Product Management Interview Cram Guide for Engineers

I’ve had a few readers reach out in the past week asking for advice for how to prep for their first product management interview. These readers were all engineers, and while they’ve killed it in many past engineering screenings, they weren’t sure how to prep for their first product-focused interview.

Be prepared to answer these 7 high-level questions during a product management interview, and avoid these 3 engineering-specific pitfalls.

Note: This list is obviously not exhaustive, and if you have time, I highly recommend reading Cracking the PM Interview, which is the Bible/Torah/Quran for prepping for product interviews. It’s in my PM reading list. However, if you ain’t got time for that, consider this post your cram guide :-)

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1 - Why do you want to move into product management?

From the point of view of a longtime product manager, engineers have it good. Correction: Engineers have it great. You’re in super-high demand (and can get a job in like, a single day), salaries are high, and engineers generally don't have to deal with ‘people problems.’

Product management is different. The competition is rife, relationships are key, and there’s no shortage of business problems that you’re responsible for solving.

Be prepared to answer why you’re crazy enough to want to move over to product. :-)

2 - How does a product manager prioritize a long list of feature requests from multiple stakeholders?

Prioritizing is a huge part of being a product manager. You’ve got to know how to take a long list of demands from multiple internal and external stakeholders, and figure out what needs to be built first. Be prepared to talk about what’s important and why. Engineers will always be tempted to prioritize tech debt, but remember a PM’s focus is the customer need.

I wrote a whole essay on this here.

3 - How do you forecast and measure success of newly implemented features?

While you probably haven’t been in charge of creating KPIs for features and products you’ve worked on in the past, you should be familiar with the analytics that were tagged and how PMs have measured product success.

Be prepared to discuss what KPIs you’d specify for a product or feature - use a feature you’ve recently worked on as an example - and talk about how you’d implement a plan to track these measurements and demonstrate success.

4 - How do you simplify?

A great PM knows how to pull out 80% of a feature’s value with 20% of the effort. Be prepared to answer how to reduce product scope to focus on what’s important to the user, without overcomplicating with too many features.

It’s helpful to use an example of a product you use every day. My favorite example recently is the drastic comparison between Facebook (sooo many features, I’m lost) and Instagram (clearly the product team at Insta has made a concerted effort to keep features minimal and simple, and the result is a fantastic product, IMO.) Most readers are probably thinking “I deleted Facebook ages ago!” - Well, then, grab your spouse’s phone and have a gander. It’s a great product case study.

5 - How do you influence others to see your vision and agree with your plan(s) of action?

Influencing is an art, not a science.

There are a lot of ways to answer this question which include: showing stakeholders data that backs up your case, investing in good relationships with your crew so they’ll follow you regardless of your hair-brained ideas, and creating a track record of success.

Read my short write-up on creating a pitch-deck that will help you visualize how to convince others to get in your court.

6 - Talk about your experience working with design and UX

As an engineer, talking about technical trade-offs - a common PM interview question - is going to be a breeze.

You should also be prepared to talk about your experience working with design and UX. Prepare a few examples of problems that can be solved with good design, rather than technical solutions. Many product problems can be solved with design, marketing, and other tactics - demonstrate you can think outside your technical box.

Related article: How to Work with Designers

7 - What does a successful PM look like?

A few answers:

  • A successful PM does anything necessary for their product to be successful.

  • A successful PM is always focused on the customer problem.

  • A successful PM is empathetic, knows their customer, and can command a team to follow their vision.

BONUS QUESTION - Talk about a product you use every day; What does this product do well, and what needs improvement?

This is a common exercise I’ve encountered in nearly every recent product manager interview.

This usually includes follow-up questions such as: What KPIs would you use to measure success as a PM for X product; What do you imagine X product’s monetization model looks like; What would be your top feature priorities for X product; etc.

A few examples I’ve used: Tesla (I’ve written up why I think they have a great product story); Amazon; Facebook vs. Instagram as referenced above; Expedia (which I tied into my write-ups on how to fix the boarding process, a customer problem we’ve all experienced in real life!)

Engineers interviewing for product roles: 3 pitfalls to avoid

You’ve prepped your responses to the above questions, and you’re feeling confident. Awesome! However, there are a few things you should avoid doing in a product interview… particularly as an engineer.

1 - Avoid talking for more than 1 minute about specific details of a technical solution.

It’s ok to reference technical solutions in the past that have solved customer problems, but avoid getting into the weeds. It’s easy (and expected) as an engineer to get excited about a creative technical solution you developed in the past - but as a PM you want to be focused on the customer problem and how the solution helps the business.

As a general rule, if a technical solution takes longer than a minute to explain at a high level, you’re in the weeds.

2 - Avoid complaining about other product managers you’ve worked with past and present.

Many engineers think they can PM better than the product people they’ve worked with. True or not, remember you’re interviewing with product managers for this product role, and complaining about their counterparts won’t get you very far.

Focus on positive attributes of product managers you’ve enjoyed working with in the past, and highlight what was so great about them. You’ll win more points with honey than vinegar. (Mmmm, honey….)

If you need an example of a terrible PM, use Thomas Edison. I’m serious. Read my very short write-up on why Thomas Edison was a terrible product manager.

3 - Don’t be a know-it-all.

Engineers are glorified in the tech industry - YOU are the brains that build our products. Anyone that reads my blog or has listened to my podcast knows the great respect I have for engineers at all levels.

However, if you’re new to product management, avoid having the attitude of ‘knowing it all’ just because you’re technical. Product management is a very different discipline whose main focus isn’t always technical in nature. It’’s best to show true humility and demonstrate a willingness to learn the additional skills you’ll need a product manager. It’s OK not to know it all. No product manager does - we’re constantly learning.

Whew. That was a lot. Remember, if you need a break from prepping, red pandas are adorable and will always put a smile on your face.

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