The three key types of product manager interviews

Product management interviews can vary wildly from company to company, or even team to team.

But, there's good news too. 99% of product manager interviews fall into one of three categories.

More importantly, regardless of the interview type, the interviewer is always trying to suss out whether or not the candidate posseses the requisite set of hard and soft skills to succeed. We'll deep dive on those skills soon, but for now, let's just focus on what the interviews themselves might feel like.

Three types of product management interviews

  1. General "product sense"
  2. Product case study
  3. Cross-functional expertise

#1: General "product sense"

In these interviews, the interviewer will usually ask a mix of generic product questions (e.g., "What's your favorite product and why?" or "Tell me which product of ours you like the best and three ways you could improve it?").

These interviews tend to be unstructured and each question is an independent exercise, meaning that the interviewer might jump to a series of seemingly disparate topics (e.g., from "critique the design of this mobile app" to "design an algorithm for prioritizing Netflix content recommendations").

In the last decade, a majority of product management interviews tended to follow this "shoot from the hip" style of interview. At some of the bigger companies, like Google and Facebook, these types of interviews still happen frequently. Many tech companies will have at least some portion of their PM interviews loosely follow this model. However, many tech companies have evolved their approach to focus on specific, relevant product challenges and questions focused on cross-functional expertise.

"I like to start with 'Tell me about a feature you'd design for our product.' This gives the candidate a chance to dive into the fun stuff. Once they've described that I'll ask them what reports / graphs / analyses they'd design in advance of launching that feature to determine whether it'd be a success or not."
Preet Anand, PM at Lyft, ex-Zynga, Founder at Patreonus

#2: Product case study

These interviews are structured and focused on a specific product challenge that the interviewer wants to walk through with the candidate. In many cases, the interviewer will use a scenario modeled after a real challenge from that specific company.

Typically, these interviews will kick off with a fairly open ended question which require the candidate to propose a strategy for working through the product challenge. After that, the candidate will walk the interviewer through his/her approach. The interviewer will typically probe for on key product considerations, asking about things like, but not limited to: how the candidate might design the product (e.g., sketch or whiteboard rough wireframes), what analysis they might do to determine if it's working, key technical considerations (e.g., which data to save or what they'd want to be able to measure) and how they'd promote the product at launch.

"I like to take a particular feature on our roadmap and tell the candidate there are 3 options to build it. One of them is the full feature, with takes 6 months to build and comes with all the bells and whistles. Then I provide two shorter ways to build it and lay those out. The core question is which would you pursue and why? There isn't a right answer but I want to see them think through the options logically and demonstrating PM skills like strategic thinking, prioritization abilities, communication, etc. For example, many candidates miss prioritization all together. They don't even ask why this feature is on the roadmap all together!"
Walter Lee, Head of Product at Leanplum, ex-Google PM and engineer

#3: Cross-functional expertise

Cross-functional expertise interviews are all about non-product managers assessing how you'll collaborate with people like them. For example, you might have cross-functional expertise interviews with engineers, data science, product marketers, designers and support and operations employees. The goal of these interviews is to determine if you'll be a productive partner to that discipline.

For example, engineers might be interested to understand how you like to work with them, how technical you are and what you types of decisions you see as product decisions versus engineering decisions. In some cases, especially if the role is more technical or the product organization places strong emphasis on technical chops, they might ask you to write some pseudo code (e.g., what's the SQL you'd write to pull this information out of a database).

The structure of the process

Most PM interview processes begin with a general "product sense" interview, or two, over the phone with another product manager. Depending on the scale of the company, the interviewer might be the VP of Product or Head of Product at a mid-size startup or a PM at a larger company like Google, Amazon or Facebook.

After a phone interview, candidates that passed are typically invited to an on-site interview which involves anywhere between two to five additional interviews.

Typical end-to-end interview process

  • Phone interviews (1 - 2 interviews, thirty minutes each)
  • On-site interview (2 - 5 interviews, thirty to forty-five minute each)
  • Followup on-sites (1 - 3 interviews, thirty to forty-five minutes each)

Company philosophy drives variance in the PM interview process

This on-site interviews is where a lot of variance is introduced into the PM interviewing process. Some companies like Uber and Airbnb focus on product case studies with a handful of functional experience interviews mixed in. Other companies like Facebook and Google tend to rely on a series of general "product sense" interviews with maybe one or two functional expertise interviews as well.

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