Mistakes in Lead PM Interviews and How to Avoid Them
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In last week's post, we covered Mistakes to Avoid in Entry Level PM Interviews. In this post, we will focus on the mistakes in Lead PM roles, i.e., SPM, GPM, etc. Please note that these mistakes are very different than the ones people make in entry-level APM/PM roles.
Lead PM roles are often PM manager roles where you manage a PM team. The leadership skills and scope of the role change significantly between PMs and lead PMs. A Product Manager follows the product strategy and implements the product plan within the context of that strategy. The Lead Product Manager is responsible for the product strategy. So, the expectations in the interviews are quite different. Candidates get down-leveled to PM roles after interviews even if they have done lead PM roles in the past because they don't understand what they have to index upon in these interviews. They try to apply the same preparation material, thinking that they just need to work extra hard this time.
So, what are these mistakes, and how can we avoid them? The critical mistakes in senior product interviews are the ones that signal to the interviewer that you can't manage this role. The first one, and the most important one, is providing a bookish answer.
1. Providing a Bookish Answer
Using frameworks is great for structuring and touching upon everything in the limited time you get in the interviews. But when you latch on to the frameworks to find the solution to a product problem, it might result in a bookish answer. A booking answer is the one that doesn't account for how real-world product development happens.
To explain this better, let's take an example. CIRCLES, coined by Lewis Lin, is one of the most overused frameworks in product design/ product sense rounds.
When you use CIRCLES in a real interview setting, here is what a bookish interaction might look like. I have intentionally kept it shorter so as not to make it too boring and to convey the central points.:
Interviewer: You are a PM at Google. Design a product that grandparents can use to connect with grandkids remotely.
Interviewee [Clarify and Identify the Customer]: Sure, we have to design a videoconferencing app that both grandparents and grandkids use to connect with each other. When we say kids, I assume that we are talking about those aged 6-12. Children below six aren't allowed to use devices on their own. Can I make that assumption?
Interviewee: I would take some time to jot down my thoughts..
<90 seconds later>
Interviewee [Report Customer Needs]: So for kids, we know that there are some pain points they face while teleconferencing with their grandparents:
They are usually distracted and get bored easily while chatting
They move around, so the sound and video reception may get poor due to the movement of grandparents
Grandparents also have a set of pain points
It's hard for them to use apps because they have a steep learning curve. So, the app design needs to be simple
Some of the older grandparents are visually challenged and have auditory problems as well.
Does that sound right?
Interviewer: Sure, please move ahead!
Interviewee: [Cut through Prioritisation] I will prioritize the pain points now based on severity and % of users affected by it.
Distracted while chatting: This is a key problem since conversations will only be high quality if kids are focused. So, it's important to solve this pain point. I would put this under a high-severity bucket.
Sound and video reception while kids move around: Important to solve, but medium severity.
Simple app design: This affects all older people, so high severity
Visual and auditory challenges: These are important problems, but they don't affect everyone, so I classify them as medium severity.
I will now create the solutions for these pain points.
app design needs to be simple
Interviewee: [List solutions and Evaluate Trade-Offs] We need to create an app
to keep kids engaged
introduce bright colors, filters to try out, etc., to keep the kids engaged [low effort]
introduce games that they can play together while video chatting because often, kids love games [high effort]
design the app with large fonts and big buttons so that it is easy to use for grandparents [low effort]
Here is what the screens would look like.
Interviewee: Now, I will define success metrics. To start with, we can focus on acquisition and customer satisfaction scores (ratings at the end of the call).
And that's a wrap!
Usually, an answer like this is okay at an APM or PM-level interview. The key reason is that when you are new to product management, you need to master structure and learn everything needed to answer these questions, such as metrics, how to create mock screens using elementary design principles, prioritization, thinking from a user perspective, etc. Displaying all of these in a limited time is good enough to get into the roles.
However, as you move up to a lead PM role, merely using the frameworks limits your product thinking.
So, how should one answer questions at a Senior PM level? Solve them the way you would solve them in a job. You should still use the framework to maintain structure and touch upon everything in the limited interview time.
Specifically, here are things one should include:
Who are we, and why does it matter to us? — Google has a portfolio of video conferencing apps already. Covid has accelerated the adoption of such apps, so they have become critical to users' lives. Usually, the richer the connection, the better the experience is in this case. So far, the industry has built basic features and solutions for latency, video, and audio quality in low bandwidth, chat, etc. From here on, innovation lies in solving for specific segments. Kids and grandparents are an underserved segment, and if Google solves it, it can create the right impact on users' lives and also give Google a lead in this segment.
Choosing a goal — If we know the why, it will tie to the goal. The goal here is important to clarify so that you can work backward to the pain points, solutions, prioritization, success metrics, etc.
