get there, so asking clarifying questions and asking if the path you’re on seems “reasonable” is a good way to sanity check yourself. This way, your interviewers can nudge you back on the right path if you go astray. Otherwise, you might run with the wrong idea.
Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy with it. These questions are also tests of your creativity and ability to think on the spot. I usually find product design questions really fun because you can just…say anything you want and people go with it?
While the phrase product strategy is a little vague, these questions typically relate to already existing products and what you would do given specific scenarios…okay now that was really vague. Here are some examples:
- Should Google enter the rideshare industry?
- We’ve noticed that X feature of our Y product has dropped in use by 15%. How would you go about figuring out why?
- A big user of our product is requesting a specific feature. We also have a bug identified by our forum. Simultaneously, our competitors just released a feature we don’t have. How would you go about prioritizing which feature to implement first?
- How would you go about increasing the number of senior citizens/older users of Google Home?
- What metrics do we track to detect the success for X pro
Product Strategy Frameworks
There are a lot of different frameworks you can use for these kinds of problems and you alter them depending on the context of the question. Here are the ones I commonly use:
SWOT analyses are used for already existing companies and products.
It is broken into:
- Strengths. What are we doing well inside the company, the things we can control?
- Weaknesses. What are we doing poorly inside the company that is introducing challenges to us?
- Opportunities. What things going on outside the company, like the outside world and new technologies, can we utilize?
- Threats. What things going on outside world like existing competitors or new technologies being developed that we could face or run into?
Porter’s 5 Forces
Porter’s 5 Forces comes in handy for the questions asking whether or not X company should enter Y industry.
- Competitors. Who already is in the industry we should worry about?
- Buyers. How many consumers are there in this industry, and who are they?
- Suppliers. Who is providing us with resources?
- Threat of substitutions. What alternative versions of our products could be a threat/should we watch out for?
- Threat of new entrants. What new technology should we keep an eye on? How can we remain competitive even when new products enter?
And while these aren’t frameworks necessarily these are some good ones to keep in mind..
These are the different categorizations for metrics. Metrics are essentially things we can track to see the success of our product.
- User acquisition. How many users are we gaining or losing? Where are users coming from? Things like that.
- Activity. How many people are using our product, or the specific features? What are people saying about the product?
- Conversion and retention. How many people are switching to premium plans?
- Money. How much does it cost per customer to keep the product running? How much money does a singular customer make for the company?
Tests to run to measure success
A lot of the times, companies run experiments to determine whether or not a feature is successful. Here are a couple ways they can do this:
- A/B testing. A/B testing is running one set of products with a feature A and another set of products without this feature, then you can compare between the two of them.
- Usability testing. Usability testing is essentially having test users use your product and give you feedback on it.
- Customer feedback. Usually in the form of surveys or something equivalent, you go to already existing customers and get their input on the product.
- Traffic analysis. Using things like Google Analytics or other to see how traffic to your software/product is like.
- Internal logs. Tracking information internally can be helpful to see the success of a product or the wellbeing of your product.
Q: Let’s try one of the frameworks out with an example question: You are the PM of a video streaming platform (let’s say Netflix) and you are deciding whether or not to enter the games streaming industry. How would you go about making this decision? (For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume this is pre-Twitch data leak.)
A: So I think it’s really important to start off looking internally at our own resources. Being Netflix, we are a large company with a lot of money and room for innovation so this seems pretty feasible.
However, something we have to consider also is the existing market right now and what that looks like. Right now, Twitch is one of the most dominant companies on that market and practically have monopolized it. We have to be ready to dedicate a lot of resources and time if we want to overthrow a giant like Twitch.
Something to also keep in mind is if there are even new consumers looking for a different video game streaming platform. Twitch saw a huge boom in numbers due to the pandemic and with pandemic rules being lifted we actually might see a drop in consumers. This seems like a problem, especially if we want to go into this industry.
Looking at Netflix right now, we seem to be booming in our original content and shows. So with all these things in mind, I don’t think it is a smart idea to go into the video game streaming industry and instead we should continue to pour our resources into where we’ve been successful.
In this example I identify the current state of the market, the state of the users, any outward threats, and our internal status, essentially sticking to Porter’s 5 forces.
Best Practices for Product Strategy
Definitely enter these with a framework in mind. Study the company beforehand so you know what their goal is. Typically for these kinds of questions you always want to state the company goal first and keep it in mind.
It also helps to be familiar with the current tech scene and the state of your company’s competitors so you can mention this in the interview.
Estimation questions are their own beast and frankly the questions I struggled with the most. They are exactly what they sound like: estimating things.
Here are some examples:
- Estimate the number of Uber drivers in San Francisco.
- Estimate the number of restaurants in NYC.
- Estimate the average number of YouTube videos uploaded daily.
They’re definitely very daunting at first, but with enough practice, they can most definitely be cracked.
Very similar to product design, there are a lot of different frameworks you can use, but this is what I personally go by. (It’s not much of a framework if I’m being honest.
- Ask clarifying questions.
- Identify your base information. What numbers do you already know or need to know?
- Make your equation. What can you do with these numbers to come to the conclusion you need to?
- Mention your edge cases. What specific cases should you keep in mind as you tackle your question?
- Break down. Now get to calculating!!!
- State assumptions. At the end, critique your number and say what assumptions you had to make or what cases you had to ignore to come to this.
Q: Estimate the number of taxis in New York.
