Acing the Product Manager Interview

6 key things that you need to keep in mind before you take the plunge

January 20.2019 5 minutes
 

We recently hosted product managers (PM) from PayPal and Socure to learn how they’re good at their jobs. Padmini Janaki began her career as a UI/UX designer and became a product manager at PayPal. Deepanker Saxena always wanted to build something with his bare hands and had started preparing to be a PM even before he realized it. He was a product lead at Zoho Corporation before becoming a product manager at Socure, a digital ID verification platform for consumers and businesses. Both speakers drew from their vast experiences at leading organizations to describe the unique skills sets that have enabled them to stand apart from the crowd. Here’re six major highlights from our conversation:

 

  • Problem Solving

For product managers to succeed, they must be able to solve real-life problems. Take the example of users' unending desire to have more screen space on their mobile phones, all with the same screen size. The solution? The notch. Product managers have come up with this brilliant solution so much so that they could still accommodate all the hardware like the front camera, LED indicator etc.

 

Similarly, food delivery apps that are beginning to touch dizzying valuations solve a problem too – your food delivered at your doorstep from your favorite restaurant without you moving away from the couch. Cool isn't it? Well, there was a product manager's brain behind it.

 

Padmini elucidates this by saying, “Think about the number of apps that exist on mobile platforms – every one of them is out there to solve a human problem.” She urged participants to draw examples from their lives to explain how they could have solved them. Imagine as if you’ve been disappointed after an online purchase has gone awry. Explaining to your interviewers what you’d have done if you were the PM is a good way to convince recruiters.

 

  • Analytical Skills

Product managers are not expected to be data geeks but must learn to dissect data. For example, interviewers may ask you to come up with a strategy to sell dishwashers in India (given the traditional Indian mindset that dishes must be washed by hand and detergent to make it sparkle!) Or, marketing men’s fairness cream to Indians.

 

The solution will have to be top-down rather than bottom-up. Employers are keen to see how PMs are able to divide data. “Feel free to draw your numbers on a whiteboard or on a piece of paper, else you risk missing out on your initial assumptions,” says Padmini.

 

  • Prioritization

As a PM, you’ll always have a million things to tend to. But, which ones are the most critical ones and what can wait is a decision that a product manager must be able to make. “As a PM, you’re the voice of the customer and you know what a customer wants. So, knowing when to say a ‘No’ to a 100 things is key,” quips Padmini.

 

At any rate, your top priority is a seamless customer experience and retention. See if the problem that you have in front of you will impact either of these two critical parameters – rest everything can wait. That is why you shouldn’t be sharing your resources across multiple problems. That way, no problem will be addressed completely,” she says.

 

Deepanker explained how prioritization can take different shapes based on the customer requirements or any issues in the production. If ever there is a crisis, you know you have to put all hands on the deck despite not knowing the immediate solution. “You have to set everything aside and address it immediately because it impacts your customers,” he says.

 

Acing the Product Manager
The session on Product Management in progress with the audience in rapt attention

 

  • Knowing the Industry Landscape

What are the new solutions arriving at the horizon? Who’s my next competitor? How’re they solving problems? Where’s the industry heading towards? These are the questions PMs must constantly seek answers. “Possessing a deep knowledge of your industry is a given thing without which a PM is incomplete,” says Deepanker. Padmini further adds to it saying “No PM will have 100% of all the skills needed, but you must have a flair for industry knowledge. Find out how are companies coming up with real-life solutions.

 

So, the next time interviewers give you a problem, imagine how will you solve it. “Part of the solution is being curious. Look around you, observe how your competitors are solving real-life problems.” says Deepanker. “You must learn to notice more than what meets the eye. Sometimes product managers fail to come up with a solution despite being presented with all the resources.” he explains.

 

  • Understanding Technology

As a product manager, you’re not expected to know every technology on the planet, rather you must know what technology can help you achieve.

 

Deepanker says “At Socure, I tell our engineering team what is the solution I expect and let them think through about the technology they want to deploy or the database that they want to use. My job is to ensure the final output looks great for my customers. I don't get into the nitty-gritty of the tech stack. At the same time, I know how long it takes to build a feature using a particular technology so nobody can pull wool over my eyes.

 

  • Being a Good People Manager

People skills are a must-have for every product manager. Often, they’re in the midst of extremely talented people such as software architects, coders, marketers etc. Padmini explains that PMs strike a balancing act between these teams.

 

For example, 20% of your engineers are really committed to what they’re doing. 20% really do not care much. It is the rest 60% that you must devote your attention to, who's most likely to get the job done without much ado,” she says. Deepanker adds to it saying that is also why PMs must not go overboard in rewarding engineers, rather appreciate their work and keep motivating them to plough harder.

 

Three books emerged as must-reads for aspiring PMs and they are:

  1. Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology by Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro
  2. Decode and Conquer: Answers to Product Management Interviews by Lewis C. Lin
  3. The Product Manager Interview: 164 Actual Questions and Answers by Lewis C. Lin

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