Telling Your Story as a Product Manager: All You Need to Know to Approach PM Interviews with Confidence
Going through a PM interview requires a combination of insight into potential discussion topics, concise storytelling, and branding yourself as the right match for the role.
Most PM interviews are a series of conversations with various team members and leadership. They can last from 3-5 rounds depending on the company’s process. Most hiring processes also include a case study, either given as a take-home assignment or conducted real-time within an interview conversation.
Since many jobs in tech are fully or partially remote, interviews are held virtually on video call software like Zoom or Google Meet. Be prepared to be on video for any interviews with a hiring manager, while interviews with recruiters tend to be audio-only. For video interviews, make sure to be in a quiet place and dress in a professional, business casual manner. Since you are meeting people for the first time, treat the interview as if you are "in person."
Recruiter screening call
The first interview is typically with a recruiter. It’s a short (15-30 minute) call over the phone or an audio-only virtual call. It’s confined to a high-level overview of your work experiences and maybe a few questions to get deeper insight into your work.
The purpose of the recruiter interview is to screen you and to make sure your resume is accurate and that they are qualified for the role. Most importantly, the call is a screening to see if the candidate can be moved on to speak with the hiring manager.
Hiring manager interview
The next interview is usually with the hiring manager. This interview is a 30-60 minute video interview that is key to moving ahead in the hiring process. The format can vary, but usually the hiring manager asks a set of questions to bring out your past experiences working with products. Questions can vary between more high-level descriptions of strategy-related work to more specific asks around how you work within product teams.
This first interview is usually a conversation with 5-6 questions and requires minimal prep as long as you have your top work experiences prepared to share in interviews as concise narrative stories. If you don't, then get to preparing how to talk about your work experiences!
- Introduce yourself as a product manager (this question is usually asked up front in the interview)
- How do you prioritize what to build
- How do you manage a product roadmap
- Tell me about a feature you shipped that solved a business challenge
- Tell me about a time you used data to build a new feature
- What are your key strengths and weaknesses as a PM
- How do you conduct user research
- What is the structure of your team, how do you work with your team
- Tell me about your favorite product, why you love it, and how you would improve it (this is a very popular question)
The purpose of the first interview with the hiring manager is to
- Understand if your work experience is a potential fit for the role
- Understand your working style
- Get a sense of culture fit and more specifically, will the hiring manager feel comfortable working with you
- Give you more detail about the role so you can see if it’s relevant to what you’re looking for
As a PM, you are always setting up context, so be sure to explain the business challenge and situation first, before diving into all the great work you did to solve that challenge. Also, remember that a PM’s job is not about being the problem-solver but an expert at communication by creating alignment and shared understanding among a cross-functional team.
The case study
This interview is either a presentation or a take-home of some kind that shows you can quickly take in, synthesize, and communicate information. What to remember is that you don’t want to spend hours creating a take-home assignment if it looks like something the business would pay someone to do. Acceptable case studies should be unrelated to the company’s line of business and not asking you to solve a business problem for a current product within the company.
If the case study is related to the product or business, this kind of assignment can be a red flag, especially if it’s a presentation that clearly involves research and more than 2 hours of your time to make it presentable.
Another kind of case study interview format can be a real-time presentation of past work to a panel of interviewers via video interview. This is a great time to showcase work you’re proud of, talk about the business challenge, and how you work with the team to arrive at a solution.
You might also encounter a third type of case study interview that’s a workshop where you are asked to work through a mock business or product challenge with 2-3 members of the team, real-time. This is a unique challenge because it requires you to “think on your feet” and respond quickly to a new idea and pretend like you’re part of the team already.
The final round of interviews, whether it be one more multiple, is usually around culture fit and having you meet additional team members. The questions may be similar to the first interview with the hiring manager, depending on the role of the interviewer. If you speak with an engineering manager, you might get asked about your process working with engineers, while if you speak with a product designer, you might be asked to do a short design ideation session or how you work with designers.
Pay attention to how many final interviews there are beyond the case study as this can tell you how organized the company is, how quickly it makes decisions, and can provide more information about its culture.
Typically, if you are doing more than 4 rounds of interviews, there can be red flags to look out for. On the flip side, if you feel like you are always informed of next steps, move into next interviews quickly, and understand what to expect in each interview, that can be a sign of a healthy company culture.
What are hiring managers looking for, anyways?
As a product manager, your main skill is the ability to create a compelling case for something–in this case, it’s for your fit for the role you’re interviewing for.
First, make sure your experiences are at least a 60% match for the job description.