A: Do you mean all of New York or do you mean New York City? (New York City.) Great, then let’s get started. So I know the population of New York City is 8 million. I also know that there’s approximately 300 million people in the US and the average lifespan is 80 years old. Let’s assume equal distribution. Then let’s assume that the population of people that use transit are typically 18-60 years old. Doing the calculation then trims that number from 8 million to 4.4 million people.
Okay so the equation I will be working with is:
number of taxis in New York City = population of NY * percentage of NYCers that use the taxi * number of rides per month / person divided by number of rides an uber driver can handle / month
Let’s assume that with the rise of popularity of rideshares and public transit, taxi use has dropped drastically so maybe only 30% of people opt to use taxis. That means about 1.3M of these people use taxis. Let’s say then that there are three categories of taxi goers.
- Frequent users who take a taxi at least 10 times a month. This will be 20% of the taxi using population.
- Semi frequent users who take a taxi at least five times a month. Let’s assume that 30% of the taxi using population are in this category.
- Infrequent users that use a taxi once a month. That means the remaining 50% are in this category.
From here, we can calculate the number of times taxis are used a month. This will be 10 * .2 * 1.3M + .5 * .3 * 1.3M + 1 * .5 * 1.3M. This will give us approximately 5 million rides per month.
Now for the taxi drivers. Let’s assume prime time is 9am to 5pm, so 8 hours and the average number of rides per hour is 2. So from there 8 hours / day * 2 rides / hour * 30 days / mo = 480 rides / mo.
So 5 million divided by 480 gives us approximately 10,000 taxi drivers in NYC. This number will of course be a little off because we chopped a good portion of the population even though they definitely do take taxi rides, and this is also assuming that every individual person is taking a taxi rather than realizing people share taxis and taking those numbers into account.
This definitely looks very daunting at first but with enough practice the muscle memory kicks in. Yes, you definitely need to have some baseline statistics memorized to go off of but there are guides for those online you can find.
Best Practices for Estimation
If there’s a statistic you know you need but do not have, feel free to ask. Definitely go into it memorizing some key factors. There are useful fact sheets online like this one.
Practice, practice, practice. And keep talking out loud. Freezing is the quickest way to failing these estimation questions. They’re not looking for the actual correct answer, only the process you’re taking to get there.
Technical questions do not involve coding, but rather involve technical concepts that you need to understand and explain.
Some examples of questions are:
- Describe what an API is to a five year old.
- Imagine you are the PM for a grocery store and you are integrating a delivery service. What information do you need to query from a database when designing this delivery service?
- What are the most interesting technological trends of today?
I do not really have any frameworks for these, frankly. I just kind of go into them hoping for the best. Which is not that helpful, probably.
Best Practices for Technical
Research, research, research. What technologies does your interviewing company use and how can you familiarize yourself with how they work?
Take Home Assessments
Sometimes companies will assign take home assessments for applicants so they can get a better feel of how you work given a lot of time. The take home assessment is either you improving upon an existing product or creating a new product. They typically expect analysis (as you did in product design questions) and even mock-ups or wireframes, so you may need to be familiar with some sort of wireframing tool, whether that be Figma, Balsamiq, Framer, or other.
Pay a lot of attention to detail in this stage. Look up the company to see if they have a style guide or best practices section on their website and follow it as closely as possible. See if they have a product blog as well to see their product creation processes and follow those.
Where do I start?
Yes, that was definitely a whole…bunch of info and it is a lot to digest, but now comes the question: Where do I start? Let’s start with timelines.
I started prepping for interviews in July, knowing I’d start interviewing in September. But a lot of my prep in July was prepping by myself and familiarizing myself with the PM interview space. This is essentially Phase 0, or the “getting comfortable” phase. In this time you are researching kinds of questions, researching companies you’d like to apply to, reading books, and really just assuring yourself you belong in this process.
Phase 1 occurs as you are about to enter the interview process and you know where you’re applying. Start doing mock interviews. Join different communities on Facebook, Slack, Discord, wherever you can and just start. Doing. Mocks. Practice giving mock interviews and giving feedback and practice doing them and receiving feedback. These are the best way to prepare for PM interviews. Identify what questions you struggle with and really hammer in those questions. I personally struggled a lot with estimation questions and product strategy and asked people to give me those kinds of questions.
Phase 2 is usually right before your interview, where you’re now starting to do company specific interview prep. Research the company in-depth. Read their blogs. Choose three products of the company you like and familiarize yourself with it. Look at the recent news around the company. Look more into their interview process and look at past interview questions and practice them.
Phase 3 is the interview itself. Congrats, you’ve made it this far! Step back, breathe, talk aloud, and do your best!
PM Interview Prep Resources
- Product Buds – online community of PM aligned people. I’ve met a lot of really cool people through Product Buds and prepped for a lot of my interviews with people from here.
- Rewriting the Code – online community of women in tech. There’s a Facebook group called Women of Rewriting the Code and I’m in an APM/PM intern group chat where we schedule mocks with each other.
- Cracking the PM Interview – an oldie but a goldie.
- Swipe to Unlock
- Exponent YouTube – for free videos and mocks
- Exponent – $79/mo which is a little pricey but if you find someone to split it with then totally worth it.
My Personal Experience
Product management interviews honestly have been really fun for me. I find the interviews a lot more enjoyable than I found software engineering ones and all of my interviewing experiences have been super positive. It’s really fun to just enter and interview and kind of just talk and have people bounce ideas off of you. I hope this guide was able to demystify the product management interview and its process.