The ultimate cheatsheet for acing the product manager interview
Looking to become a product manager, or have an interview lined up? You're in the right place because I've compiled a list of questions along with what a hiring manager is expecting to hear when they ask those questions.
Broadly the areas you should expect to be quizzed on during a product interview are:
- Problem solving
- Thinking on your feet
- Commercial acumen
- Stakeholder management
- Your company plans to colonise the moon. How would you build a communication system for the colony?
- How would you implement a feature to find a free parking spot on Google Maps?
- How would you design a computer for differently abled people?
- How would you solve the problem of fake news on Facebook?
- How would you build a shark detection system to protect surfers?
There aren't any "wrong answers" in problem solving. With these type of questions, hiring managers are typically looking to understand the following about you:
- How you break down a problem into distinct scope
- How well you understand the "jobs-to-be-done" for the challenge
- How you think about engineering and user experience
- How well structured your thinking process is
- The lead engineer in your team quits, leaving a significant gap in technical expertise. Your team tells you they will be unable to complete a critical project on time that will impact a seasonal marketing campaign that depends on this project. What do you do?
- Your lead engineer disagrees with the design approach that the product design team has suggested due to the design's complexity. What do you do?
- You CEO tells you that your product roadmap doesn't align with the company strategy without giving a solid reason. What do you do do?
- Your engineering team is located offshore with a significant difference in timezone. You find that this leads to a long communication loop that is impacting release efficiency. What do you do?
As product managers are leaders without direct reports, the expectation from asking these questions is:
- Test how well you react in times of ambiguity
- Whether your style of leadership will encourage your team to listen to you
- Whether you are able to articulate a plan of action clearly without hesitation
- How you break down team roadblocks
Its also an evaluation of your leadership style, hiring managers usually want a product manager who can achieve strong alignment amongst the team, as decision paralysis is a costly problem.
Thinking on your feet
- You're walking down a street and find a coin. Within a minute, how many uses can you find for this coin (other variations include a shirt button, thimble, shoe, empty can, etc)?
- What is your favourite app? How many ideas can you think of, to make it better?
- What are 10 improvements that you can suggest for our product?
As a product manager there's always a new challenge or problem to solve. A part of this is being able to think on your feet and ideate when problems come up. Although product managers aren't expected to be the sole idea generator, it is important to be able to do so. In fast paced businesses (and especially early stage startups) crisis are more frequent than you can imagine and quick ideation is almost necessary. There aren't any wrong answers in this except for freezing up! Typically hiring managers are looking to:
- See how quickly you can ideate, they are looking for quantity not quality
- How deep you can go on a problem (e.g. uses for a shirt button, the most I've heard are 25 within 60 seconds)
- How you react under pressure
- How many fire hydrants are there in New York City?
- What is the total addressable market for baby shampoo in Sydney?
- How many floors does this building have?
- How many steps from here to the reception?
- You find that 'Metric X' (leads, sessions, page views, downloads etc) has dropped by 50% one day, how would you diagnose what caused this?
There are usually two types of questions in this category, sizing and diagnosis. All the "how many" and "what is" type of questions are sizing problems (also known as fermi problems), and others such as those about understanding the cause of something is diagnosis. Again there are no wrong answers here, precision isn't important and with a bit of practice you can land on surprisingly close to accurate estimations.
To ace sizing problems you need to:
Think about the problem objectively and come up with a logical formula. E.g. for a "How many X in Y" type of question, you ideally want to drill down from a top level number (e.g. population), make logical assumptions like around how the population or top level number would be divided into segments. Then work out a finger in the air kind of conversion rate such as % of segment, and finally apply it to your segments. For the fire hydrants in NYC example this could go as follows:
- The population of NYC is 8 million
- Fire hydrants are found near dwellings and offices (segments)
- Assuming there is 1 fire hydrant per 50 people (conversion rate), that would mean for each segment there need to be 160,000 fire hydrants
- Therefore, there are 320,000 fire hydrants in NYC
For diagnosis problems, the interviewer is expecting to see a basic understanding of KPI driver trees or funnels. The approach is quite similar to the above but can get technical. There are variations of this question where hiring managers may actually ask you to explain how you'd drill down into a problem in Google Analytics.
- Should Tesla manufacture economy cars?
- What do you think is our competitor's biggest weakness?
- What is the commercial strategy of Company X?
- Where do you think our industry will be in the next 5 years?
- How would Apple diversify their wearables line?
Being able to translate business strategy into an execution framework is an integral part of product management. While the role you are interviewing for may not be completely strategic, most hiring managers want strategic thinkers on their team. With these questions the interviewer is usually looking to understand:
- How much you researched the industry the business is in (and whether you're actually interested in the role)
- How you evaluate businesses critically from a commercial standpoint
- Whether you're a "big picture thinker" or not
These kind of questions are usually more common when interviewing for more senior product roles such as Group Product Manager, VP of Product, etc.
