The hard skills that tech companies test for in PM interviews

Product managers wear many hats.

Few jobs in the world will require a diversity of domain expertise and context switching that product management does. Put another way, very few jobs will require you to have a technical discussion with engineer in one meeting and then completely shift gears and review UI mocks with the designer minutes later.

In both situations, a product manager will need enough domain expertise and context to provide valuable input, guidance and, ultimately, product decisions.

As a result, product managers need some baseline capabilities across a wide spectrum of skill sets. Here we're going to lay out five of the key hard skills that product managers want to see candidates demonstrate in interviews (and on the job!).

The hard skills PM candidates are tested on

  • Analytical skills
  • Strategic thinking
  • Prioritization skills
  • Technical fluency
  • Design sense / user experience

Analytical skills

Conducting analysis is at the heart of the product management job. Whether it's sizing a market opportunity, analyzing the user sign up flow or results of the latest A/B test, product managers spend a good chunk of their time analyzing data and making recommendations. As a result, this is a core skill that PMs are tested on.

Sample analytics questions (from an Instagram PM interview)

  • What are the metrics you would look at when deciding how to increase user engagement?
  • How would you evaluate the success of Instagram Stories?
  • Which metrics would you look at as a product manager for Instagram ads? Why?
"I don't really care if they know how to write SQL today or how to use pivot tables or any other analytics tools. I'd rather they know the right questions to ask when looking at data. If they're smart, I trust they'll learn whatever tools they need on the job."
Andy Jih, PM at Stripe, former Director of Product at Remedy Labs, ex-Zynga

Strategic thinking

One of the core skills is setting product strategy. While large swaths of the PM job are executional and focused on nitty-gritty details like which features belong in the next sprint, release notes copy and bug triaging, a core component of the role is setting and refining the product strategy.

This is the skill that helps PM chart a course for their products, navigate the competitive landscape and deliver the most value to their customers. Of the hard skills, it is the most high level capability a candidate will be tested on.

Sample product strategy questions (from a Facebook PM interview)

  • Why did Facebook launch FB messenger? Was it the right decision and why or why not?
  • Pick an industry that will be different in ten years from now and explain how Facebook can be a part of that.
  • Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19B. Does that acquisition make sense for Facebook?
"I want to know if they think through different strategic directions and what the implications are. Can they surmise the different directions themselves or do they need hand holding?
John Vars, Chief Product Officer at Varo Money, former Chief Product Officer at TaskRabbit

Prioritization skills

This skill is used by product managers daily across almost all aspects of their job. One obvious use case the prioritization skill set is when a PM is deciding what should be in or out on a product roadmap. But the reality is that product managers are forced to make tens of prioritization decisions each day.

For example, they might need to prioritize whether an engineer should devote her day to a new bug which was flagged or continue working on an upcoming feature. Or a PM might need to prioritize which of the following pieces of functionality should be highlighted in a certain part of the product. Or, the prioritization challenge might even be more mundane: such as prioritizing which meetings to attend and which to skip.

One negative externality of constantly prioritizing is feeling like one is always saying "No." John Gronberg, a Director of Product at Okta, the enterprise identity "unicorn," shares the importance of saying "No" and how to do it well.

Sample prioritization questions (from a Facebook PM interview)

  • You're the PM for Facebook Pages. What new features would you prioritize?
  • How would you think through prioritizing two competing features: one will drive new Page creation and the other will drive up engagement per Page?
  • QA and Dev are having a kick off meeting to discuss a new product feature. You can only attend to one. Which one will you attend?
"If you ask a candidate to organize a bunch of features, do they just start doing it or do they sit back and think about assumptions, goals and overall context first? If they just jump into prioritizing, that's a pretty big red flag."
John Vars, Chief Product Officer at Varo Money, former Chief Product Officer at TaskRabbit

Technical fluency

Product managers will spend a large part of their day working directly with and interacting with their engineering teams. Thus, being technically fluent, which is the ability to discuss the core technical ideas, concepts and implications related to their product is key. While PMs don't need to be the best engineer on the team, and in 99.99% cases they won't be, they do need to be able to engage with the technical team on core issues.

For example, PMs may need to weigh in on which information is saved into the databases, what fields need to be present and available in the API offered or what the implications of certain front eng programming decisions might be.

Sample technical questions (from a Facebook PM interview)

  • Facebook made the decision to open source React.js. What do you think the pros and cons of that are?
  • What's the toughest technical challenge you've ever solved?
  • How would you design an API that would give third parties access to Facebook Events data?
"Bottom line: They don't need to have a technical degree but they need to have a technical mindset. I don't really care if someone knows how to bubble sort, but they should be able to discuss how the different system components will interact with each other and understand the different level of abstractions."
Paul Krakow, Principal PM at Amazon, ex-Yahoo

Design sense / user experience

Regardless of whether the product is an enterprise or consumer product, a PM will need a solid understanding of how to deliver a superior user experience. It can be tempting to assume that since a PM won't actually product the physical designs and layouts in Photoshop, Sketch, Invision or whatever app his/her design team prefers, that they don't need the skills themselves. That's a dangerous myth!

PMs need a solid design sense and nose for user experience, because they are the sole team member who will be overseeing how the product goals translate into pixels, buttons and mocks.

Sample design / UX questions (from a Facebook PM interview)

  • What is best user experience you've had in a consumer mobile app? Explain what made it great and how it could be even better.
  • Tell me about a customer experience scenario that went poorly. Why did it go poorly and what improvements could be made?
  • Could you design a version of the Instagram app for the blind? If so, where would the value come from and how would you do it?
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