In this post, Sachin Rekhi, founder and CEO of collaborative notes app Notejoy, gives a masterclass on answering the most commonly encountered interview questions posed in product management interviews. At the end of our interview, we chat about some fun product questions!
The Case Question
- Design a high-tech gymnasium.
- Design a smart shoe.
When you're answering a case question, what you're really being asked to do is to walk the interviewer through the process by which you would attack any kind of problem. Interviewers want to see you articulate each step of that process and how you'd break down a big, large amorphous problem. The key aspect is demonstrating critical thinking in your analysis.
Great candidates will talk about interesting nuanced aspects of product design, mention related current products, and demonstrate thoughtful design solutions, particularly with regard to recently launched products. It’s not just a question on process, but about your intuition around consumer products, and how well-versed you are in the world of technology today.
Any advice on developing that elusive product intuition or product “spidey sense” ability?
Constant, deliberate observation of a lot of different products. Go to Techmeme or Product Hunt weekly or even daily, read about product decisions and check out the top products. You'll notice interesting trade-offs in the products that developers and companies are building.
Also, try a lot of products and be thoughtful about the product decisions. Why was this the onboarding experience? What did I as a user take away from the homepage experience? Thinking through these questions will build your product intuition.
Why this company?
- Why do you want to work at Google?
- What do you like about LinkedIn’s culture?
If the candidate is using the product heavily and they clearly use it on a regular basis, that's a strong indicator that they have a passion for what we're building. Passion for the products, passion for the mission.
For example, LinkedIn’s mission is all about creating economic opportunity for the global workforce. When you understand that, you get a better sense of where LinkedIn ultimately aspires to go and where there may be new product opportunities.
We’re also looking for people who are bullish. People who really believe that the sky's the limit. Demonstrating this is really important. Saying something like, “the company's doing really well, I see it in the press all the time” - that's not a great answer.
How do you balance constructive feedback on how a company can do better versus seeming like you are overly critical?
I always ask how would you improve the product? It's really important to offer criticism that is constructive. You should be very specific about how this product could be a lot better from where it is today if the company were to invest in X, Y, and Z.
I'm looking for detailed feedback on experiences the candidate has had that might have been negative and their ideas on how to take the company to the next level.
Why do you want to be a product manager?
- What do you like about product management?
- What inspired you to be a PM?
I always ask this to first time PMs, whether they're coming from undergrad or they're transitioning from other roles because I want to understand their motivations for breaking into the field.
There's excitement right now with getting into technology companies. You can kind of suss out that a candidate wants to get into a technology role, but it turns out they don't have specific skills in software engineering, design, or marketing. They see product management as this generalist role that they can break into as a way to get into a tech company. That's a terrible answer.
We’re looking for folks that have a specific passion for aspects of the product management role. And so with this question, what I'm looking for is an in-depth understanding of the product management role and areas of interest that map very strongly to the kinds of things that you're doing on a regular basis as a product manager.
It could be that you love designing products and working with products, and really thinking through the nuance of screens and interfaces and how a product experience comes together.
It could be that you love working with people, and building rapport - a product role is all about being at the intersection of the entire RD team.
It could be any key aspect of the product management role. But bring your passion to bear for why this role is really for you.
Another common answer to this question is that someone wants to be the “mini-CEO” of a product. What’s your take?
When people answer that, I worry they don't understand the role well. I don’t like the analogy of a PM being the CEO of their product - it gives people all the wrong ideas of what the role is.
Think of a PM as the quarterback of the team - super involved in every single game and with core responsibilities himself independent of the other team players, but definitely in a leadership role.
What many people are surprised by when they move to a PM role is that a lot of it is core individual contributor responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. Whether it's talking to customers to get their feedback, or thinking through the nuances of trade-offs between different features, you realize that none of these things look like what a CEO does.
So I'd say that response is, frankly, a red flag for me.
What’s your favorite product?
- What’s your favorite product?
- What’s your favorite Google product?
- What’s your favorite hardware product?
Whether it's for a new product manager or for a skilled Product Manager this is definitely a question I ask in probably every product interview.
A bad answer is naming any of the top 10 apps on your phone that is popular among everyone - Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, etc. - just because frankly, it's the first product that came to mind.
I'm looking for an answer that really showcases a candidate’s depth of product understanding, really getting into what it does uniquely that makes it successful. It could be how they acquire users, it could be their onboarding process, it could be how they engage you on a regular basis, it could be how they’re viral, it could be how they monetize.
I always love answers that are niche products, or products that I haven't even used, and mention some key aspect of it that's unique and novel.
In this segment, I ask Sachin rapid-fire questions and we have some fun!
How would you go about answering “What’s your favorite product and why” question? Let’s assume you can’t say Notejoy!
Notejoy definitely is! But other than that, I’d say Runkeeper. This morning, I just did a seven-mile run. Runkeeper does all the basics of tracking stats that you expect in any fitness app. But there's a couple of aspects that I really love that they've done to take it to the next level.
One is that they've made sharing content incredibly easy. One of their cool aspects is that they let you grab a screenshot of their map and core stats and share it through traditional means, like messaging. That aspect of really understanding how sharing workflow works ends up being really exciting.
The other key aspect that I love about the app is that it makes running really fun. Every couple of minutes, they'll tell you your current pace, which is really helpful for pacing. They have one voice called the Drill Instructor, they have another named Mademoiselle. Not only they do they deliver the stats, but then they say something funny. Something like, “You run like a hippopotamus! Don't worry, that's fast.” It's a great way to make your run a little bit more entertaining.
I love those aspects of how Runkeeper has gone beyond a traditional fitness app to make it fun and make it social.
Who is a product manager that you admire?
These days it’s Ken Norton, specifically because he writes frequently about product management. He spent many years at Google as a product manager working on a variety of products. Now, he's actually a Google Ventures partner, and his blog posts on product management are astounding. He talks about building a vision by kind of developing a 30-year plan for your product, and how you actually go about doing that or thinking about that.
What books would you recommend for an aspiring product manager?
As I mentioned, the kind of four aspects of doing product management is in my mind, vision, strategy, design, and execution. Of these, design and strategy are some of the hardest to learn.
One of my favorite books on the design part is Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things. He really breaks down design into a detailed philosophy that I love.
The second aspect is strategy. The book I love here is Brad Stone’s The Everything Store. He chronicles the entire story of Amazon and Jeff Bezos and a lot of the strategic decisions he made from day one. And Bezos is just the archetype I always think about when I think about product strategy.
Read the first part of our two-part interview with Sachin here: How To Break Into Product Management.
Learn more about Sachin at his website.