Interviewing for a job isn’t always fun or easy. You need to polish your résumé, develop and practice your talking points, perfect your winning smile and be ready to answer probing questions about your work experience and potential fit. For many job interviews, these activities often are enough. But for product managers who want to distinguish themselves among a field of qualified candidates, you need to bring more to the table.
Product management is a fascinating and demanding role that requires a special combination of qualities. Among many things, a good product manager is technical, both strategic and tactical, articulate, intelligent, curious, and empathetic. It’s a role that demands such a diverse skill set that it can be difficult to successfully determine and predict a candidate’s willingness and ability to do the job—even after multiple conversations.
As a hiring manager, I must make an important decision based on limited data in a limited time, and the onus is on the candidate to make my selection decision easier. A savvy candidate attempts to reduce a hiring manager’s selection risk by first understanding the core responsibilities and deliverables of the job, then providing examples from prior work experience of demonstrable accomplishments in similar projects. The message to the hiring manager is, “I’ve solved problems like this in the past and I can do it for you, too.”
But assuming all candidates have relevant work experience, how can you distinguish yourself? One way is to think like a consultant; develop and articulate an informed viewpoint on how the company should respond to the product and market challenges it’s facing. This requires a good deal of research and strategic analysis, but the time invested will pay off.
Do Your Basic Research
Research is a basic expectation for product managers, and it’s a big red flag when a candidate comes in only having cursorily scanned the website, datasheets, and video content. At a minimum, candidates should be able to articulate the company’s reason for existence and the product’s core value proposition.
If you can’t or won’t do that, it causes the hiring manager to wonder why you want to be a product manager in the first place. And if you’re unable to tell a company’s story, then either the company’s messaging is off (which is possible) or you’re an unfit candidate. Both are important data points.
A good example of this comes from Emma, a product manager who incorporated significant research into each phase of her search for a new product management position. She wanted to move into an adjacent segment of her industry and recognized that, while core product management skills are transferrable, domain knowledge had to be learned; research on her target companies and segment was required.
Once she identified her No. 1 target, Emma thoughtfully absorbed the value propositions for each of the company’s products and their overall portfolio. Before meeting with the hiring manager, she was already able to describe the target personas and their desired outcomes, and then connect those outcomes to the product promises made by the company.
Conduct Competitive Intelligence
Scanning a website and product collateral is just the beginning of the research effort.
- Have you found analysts’ opinions on the market?
- Do you understand the trends, opportunities, and threats within the market?
- Do you understand whether the market is attractive (large and growing, ripe with innovation) or sleepy and mature, filled with cash-cow businesses?
- Has the product been reviewed, won awards, or otherwise earned noteworthy press (good or otherwise)?
You need to understand the nature of the market, the competitive landscape, and the firm’s strengths and weaknesses. Think of it this way: If you’re hired, any problems you’ve discovered are now your problems to solve.
A candidate that has interviewed customers, channel partners, or members of the salesforce will immediately distinguish themselves. This type of effort demonstrates a sincere interest in understanding the business. These types of inputs also provide you with a solid-enough assessment of a company’s opportunities and its ability to seize them—and it’s even better if you have an opinion about current and future product strategy. All of this will quickly move your conversation with the hiring manager forward.
Going back to Emma as an example, she scoured her professional network and identified an executive who had previously spent time with the target company. She then met with and conducted an informational interview with the executive. This was more than a casual conversation, though; it was a purpose-driven interview meant to improve Emma’s understanding of the business, validate her early hypotheses about the market opportunities and threats, and understand specific challenges that she was likely to encounter in the role.
Emma took the mindset of a consultant who’s been hired to assess a business challenge and prescribe a custom solution. She approached the informational interview with the goal of developing a solid viewpoint about the challenge and opportunity to be embraced. And, while she wasn’t able to enter the interview cycle with “the answer,” her newfound knowledge allowed her to map the company’s pressing challenges to a project she’d comprehensively tackled in a prior role and offer the beginnings of a viable solution.
By putting intentional thought into the company’s challenges and potential solutions, Emma easily distinguished herself from every other candidate who had only done a fraction of the up-front work. During her first interview, the hiring manager told her that she didn’t think she’d ever had an interview conversation in which all of the superficial questions could be skipped.
Come with the Right Questions
Finally, it’s critical to show up with high-quality questions. Discovery is a primary activity for product managers, whether it’s finding new wrinkles in the market’s need or identifying entirely new market problems. Good product managers are curious by nature, probing, and data-driven. Surely, if you’ve gone through the trouble to understand a business (even from an outsider’s perspective), you’ll have plenty of questions about what you’ve learned or didn’t understand. It’s another red flag if your best question is about whether the company uses JIRA.
Ideally, each interview becomes a flowing conversation that gives you the freedom to ask your questions naturally. But even if that doesn’t happen, there usually is some time reserved for you to ask questions. Interviewers often fail to leave enough time for this, so be intentional about which questions you ask. Prioritize those high-value questions that will provide more clarity on the business challenges that need to be solved by the person in the role.
Take the long view and treat each interview as a learning opportunity. Your goal is to continually refine your understanding of the role and the viability of any hypotheses that you’ve developed along the way. Then, as you advance through the interview process, you’re in an increasingly better position to provide value back to the company in the form of your observations and emerging proposals. Even if you come up with the wrong answer, you’re still showing the interview team how you would approach your work once on the job.
Emma distinguished herself from the very first conversation and set a very high bar for the competition. In the final interview, just before receiving the inevitable verbal offer, she said the interview team asked several questions about her knowledge of the market and the buyer. She was able to answer every question because of the research she’d done along the way. She executed her campaign to perfection and, in the process, gave her new employer a preview of how she would perform on the job.
Leverage Your Knowledge and Skills
Product managers are expected to have a viewpoint. After all, if you get the job you’ll be expected to serve as the authority on your market as well as the company’s ability to maximize its opportunities within it. Being able to demonstrate more than cursory knowledge of both during the interview cycle will immediately set you apart and improve the likelihood that both sides will make a smarter employment decision. Approaching your interviews like a pro bono consultant is a great way to distinguish yourself.
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