The snapshot of the product management hiring practices in 2022
Outside of the big tech companies, are PMs hired based on product sense interviews?
If you google “product manager interviews”, you’ll find dozens of articles from product leaders who have worked at Meta, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. There’s no shortage of books, posts, or discussions to help you navigate the interview process at the tech giants.
But what if you’re interviewing at a startup? Does everyone follow FB or Google’s PM interview structure? Over my career, I’ve interviewed with dozens of companies. More recently, I’ve experienced how PMs are interviewed at early stage (seed, Series A, and B), growth-stage (Series D and E), and established public software companies like Adobe and Oracle. Today, I’m sharing my perspective on the state of PM interviews process in 2022 as some companies are back in-person, transitioning to hybrid, and going full-remote.
While many people view interviews as an assessment of a candidate’s abilities, most interview processes will not be able to accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses. Large parts of interviewing involve self-reported data so it’s entirely how you tell your story. Rarely are stories verified. Perhaps that’s one reason for security clearance jobs, the FBI doesn’t just take your word, but interviews close friends. I bet talking to your close coworkers will give me a better picture of your capabilities as a PM than only asking you.
Regardless, interview performance is a relative assessment against:
the expectations of the hiring manager and employees at the company
the performance of other applicants
the type of product manager role needed
You need to fit all three to get an offer and failing to meet any of the three will result in a rejection. Unfortunately, when we’re rejected, we tend to over-index on our own performance because that’s the most visible and within our control. This can drive a negative feedback loop, which is only made worse because so few companies give any feedback for rejection to help us course-correct with data.
The commonalities in today’s interview environment
It’s remote. While some companies have announced back in the office, the majority of interviews are still conducted remotely. Yes, we’ve been working remotely for much of the pandemic so this isn’t some new “gotcha”. However, remote interviews pose some issues.
Zoom and Google Meets. Each company will use its preferred video conferencing tool. While you might be used to Zoom with Krisper.ai and that wonderful background, you might get pushed to use Google or some other tool. Be prepared for last-minute switches.
Whiteboarding. Practice handwriting or get a digital pen / iPad. Whiteboarding requires a more difficult complex setup when interviewing remotely. One simple tip if you must write on paper, write in large, capital letters with a sharpie instead of a ballpoint pen.
Recording. It’s becoming more common to have interviews recorded, whether for later analysis, comparison with another, or playback to someone who couldn’t attend. Large companies will adopt these types of solutions to help sift through a large applicant pool using pymetrics and hirevue. Because of the large number of applicants, they are willing to avoid a false positive (a candidate that interviews well but performs poorly) by increasing false negative (a candidate that would perform well on the job, but was excluded in the interview).
Only a few things matter in the job description. Job titles don’t matter (more on this later). What does matter is in the responsibility section if it states you’re managing people and in the requirements section (e.g., years of work experience, type of experience, and a degree expected). Otherwise, the rest of the information, while helpful to you later, isn’t necessary for the resume screening process that determines if you get an initial screening call.
Four stages. Regardless of the company you’re interviewing with, expect four stages in the screening process that will take 1 month. Even the fastest companies can’t work faster than 3 weeks. Remember, hiring managers and hiring teams rarely spend more than 25% of their time on interviews even if it’s a priority because of their day jobs. Thus, even if you’re able to dedicate 100% of your time, rarely will you be able to run a process faster than 3 weeks.
Initial screen: This is where you talk to a recruiter or hiring manager. 15 to 30 minutes. I was surprised to see that 20% of the screening is still completed over the phone (no video). The screening is used to determine if you meet the basic requisites and motivations. Recruiters also check if you require visa sponsorship, your salary expectations, and your working location (in-office, hybrid, or fully remote).
First round: The structure of the first rounds vary widely from company to company. I’ll discuss the differences below, but expect to dive into some details. The interview duration will be between 45 minutes to an hour.
Second round: Again, the structure will vary (details below) but expect to meet with multiple individuals, typically anywhere from 3 to 5 hours (including or excluding breaks).
Final(s) round: Structure also varies, but expect 1 - 2 meetings that are 30 minutes each. The focus here is behavior questions only that try to cast a light on the type of person you are under pressure or in adverse situations.
Company maturity matters a lot in your interviewing experience
By maturity, I mean the size and stage of the company. It is a big factor in the interview experience you’ll have. For example, at early stage companies, you’re likely talking and emailing directly with the founder and hiring manager. There might still be an in-house or contract recruiter, but there are fewer HR and recruiting people to facilitate. Being able to build a relationship quickly matters when you’re interacting with a key decision-maker. It won’t matter if everyone else says yes, but the founder says no. Whereas at the growth stage and public companies, you’re guaranteed to interface with a recruiter and sometimes several different recruiters (e.g., contingency recruiter, in-house recruiter, recruiting coordinator). I’ve gone through entire interview processes where I didn’t meaningfully interact with the hiring manager until I was already given a verbal offer.