- What ideas could double our revenue over the next year?
- If you wanted to grow Jira's user base what commercial model would you adopt?
- How could Uber increase their margin by 15% without directly increasing prices?
- To grow KPI X by 25% you could do you these 4 initiatives. How would you prioritise this list?
- How would you test the market for feature X?
Ideally product management works extensively on initiatives that have commercial upside. Interviewers aren't expecting ideas they can implement tomorrow (so don't worry about the interviewer stealing your clever ideas). When responding to commercial questions, you ideally want to:
- Demonstrate you understand the commercial model of the business in question. This will usually be the same as the one you're interviewing for, or a popular one that you would most definitely have heard of.
- Focus on the bigger picture (i.e. the 1st tier user problem), think about how the business acquires and monetises users, and where there might be gaps in opportunities to provide products or features that capture more of the user's journey.
- Think big, but within the realm of possibility. Hiring managers aren't interested in your ideas for conversion rate optimisation (unless its something super obvious, with huge upside and you're certain they haven't done it already). E.g. If a SaaS business is looking to double revenue and they sell a SaaS software, you probably don't want to propose they start a video game studio. Instead think about gaps in their commercial model. Maybe they're missing a few user segments or a pricing model that is more attractive?
- If you propose 3 big ideas, you ideally want to explain which ones you think are the biggest and prioritise them accordingly.
- How do you A/B test?
- What's your process for creating a product roadmap?
- What's the difference between scrum and kanban?
- To implement 'Feature X', the engineering team presents two options for a new frontend framework. Use the existing framework and complete the project on time, or use a new framework but increase turnaround time by 50%. The latter option pays down significant technical debt and ensures future projects are completed faster. Which one do you choose?
- What is your process for discovery and how do you involve engineers in it?
- How do you balance technical debt with output?
Technical questions are generally a mix of questions that evaluate hard skills and your experience. This is one area where there are potentially wrong answers (e.g. you should know the difference between scrum and kanban, and also other agile methodologies). Interviewers usually want to hear that:
- You can work well with engineers and have a good understanding of delivery methodologies and common engineering practices
- You can drive urgency and balance with diplomacy when needed. For instance, in the frontend framework example, there isn't any right answer and purely depends on the situation and considering upsides for either decision fully. While as a PM you won't be the decision maker, you will definitely be a key stakeholder with influence.
- You develop feature X. What should be the go-to-market strategy for this feature and how would you work with marketing on it?
- What is the role of product managers in user acquisition?
- Your marketing manager thinks that the product's value proposition isn't competitive based on market feedback. What do you do?
Remember when people used to say, "build it and they will come?". Its a good thing people don't say that anymore (too often anyway). In a world that is saturated with every manner of product, a good product alone is not enough. Marketing is not a nice to have, its a core part of business strategy. Product and marketing go hand in hand, and many businesses use product-led marketing, where product features or user problems are the core of the marketing message. Interviewers when asking these questions usually want to understand:
- Collaborative style, as marketing is usually a key stakeholder in launching new products
- Your knowledge of marketing, especially digital marketing channels
- Whether you can partner with marketing on the bigger picture (e.g. positioning)
- You release a feature without keeping the customer service team in the loop. There is a critical bug that arises and customer service has no idea about the feature, they escalate the lack of notice to the VP of Customer Service who escalates it to your manager. What do you do?
- A new version of your app results in a poor app store rating which quickly falls from 4.8 to 4.0. This puts a serious dent in download numbers and support escalations. What do you do?
- Your CEO disagrees with a major product decision, and asks you to put it on hold. This leads to low morale in your team, as they came up with idea originally. What do you do?
- A new feature which was supposed to help your product attract a bigger audience, is not performing as forecasted. Growth numbers are 70% off budget leading to more pressure on the team. What do you do?
Effective product managers are expected to be great stakeholder managers. While you're not looking to create your own fan club with stakeholders, you do want stakeholders to see you as a key driver in the business and a voice of reason. A product manager would ideally:
- Be collaborative but also a decision driver who brings clarity to the process
- Is on top of stakeholder concerns (before they become concerns)
- Involves stakeholders at the right point, too early and too late are both problematic
- Can mobilise teams around a cause. For instance take the app store rating example, you not only need to own the problem but also drive multiple teams including engineering, customer service and also marketing to put out this fire.
I hope you found these sample questions and answers useful. If you ever interview for a product role that I'm hiring for, you now have a secret weapon. If you there are questions you don't see on this list and would like me to include them, get in touch with me.