Lessons learned from 30 Product Manager job interviews in two months

Dilbert

In December, I started working as Product Manager at marketgoo, a very ambitious company with a strong product focus and an asynchronous work culture that facilitates the fact that its workers are remote; they don’t have a physical office. It has been my goal for some years now to find the freedom that the industrial model inherited from factories does not allow (go to a place at a certain time and when you finish you go home), and is still imposed in most companies. The pandemic has shown that they can be just as productive with another organisation, being remote, asynchronous or with a four-day working day instead of a five-day working day.

I say this about the industrial model inherited from factories because the data support it. There has been no adaptation of working conditions after the IT revolution, although productivity per person has increased. We are incredibly more productive even though we work as if we were still making screws.

Productivity vs. Wage Growth. 1947–2010
Productivity vs. Wage Growth. 1947–2010

Of course, it is complicated for a Renault factory or a bakery to change the way they work but any company that operates on the Internet can consider the change without being forced to do so by a global pandemic, or even be born with a different model to the traditional one.

I have spent more than two months looking for this option, and I have not only focused on Spanish companies. After all, if the work is remote, why can’t the company be in another country? Almost all my interviews have been in English, with companies and people far from my acquaintances in the industry. One was even on the phone with the person with the thickest British accent I have ever met, pushing my understanding of Shakespeare’s language to the limit.

Anyone who has actively sought work almost behind cold doors knows that every interview is a test, and it doesn’t matter what your state of mind or all the ‘no’s’ you have received before, every interview is an opportunity that will not happen again. I want to share my experience in case anyone finds it useful, from what I felt to what I learned:

Globalization is a fact

Are the screening questions in a company in Florida different from those in a company in London? No. If agile methodologies have contributed to anything, it is to standardize how digital products are worked on, so in this first contact (almost always with a person from Human Resources -or People, which sounds better-) the imaginary boxes you have to tick are very similar.

In my experience, anyone who wants to work as a Product Manager must answer yes to these questions or actively mention them:

  • Knowing how to work in Agile
  • Organising and prioritising a backlog
  • Build roadmaps
  • Experience dealing with OKR
  • Running experiments and A/B tests
  • Leading a development and/or multidisciplinary team (depending on the company, if you say here that they have been “under you” all the better, although personally I dislike hierarchies)

These are very basic elements that usually correspond to the job description, but there is nothing extraordinary and you can certainly add some more, but you are having this interview with a person who is filtering the candidates to discard those who do not meet these basic criteria. The real interview will be with one or more people from the product team and/or someone from the C-level.

Although it is not usual, cultural fit can also be addressed in this screening, so the filtering is even finer for the recruiters. These are some of the questions I was asked. And it is not true that there are no right or wrong answers. There are right answers:

  • How do you say ‘no’ to a request from a stakeholder or the CEO of your company?
  • How do you keep your team engaged and motivated?
  • What do you do when someone in your team is not able to deliver on time or delivers poorly?
  • Why do you want to move to another company? Why do you want to work with us?
  • How do you act if something goes wrong?

These questions are where the tricks begin, because depending on the person and the company that asks them, they will be expecting an answer that is adapted to the way the company works. Perhaps in that company, stakeholders cannot be told no to the answer. In this case, the answer to the first question that can open the doors to that job might be something like “stakeholders are essential because they know the needs of the product and the users much better than I do”. My answer has never been and never will be that, so for that company my answer was a monumental fuck-up that ruled me out of the process.

The same goes for motivation. For some companies the answer may be to hold meetings, team building games and for others it may be to involve all members in the company’s decisions with a strong policy of transparency and commitment.

This is why I say that in these questions the correct answer almost always coincides with the culture and work methodology of the company that is interviewing you.

Stress interviews

These types of interviews are becoming popular, and I think I’ve only been to one, but they are essentially easy to spot: the person interviewing you only asks you pre-established questions, without provoking dialogue, and their facial reactions are more hieratic than those of Egyptian pharaoh sculptures. They also don’t allow you to ask questions, or if you do ask something, the answer is very vague.

If you keep a positive attitude and don’t sink emotionally in front of a stale person who doesn’t seem to give a shit about what you’re telling them, you’re supposed to show mental strength and self-confidence. Personally, these interviews are the most unfair, as they rule out introverted but extremely valid and professional people. The interviewer also reflects an attitude about how people work in that company and may push people out of the process who are more than suitable for the job because they don’t want to work in that kind of environment.

Excercises

It is difficult to do an exercise to judge a Product Manager, but I have come across several, some with limited time (about ten or fifteen minutes) and others on the fly. Here too they will tell you that there are no right answers, that they just want to see how you think. Let’s leave it at half-truth. They want to see how you operate to see if it fits in with the way they work in their company, with their established methodology that they don’t intend to change for you.

In my experience, the best thing to do is not to start by solving the exercise but to ask questions, ask lots of questions. In fact, if the exercise is well done, you will pass it by asking good questions. For example, the most obvious thing to do is to ask you about a sprint and tell how you would set it up from start to finish. If you start talking about the kick-off, the PRD, the backlog, blah, blah, blah, blah, you might be screwing up, because the interviewer expects you to ask questions:

  • Have you done an experiment with this feature that you want to implement?
  • What business metrics do you need to pay attention to?
  • Which user persona is this focused on?
  • Has the discovery phase of this been done? Can you give me some information?

In short, they want you to act like a Product Manager even if the exercise is not “Tell me what questions you would ask before a sprint”. I admit that I realized this late in one of these tests. Bummer. Without sounding like an excuse, an interview is extremely stressful and that doesn’t work in your favor. Without wanting to waste anyone’s time, my recommendation is to apply for positions even if you don’t want them, just to test yourself in the interviews and find your points to improve.