For example, if the job is about building dashboards for reporting, but you’ve never worked on reporting products, you may not be the strongest candidate for the role. So use the job description as a guide to understand how your experiences will influence your potential “fit.” That’s not to say to not apply for roles you haven’t done before, but be prepared that you may not be the best fit, and that’s OK. There are plenty of other jobs in the sea.
Once you are speaking with the hiring manager, that means you have a chance at the job! This is when you get to highlight your wins and just as boldly talk about any challenges/failures/mistakes you’ve encountered.
The hiring manager is looking for
- A way to understand how your prior experiences can help them achieve their business goals
- Your approach to working cross-functionally, how you approach collaboration
- General sense of how you communicate, can you clearly explain something
- Your interest and excitement at working at the company
- Culture fit based on company values
To prepare to speak with the hiring manager, be sure to
- Read the job description fully (you can keep the job description open even during the interview to refer to when asking questions)
- Browse the company website to understand the basic business and product
- Understand key responsibilities listed in the posting
- Clearly describe your past successes and failures in building products (and what you learned from any failures)
- Clearly set the stage for the business and product strategy or challenge you’re talking about when describing past work
Common PM interview mistakes
As you move through interviews, you might find that you are not getting to the next round. This can be for a number of reasons. But first, let’s check that you are presenting yourself in the best way possible.
- Having your top work experience stories ready for telling
- Speaking clearly and get clear on the business challenge before you jump right into what you did with the team
- Speaking to the specific product work that the hiring manager is interested in based on the job description (examples: growth, integrations, user experience, launching new products, etc.)
- Having a very clear explanation around how you set priorities with the team. Have an example ready if possible
- Listening carefully to information shared by the hiring manager and asking relevant questions about the product or business goals, product team, or company culture
Common mistakes include
- Jumping right into “what” you did and “how” you did it
Sharing too much information too soon can be a quick way to lose the interviewer's attention as they can easily get lost in the details of the story. Keep your story high- to medium-level to keep it engaging. Make sure to talk about the “why” behind your work first and foremost.
- Unclear communication around how you set priorities, roadmap, or conduct product work
It’s super important to bring clarity into showcasing your knowledge and working style. You do this through descriptions of how you communicate, with whom, when, and why. Clarity in describing your communication style and preferences shows a lot about how you work as a product manager.
- Applying for senior roles where you have no or very little experience
If you happen to be interviewing and you realize the role is not aligned with your past experience (for example, experience with reporting dashboards), you may find yourself in an awkward conversation. Although the job description is not always 100% accurate, it does hold key insights about the needs of specific product roles. In this case, try to connect your current experience in some way to the role needs or you can simply say, “I haven’t worked on that part of a product yet.”
- No questions prepared when it’s time to ask the hiring manager questions
Asking questions is key to a product role, so at a minimum having good questions prepared before or formulated during the interview is important to show you paid attention to the information the hiring manager shared. Also, do basic research on the company to understand what the product is about to help you ask relevant, product-related questions.
How to lead the conversation during the PM interview
Now that you have an idea of what questions are being asked, you can more easily have a two-way conversation instead of waiting for the hiring manager to ask you questions. The most important element in the interview is creating trust. You can create trust by helping to create the conversation together with the hiring manager.
Here’s a few ways you can turn the interview into more of a conversation.
Volunteer relevant information
At times during the interview, you can share experiences or stories that are relevant to the conversation. You can say, “ That reminds me of…” or “I’d love to share about a time when…” If you know a certain story is relevant but you don’t get a chance to speak about it, find a chance to bring it up.
Ask questions back to the hiring manager during the interview, not at the end
Sometimes there is a question that is unclear, which gives you an opportunity to ask for clarification. At the end of your answer, you can also ask a similar question back to the interviewer. For example, if you get asked, “Tell me about how you set priorities,” after you answer, you can ask back, “I’d love to hear about how product priorities are currently determined at your company. Would you mind sharing a bit on this topic?”
Ask insightful questions during and after the interview is done
Don’t miss a chance to ask questions during the time you are being asked to describe your experiences and especially during the time you are allotted to ask the hiring manager questions. Either have some prepared or create questions on the fly based on what the hiring manager shared about the company goals and product vision.
In summary, apply to relevant roles, have high level summaries prepared for recruiters, have your product work stories ready for hiring managers, and learn to understand when to speak about what, based on your audience.
About Anna Miller
Product Manager leading product development for early to mid-stage products at mission-driven startups. Additionally, I offer Career Coaching to early-career people in tech. Ask me about job searching and pivoting into tech. Sign up to my email list for job search tips. https://createnewpaths.systeme.io/gethiredinfo