As a product manager, you will be expected to know quite a few different areas of knowledge. Not only are you required to become a domain expert in the product that you’ll own, but you’ll also need to understand the industry within which you work.
While most companies have some sort of onboarding process for new hires, in my experience, I’ve found that interviewers appreciate when candidates are already knowledgeable about the role, the company, and the industry.
Candidates who conduct research before the interview are likely to be more successful because they remove the burden from the interviewer in needing to explain their organization and their industry. The interviewer can then spend more time better understanding the candidate’s fit for the role.
Even more significantly, this pre-work pays dividends throughout the interview process. By being knowledgeable about the role, the company, and the industry, you’ll save time in every interview, and you’ll consistently present a strong first impression across all of your interviewers.
Given that product manager interviews are so competitive, take the initiative to conduct pre-interview research about the organization that you’ll be interviewing for.
Not only will you make a stronger impression on your interviewers, but also you’ll have the opportunity to determine whether you truly want to spend the next few years of your life in understanding and further developing this particular organization within this particular industry.
Assuming I’ve convinced you that pre-interview research is valuable, let’s break down this discussion into two parts: 1) what to research and 2) how to research.
What to Research
When preparing for the product manager interview, think in concentric circles. Starting from the most central area of knowledge, and working your way out, you should be able to successfully demonstrate knowledge of the following:
- The role and the product
- The organization itself
- The competitors of the organization
- The industry that the organization is in
Role and Product Research
First, take the time to thoroughly read through the job description. Don’t just look at the title or the estimated salary and equity. You want to absorb as much information as you can upfront about the expectations that the organization has for this particular role. Make sure you can answer the following questions:
- What is the pain that the organization has, and how does this role alleviate that pain?
- What responsibilities will you be expected to own? How do those responsibilities differ from your current role at your current organization?
- What is the organizational structure of the organization in relation to this role? Who will you report to? Which teams will you be working with, and where are they located?
- What does the organization value? Because job descriptions are written by humans, you’ll find that there are particular emphases within the description. Are you expected to be fun or professional? Is teamwork more important, or is individual ambition more important?
- What product will you be owning? Does the product already exist, or will you be creating an entirely new one? What is the product/market fit? Is it a B2C product, a B2B product, or an internal-facing product? What need does the product solve, and what audience does it serve? How will this role help to make this product successful?
- How will you highlight your fit with this job description? What experiences can you highlight in the interview?
Once you have a clear understanding of the job description, research the organization itself. Visit the website, and answer these questions:
- Why was the organization started?
- What is the background of the people who started it?
- What is its mission and vision?
- What is its current product portfolio? What product/market fit does it perceive itself to have?
- What is the culture of the organization? How does the culture manifest itself in what they do?
- Who invested in the organization and why?
- What other roles are they hiring for? Why might they be hiring for these particular roles right now?
Then, read more about them on Wikipedia and AngelList to get an unbiased third-person view of the company. I’ve found that some of the biggest insights I can carry into the interview are a nuanced understanding of how the organization views itself versus how other people view the organization.
For bonus points, see if the organization has a YouTube channel or Vimeo page, and watch a couple of videos to learn how the organization perceives itself. This exercise is especially important if you’re interviewing for a startup that has products that are not widely accessible – I’ve found that by watching product demos, I’m able to speak much more assertively and tangibly on how I’ll bring value to specific products.
Also, check to see whether the has a public-facing help center such as Zendesk. You’ll find that help centers typically have product screenshots, user guides, and FAQs. This is a wealth of knowledge that can help you better understand the current product portfolio at the ! To look for one, search for “<insert organization name> help” in Google.
Once you feel you have a strong understanding of the company, you should know which other businesses it perceives as competitors. Using the same framework as above, investigate their competitors as well.
This exercise is more for your sake than for the interview itself – you’ll want to know whether you’re joining the underdog, or whether you’re joining the dominant player in the market. Note that underdogs and dominant players give vastly different career experiences, so be sure to understand what kind of you want to work at, and why.
Your next task is to conduct a Google search for “<insert industry > trends <insert year >” (e.g. “mobile gaming trends 2018”) and read the first 3 – 5 industry reports that appear in the search results. Industry reports will give you a strong sense of relevant news and macroeconomic trends, relevant statistics, mergers / acquisitions / IPOs, the competitive landscape, etc.
As you read through these industry reports, you’ll notice that there are particular conferences, associations, or publications that come up. Note them down, and then browse through them to learn more about the dominant topics discussed within these conferences, associations, and publications. Also, take a moment to learn about the leaders of each one-note down whether you’ve already come across them while looking at the target and its competitors.
How to Research
Let’s be real: you don’t have unlimited time. Either you’re already working another job, or you’re applying for many roles at once. As a reminder, the product manager interview requires you to practice your answers to behavior questions as well. are our past articles on great questions to prepare for:
- Product Manager Interview: The Product Design Question
- Product Manager Interview: The Favorite Product Question
- Product Manager Interview: Improve a Product
- Product Manager Interview: Create a New Product
- Product Manager Interview: Prioritization Question
- Product Manager Interview: Create a Product Roadmap
If you have half a day (let’s say 4 hours) to conduct research for a single role, then break it into 1 hour each: job description, company overview, competitors, and industry trends/reports/conferences. If you have more time, then allocate in similar proportions about 25% of your time for each topic.
On the flip side, if you have very limited time, e.g. only 30 minutes to prepare, focus on the role, then on the company’s target audience, and finally on industry trends, in that specific order. In my experience, I’ve found that no matter how well I understand competitors or conferences, I cannot make up for any lack of understanding about the role or the company itself.
Product managers are expected to take the initiative, and one way you can demonstrate such initiative is to conduct research upfront before speaking with your interviewer.
Your goal is to shorten the distance between you and the role. To do so successfully, you therefore need to understand how you fit into the role, how the role fits into the company, and how the fits into the industry.
By preparing upfront, not only will you impress your interviewer, but you’ll also better understand whether this role is right for you or not.
Best of luck!
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