Or maybe not, maybe they are looking for someone who executes very well and does not raise any doubts to the management team. What is clear is that you decide what kind of Product Manager you are and you will fit in where you need to fit in.

The résumé

It is much more important than it may seem. A Product Manager’s CV should not only indicate your qualifications and the companies you have worked for but also what you have done in those companies. Here we are back to something similar to the screening interview checks. At this point, those of us who hide the obvious make a lot of mistakes. Think that the person interviewing you probably doesn’t know you, so they need as much information as possible to get an idea of what you have done in your professional experience.

My CV evolved over the two months, going from having paragraphs narrating my experience to bullet points with the tasks/responsibilities carried out. The more direct, the better. Now that I no longer need to look for a job, it looks like this.

Highlight achievements, even better if they are based on data. For example: “in six months I improved the MRR of the product by X” or “we improved the Churn by x% in two weeks with two quick experiments”. You will be saying a lot with two keywords and a verb.

The CV has to tell your experience, not who you are. That’s what the cover letter is for.

The cover letter

I admit that at first, it is boring to do it. I find it difficult to talk about myself coherently and to express in words who I am to someone who only has those words to get the idea. I spent a lot of time on it, and I’ve been tweaking it over the months, iterating it if you prefer, but in the end, I managed to write a cover letter that talks about who I am and how that affects (in a good way) the Product Manager that I am.

One tip: don’t do a cover letter for every job offer, keep a template and change a couple of elements each time. Even if the offers and companies are different, you are the same person for all of them. In my case, this is the template I used in which I only changed the company I was applying for as a Product and, if I was interested, I modified a paragraph to make it fit better. It’s not the best or the worst example, it’s just mine.

Recruiters know that writing a good cover letter takes time and effort, so having one gives you a better chance of being interviewed. They may not read the whole thing, but the mere fact of handing it in earns you points. It expresses that you have gone to the effort, ergo you are really interested in the job.

In one case I was even asked to make a video explaining who I was in two minutes. It took me an afternoon, but I found the first interview very personal. The person interviewing me already knew me from somewhere because I had told him or her about it by looking into his or her eyes (in this case, the camera). It’s also good that I took the time to do it, and this is certainly one of the great filters. How do you avoid receiving thousands of CVs? Put up bars. Whoever passes them on really wants to and can work for you.

Managing expectations and time

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Doing interviews is a very stressful process. You stand in front of people who judge your worth as a professional, and it gets harder ‘no’ after ‘no’. It’s important not to get depressed in that sense. Keep a positive attitude. A ‘no’ means that the job isn’t for you, not that you can’t do it well, there are too many subjective criteria and timing for you to take it badly.

If, as in my case, you are going to do several interviews, it is important to be clear about what you are going to say. At one point I did three interviews in one day. You end up exhausted, but it’s important to make it seem like each interview is unique. Attitude is everything because you are facing strangers.

It’s also important to keep expectations low. I did a lot of textbook, museum-worthy interviews with companies that matched my product vision almost 100%, but I didn’t get chosen. Here it’s easy to think, “if they don’t even take me here, they’re not going to take me anywhere”. That’s a lie. I’ve said it several times, there are too many factors at play, too many. There may be someone better than you, or they may rethink their needs. In any case, doing the perfect interviews doesn’t guarantee you a job.

Recruiters’ feedback

If any recruiter is reading this text and is not already doing so, please take the time to give feedback. We have a little heart and we want to know what happened to make us not fit in. Maybe it’s because they’re not looking for us, or maybe we didn’t fit in because we screwed up a response by saying something that was misinterpreted, but we need to know.

I recognise that in these two months I have received a lot of feedback that has helped me to improve subsequent interviews. In some cases it was very extensive and in others very vague, but all feedback is appreciated and we all learn from it.

Let me tell you about a rather embarrassing case of my own. I had been scheduled for weeks for an interview with a company that I had already forgotten about. Ten minutes before, I was alerted to the interview schedule and, of course, I had hardly any time to prepare for it, to do a minimum of research on the company. The feedback I was given included the fact that I didn’t seem to have any idea how the company did business. It all shows in the interviews, folks. It never happened to me again.

You are also interviewing the company

Depending on how the job offer is formulated and depending on the company, you will have a lot or little information about the company and the team you will be joining. That is why it is important that you also ask the interviewer questions about your job, the team, the atmosphere, the human resources policies, holidays, etc. Whatever information you need to know so that you too can decide if you want to work there.

Asking questions in a job interview, especially if it is for a Product Manager position, is positive. You express a desire to find a suitable fit beyond organic tasks. Asking questions about the work environment expresses the intention to get along with your colleagues, not just be a lemming who does his job and that’s it. Involved people gain points. I repeat: we are empathetic and social beings.

To all these questions the company must give you good answers, it must have those answers ready. Don’t forget, you also interview the company and you should be happy and satisfied with what they tell you. If not, maybe it is not the company to work for.

Conclusions

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Spend time on a good CV and a great cover letter. If you also add a portfolio, even better. Mine is this one. It’s not the best or the worst, but it goes into the projects or products I’ve worked on in a way that you can’t do in a CV or cover letter.

And yes, 30 job interviews and 29 ‘no’s’ are hard to digest, but patience and perseverance pay off in the end.

What about you? What experience do you have with job interviews? Tell me about it on Twitter. Hit the 👏 so that this post reaches people who might find it useful.

Product Manager | antoniorull.com