The interview approach varies widely.
Previously, I wrote about the product sense interview. Unless you’re interviewing with someone who previously worked and hired at one of the big tech companies, it’s unlikely you’re PM interview process will follow what Google. Instead, here are some general approaches you’ll experience.
Homework assignment (real problem, fake problem, prior work)
There are several variations of this. Some companies, especially early-stage ones, will present a problem they are or have faced and ask you to propose a solution. Opponents to this method often argue online that this is a way to “get free work.” I can assure you that this is rarely the case. Other companies will have homework assignments but select a fake problem or a problem for another company (e.g., How would you build an issue tracking tool for developers?). Lastly, some companies will ask you to present work you’ve done in the past (e.g., tell me about a problem and how you went about solving it.)
Real-time whiteboard (real or fake problem)
The issue with homework assignments is that it requires hiring managers / teams to spend the time prior to the interview reviewing the submission. Unfortunately, people don’t do this (busy) or spend very little time, expecting the candidate to talk through the materials submitted during the interview. To avoid this problem, companies move to real-time whiteboarding and present it as a “collaborative” approach to solving a problem together. But real-time whiteboard problem solving is a much more difficult interview process for both the candidate and interviewers. And while all frame the interview as a “collaborative interview process”, it’s not collaborative in the way you’d collaborate with a coworker. Remember, everyone is friendly but actively assessing you. Whiteboard problems I’ve experienced have varied from the generic (e.g., how would you design a food order app) to the specific (e.g., how would you increase our usage of XYZ feature in our application).
I’ve broken out case study interviews separately from real-time whiteboarding as its own separate category. The difference between the two is the amount of additional information and structure true case study interviews have. Whereas real-time whiteboards typically have a question (e.g., how might you solve XYZ problem), case study interviews involve the interviewer presenting various pieces of information to you about your situation, hence the term “case”. Case study product management interviews, like their consulting counterparts, typically have multiple sections (e.g., calculations, assumptions, ideation, evaluation) that not only use the structure necessary in real-time whiteboard interviews, but must take into account the specific information provided in the case. In short, there are official, correct answers whereas in non-case study interviews, the correct answer is dependent on the expectation of the interviewer.
Behavior questions (e.g., tell me a time…)
Finally, you should expect behavior questions of various kinds. Below are a small sample from my recent experience “tell me a time when you
influenced someone who disagreed with you
made a difficult decision
were demotivated at work
overcame a challenge
Round 1 and 2 are interchangeable.
Some companies start with homework assignments and then go into behavior. Others start with behavior and then go into assignments. Is there a right way? I don’t think so, but this is what I generally find true.
Companies with a lot of candidates who can afford to be picky generally lead with homework assignments, real-time whiteboards, or case studies. Because they expect to have multiple applicants, they are looking more to weed out candidates than pass. In addition, it’s easy to add in one or two behavior questions as part of those interviews.
PM roles that have people management responsibilities will start with behavior questions first. The assumption is that you likely already have several years of leadership experience (e.g., can do it), so they want to test the strategy and people management side.
Job titles don’t matter.
Okay, they obviously matter as a signal, but they matter more within the organization than outside. That’s because titles are often associated with compensation. But a PM at one company could be a Staff PM at another and I’ve learned to disregard titles, but focus what the role is and ISN’T responsible for. That’s why earlier, I said it’s important to review job descriptions to see if the role includes people management responsibilities.
Expect outliers interviews at early-stage companies
The earlier the stage of the company, the more you should expect PMs to possess more variety of skills. For example, I’ve been asked to:
write SQL on a whiteboard
identify major components to building a recommendation engine
design a user interview guide
design a wireframe
critique an interaction design
design a user journey
write a fake press release
layout a vision for the company
Recognize that if you’re interviewing for early-stage companies, you can’t “practice” interviewing as you might for established companies. The assessment criteria are different and practicing in the same manner by reading “Cracking the PM Interview” isn’t going to be effective.
Be grateful for written rejections.
As much as I wish everyone followed the “do to others what you would have them do to you”, the reality is that you’re more likely to be rejected by silence rather than an email. Instead, as a rule of thumb, if you haven’t heard back 3 days after an interview, it’s a rejection. Yes, there are exceptions, it’s rare
Have a different experience or disagree with something I’ve written?