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Mistakes to Avoid in Entry Level Product Interviews
👋 Hey, I am Deepak and welcome to another edition of my newsletter. I deep dive into topics around building products and driving growth.
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Let’s dive in the topic now!
I am writing a 3-part series on mistakes to avoid in product interviews.
Part 1 is about the entry level roles(APM/PM)
Part 2 is about the mid-level roles (SPM/GPM)
Part 3 is about executive roles (Director and above)
Part 2 and 3 would be future posts that would be published within the next couple of weeks. Let’s start with the mistakes that aspirants make in entry level roles in this post. But before that, I have an announcement to make!
🔥 LAUNCH ALERT 🔥
The Growth Playground for PMs is a learning product I would be launching on 6th Jan’ 2024. Playground is a unique and effective way to master growth for PMs. It's rigorous, objective, and closest to real-life product management.
Couple of days back, I created an event on LinkedIn that you can join and the response has been really good. So looking forward to it :)
I hope to see you there 😁
Let’s move on with the topic at hand — mistakes to avoid in entry level product interviews. I have seen PM aspirants making these mistakes again and again, so I thought it may be useful to list it down somewhere.
Mistake #1: Not doing mock interviews
A lot of candidates never feel prepared enough to do mock interviews. They go through all the resources, such as paid courses and forums, and do some practice problems themselves. But they always shy away from mock interviews.
Many candidates who feel ready still don't do mock interviews because they don't find someone senior available to take these mocks.
Mock interviews are essential, and it's important to understand where a mock interview helps you in the preparation of product roles. It helps in three ways:
It time-boxes the problem-solving and helps you figure out where you spend most of your time. You don't need an expert to figure this out. You can record and replay the interviews to figure it out yourself.
It helps you find problems in communication. Many times, we know things but can't communicate them effectively. Other times, we have an odd habit of repeating a word or phrase that can annoy the interviewer.
It helps you get a third-person perspective. This is where an expert interviewer can be more helpful in finding what you don't know. However, you can still practice and be perfect in what you already know. If you become perfect in what you already know, the expert feedback can be pretty sharp in your case, and you won't take much time.
Based on the above, you can sequence mock interviews as practice yourself -> do mock with a peer -> do mock with an expert.
An important thing to understand is who qualifies as an expert. An expert has taken PM interviews for their companies in the past. These PMs know how to evaluate a candidate using a rubric (more on this in a future post). Therefore, a junior PM doesn't qualify as an expert since they don't get to do such interviews.
While there isn't a rule of thumb on how many mocks you should do, aim for 8-10 peer mock interviews and 2-3 expert interviews to grasp various types of questions and frameworks.
Mistake #2: Taking Youtube Interviews as the benchmark or source of truth
YouTube, in recent years, has exploded with sample product interviews. So it is natural for aspiring PMs to go there and try to imitate such interviews. While they are helpful in many ways, these YouTube interviews can also do more harm than help, depending on how you use them:
The interviews posted on YouTube are often scripted. In a scripted interview, the Interviewee knows the question in advance and prepares for it. Such interviews may come as a wow! An aspiring PM seeing these interviews may start feeling under-confident because they feel they can't think or perform at the level the people appearing in such interviews are. The under-confidence can lead to poor performance in product interviews.
Sometimes, the reverse can happen. The interviewees, especially from more prominent companies such as FAANG, can come directly to such sessions and may be out of touch when it comes to interview preparation. They have prepared for an interview years back but haven't practiced because they don't need to. Trying to decode such interviews can be frustrating because they don't adhere to frameworks.
Strong PMs rely greatly on their experience and domain knowledge to solve interview problems. They feel comfortable breaking some of the popular frameworks and focusing on what matters most for product decisions, even in an interview setting. Such interviews aren't useful at the beginner level.
So, how should you watch YouTube interviews? Try to observe interviews done by candidates who recently cleared APM/PM roles. Look at how they apply certain frameworks. But at the same time, don't penalize yourself if you didn't think of some of the things the Interviewee did.
Mistake #3: Asking too many questions
PM interviews are quite similar to consulting case interviews. Both offer open-ended questions that you are supposed to solve using a structured approach and frameworks. However, there is a big difference between case interviews and product interviews, which I wrote about earlier in the post
There is a big difference between the case interviews and product interviews, which many people don’t even realize during the interviews. The distinction becomes especially important in the product design round.