User segments — In beginner-level PM interviews, segmentation on the basis of age, gender, and geography is okay-ish. But when you build products in real-life, you try to think of behavioral segments (personas with specific attitudes and behaviors) and solve for them. So, even in the interviews, segmentation needs to happen based on behavioral traits.
For the particular interview question, we can segment kids based on their behavior. Kids between the ages 4-8 (Segment1) may prefer playing games, listening to stories, watching movies, etc. together, whereas kids between 9-12 (Segment2) like to tell what happened at their school and play games that are complex and may not be suitable for grandparents. So these two can be important segments.
The needs for Segment 2 can be solved by Zoom or Meet. Therefore, kids between 4 and 8 are more suitable for a richer connection experience, and we would select them as our segment.
Similarly, not all older people are digitally challenged, and those who are won't be able to do digital stuff like playing games with kids wouldn't be able to engage in a rich manner, which is a large enough segment based on my interaction with older folks, so we can focus on the segment that has digital awareness and leave the rest.
Pain points and solutions— You can go on to list pain points for both S2 and digitally aware grandparents.
For one, language skills can vary between generations and locations. Grandparents may be more fluent in Hindi/ Spanish, while kids may be more fluent in English. So, there is a language barrier to be solved. This also helps us determine that going first after visual games and visual stories might be more useful.
Beyond chat, they also need other ways to interact so that kids aren't distracted and bored. Entertainment in the form of stories, games, and videos works fine.
Beyond entertainment, grandparents also want to teach some useful skills like language, maths, dance, solving puzzles, etc. We can build rich experiences for teaching basic reasoning, maths, creative pursuits, etc.
Prioritization — While CIRCLES advocates prioritizing pain points before the solutions, in real-life product management, prioritization doesn't come before a broad solution exercise. If you want to use the effort-impact method of prioritization, add possible solutions to pain points and see which are the most appealing ones.
Metrics — Since we are talking about the quality of experience (goal), metrics related to experience, such as ratings, engagement, feature adoption, etc., should be important. Mention the sanity metrics for experience as well, such as crashes, screen freeze, latency, etc.
To reiterate, solve the problem like you would solve in real life. That would yield a much richer answer.
2. Conflating Corp and Product Strategy
Corporate strategy is different than product strategy questions. Corporate strategy questions focus on choices that improve the competitive positioning of the corporation as a whole. In contrast, product strategy focuses on choices you must make in a particular product line to meet BU objectives.
A few examples of Corp Strategy questions are
Should Google acquire Garmin?
Should Amazon enter Indonesia?
What should Microsoft build next?
Should Flipkart get into Food Delivery?
In corporate strategy, you need to focus on the company vision, what the company is good at (like MSFT is good at building platforms), and the competitive landscape.
Product strategy questions are more around a singular product.
How would you launch a teleportation device Google just built?
How should Google Cloud catch up with Azure and AWS's market share?
How would you increase Slack's revenue by 10x in the next year? Notice here that Slack is a singular product right now and not a portfolio of products.
In product strategy, you also need to focus on the company vision, what the company is good at (like MSFT is good at building platforms), and the competitive landscape. In addition to these, you also need to do a launch plan, roadmap, and success criteria since they are crucial to your product's success.
3. Showing Stress
While everyone gets stressed once in a while, you need to be able to stay calm in difficult situations as a lead PM. Your team's morale depends on how calmly and effectively you handle a particular situation. That is why a few companies throw quite difficult problems to a candidate to see if they can maintain their nerves.
So, how do you make sure that you are staying calm? By doing mocks. You need to observe yourself in mock interviews and watch out for when you start speaking fast and incoherently. Most people's speech and breathing pattern changes when they get stressed.
Like most things in a PM job, knowing this isn't enough. You have to practice to be better at spotting and managing stress.
Some effective strategies, backed by science, to get back on track are:
Take 4-5 deep breaths
Take a sip of cold water
Revisit what you have done so far to look for clues on how to get back on track
4. Not knowing the products you have built in the past deeply
At lead PM level, you are supposed to know the whole story of the products you have built. The whole story includes —
Historical context around why the company built it and when it started
Different versions, when they launched, and how they performed
Technical system design of the product
What you shipped and how it performed
Cover all of these for the products you have built over the last 2-3 years, and you should be good. Write it down somewhere for future reference, both for interviews and learnings, as well.
5. Not Being Assertive in The Interview
While it's important to be likable, you need to be the person you would be in your real job. Show your personality and its unique traits, including the fact that you can make opinionated decisions and hold your ground when the interviewer pushes back.
Jobs at the lead level are a lot about making a convincing argument for something you believe in. So, while the interviewer is gauging you on the technical skills of a PM, they are also looking for clues about whether you can take initiative and convince others to follow.
If you improve upon these five pointers listed above, the chances of getting a lead PM role significantly enhance.
That would be all for this post. Do let me know how you found it, and see you next week where we cover the mistakes made in executive-level interviews.
🔥 Launch Alert 🔥
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