How to prepare for a Product Manager interview with a product deep dive

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Product Manager interviews are like running the gamut: you need to impress everyone from engineering to design (and sometimes execs too!). As a result, attempting to prep for the wide range of varying questions you might face is daunting.

Faced with that challenge, one exercise can be extremely helpful: a product deep dive.

Running a product deep dive builds your knowledge and insight around the product and provides a foundation to build on. Each deep dive is a little different, but this five-step framework will give you a solid starting point:

  1. Use the product
  2. Talk to customers
  3. Model the core mechanics
  4. Wear the investor “hat”
  5. Craft an elevator pitch

Use the product

There is no substitute for deeply engaging with the product in question. Your goal should be to experience every available facet of the product (e.g., leave no stone unturned!).

For example, if you’re interviewing for a role at a food-delivery startup, don’t just download the app and look through the delivery options. Instead, put it to work: search for a restaurant, book an order, edit the order in flight and use every bell and whistle available (i.e., communicate with driver, follow along with the map, leave a tip, write to customer support, etc).

Next, document your key thoughts. What was great about the product and experience? What could be improved? What assumptions were baked into the product? How might one break this product down into its component parts?

For certain products, like enterprise software (e.g., Salesforce)  or technical products (e.g., Twilio communication APIs), this is challenging because you can’t fully experience the product. In those cases, your best course of action is to find current users and talk to them (which leads directly into our next point).

Talk to customers

Like using the product, there is no substitute for talking to current customers. Furthemore, you have an advantage since you don’t have an emotional tie to the product (e.g., you didn’t build it) and can ask honest questions and probe for insights without risk of being defensive.

When talking to customers, remember that the goal is to get them talking. Your intent is to be a sponge and soak up info. Thus, it’s helpful to focus on open-ended questions that will prompt discussion and ample opportunity for you to probe with follow-up questions. Here are a few sample questions you can use to kick things off:

  • What key tasks does this product help you do?
  • If you didn’t use this product, how would you accomplish that task(s)?
  • If you had to sell me this product, what would you say?
  • What’s your biggest pain point with this product?

If you can’t find actual customers to speak with, try scouring online forums, blog posts, news articles, etc to get a sense of what people are saying about the product.

Model the core mechanics

Now that you’ve used the product, formed your own opinions of it and talked to customers, it’s time to build a model of how this business works. This doesn’t need to be some fancy, 30-page Excel mega-model though!

Aim for a simple model that helps you think about the core drivers for the product. For example, if we think about the aforementioned food-delivery app, a core part of the product experience is providing fast deliveries and this might lead you to wonder how many users place an order daily? How many delivery people do they need to satisfy that daily demand? And how “lumpy” (e.g., rush hour) is that demand?

Modeling this, even in a simplistic fashion, will enhance your understanding of how everything fits together, where the points of leverage are and where the constraints are. This generates useful product insights that likely won’t be as obvious when using the product as a customer.

Wear the investor “hat”

Now it’s time to flip the tables a little bit. While you’re looking for a company that’s willing to pay you a salary in exchange for your services as a PM, it’s helpful to ask yourself: if this company invited me to invest my entire life savings in it for X% of the company, would I accept that offer? Most importantly, what key pieces of information would I want to know to determine whether or not this was a sound idea.

Those information needs will organically lead to a list of key questions. This is helpful for two reasons: 1) these are great questions to ask in the “Do you have any questions for me?” segment of the interview and 2) it will stress test core areas of the business and force you to think about how your role as a PM could or couldn’t influence the product in a good way. For example, what key features would you prioritize to address some of your biggest concerns as a potential investor?

Craft an elevator pitch

Finally, try to boil down the product into a sentence (or two) long elevator pitch that you can easily explain to others. Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” and that principle applies here.

A good test is to try your elevator pitch on your grandmother. If she gets it immediately, you’ve likely got a solid understanding. Going through this exercise is extremely helpful, because it forces you to think through what’s critical versus not to explain in just a sentence or two. Furthermore, it helps you empathize with the challenge that the sales and marketing team will have in crafting the message that effectively communicates the product to potential customers without confusing them.

Summary

Every product management interview process is unique, but there are some common themes that run throughout all of them. One of the core themes is that, regardless of level, hiring managers for PMs want to know that they bring an uncommonly high level of knowledge and insight to the product at hand. And there is no better way to start building that knowledge and insight than going deep on the product.

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About Author

Kenton Kivestu is Founder and CEO of RocketBlocks, a platform that helps students prepare for product management interviews. Prior to RocketBlocks, Kenton worked in product at Google, Zynga and Flurry (acq. by Yahoo!), where he helped launch new advertising platforms, run the mobile poker team and the demand side advertising team, respectively. He’s passionate about helping candidates land PM jobs because he remembers all too well the pain of breaking into the product management as a non-CS major.

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