In ‘case interviews’, you are supposed to ask the right data points to solve the problem.
In product interviews, you are supposed to make intelligent assumptions and narrow them down to the solution. In short, you can’t ask many questions in product interviews.
This doesn't imply that you are forbidden to ask good questions in product interviews. Just don't try to get direct answers from the interviewer. Do not ask directly,
Who is the user?
What is our main goal?
Ask Whether your assumptions are correct around product goal, market, user, etc.
Ask clarifying questions if the questions are too broad, like 'designing a modern fridge.'
Unlike consultants, PMs don't have clients who can give them direct answers. PMs need to make intelligent assumptions to do their job and validate these assumptions. That is what your interviewer expects from you.
Mistake #4: Not understanding the product well
Not understanding the product you are interviewing for can mean many things. The worst among those is not knowing what the product does. Candidates failing to check the app and website before getting into the interviews are definitely setting themselves up for failure. So, do check the product before getting into the interview.
If you want to get an edge, you need to go beyond a basic understanding of the product. You should aim to understand the target users, why someone should prefer this product over alternatives, market size, competitors, etc. It allows you to speak more comfortably around questions such as 'What do you think of our product and how can we improve it?'. It also allows you to ask intelligent questions such as, "Given that the existing players are struggling with growth, what's our strategy to grow the product?"
Mistake #5: Not preparing for tech knowledge and product development processes
At the entry level, you aren't supposed to know much about tech and product development processes because you don't have direct experience. That said, I would be lying if I said that the interview panel doesn't prefer the candidates who exhibit knowledge in these areas.
As an APM/PM, your primary job is to work with designers and engineers to ship the product. Get familiar with technical concepts and how product development processes such as Agile, Sprints, Waterfall, etc. work. It can give you an added advantage.
Since product management is a lucrative domain to get into, the competition is getting stiffer over time. So build up all the advantages you can. I will share resources to prepare know-how of the product development process in a future post, so stay tuned.
On technical literacy - if you come from a Computer Science (CS) background and have paid attention to UG courses, you may already have decent knowledge for these interviews. If you don't come from a CS background, don't worry because I wrote a book for you 😊 — Tech Simplified for PMs and Entrepreneurs.
The book is written in simple language and can be quickly done within a week if you spend 3-5 hours daily.
Mistake #6: Lack of structure in non-product questions
Most candidates who prepare well for product questions stay structured in those questions. However, as soon as they get a non-product question, they feel as if they need to give a natural, free-flowing response.
While a natural, free-flowing response is the best kind, it shouldn't come at the expense of clarity and brevity. To be safe, introduce a structure in even these responses.
Some of the useful frameworks around this are STAR and the Minto Pyramid Principle.
The STAR method gives you a format you can use to tell a story by laying out.
Situation: Talk about the situation you were in, like playing cricket for a university where I was the Captain.
Task: Describe what the task was in that situation, like "Teammates weren't coming to practice sessions regularly."
Action: Explain exactly what steps you took to address it, like "I did 1:1 conversations with these players to understand what prevented them from coming to sessions regularly."
Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved, like "We figured that players didn't have predictability in schedules so we created one that was consistent and predictable. As a result, the participation in these sessions improved significantly."
You can read more about STAR and Minto Pyramid Principle online.
Mistake #7: Placing a premium on intros
I have interviewed multiple candidates who spent the first 10 minutes of the interview answering the question — "Tell me about yourself." Spending too much time on these questions shows a general lack of research and awareness on the candidates' part.
Candidates often focus too much on crafting the perfect introduction or 'tell me about yourself' response. While intros are essential, they are just a tiny part of the interview and should be treated as such. As a general rule of thumb, spend some time crafting an intro of 60-90 seconds telling your story.
Part 2 Preview: Avoiding Mistakes in Senior Product Manager (SPM/GPM) Roles
In the next part of this series, we'll dive into the common pitfalls faced by candidates interviewing for Senior and Group Product Manager roles. These roles come with their unique expectations and challenges, and understanding these can be key to your success in these interviews.
Stay tuned and have a good day :)
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