Product Manager Interview: Pre-Interview Research

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 on-boarding 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 company and industry. The interviewer can then spend more time in 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 company 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 company 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:

  1. The role and the product
  2. The company itself
  3. The competitors of the company
  4. The industry that the company 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 company has for this particular role. Make sure you can answer the following questions:

  • What is the pain that the company 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 company?
  • What is the organizational structure of the company, 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 company 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?

In a future post, I’ll analyze a specific particular job description using this framework, and break down how I might prepare for that particular role. Stay tuned!

Company Research

Once you have a clear understanding of the job description, research the company itself. Visit the company website, and answer these questions:

  • Why was the company 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 company? How does the culture manifest itself in what they do?
  • Who invested in the company and why?
  • What other roles are they hiring for? Why might they be hiring for these particular roles right now?

Then, read more about the company on Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Crunchbase, 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 is a nuanced understanding of how the company views itself versus how other people view the company.

For bonus points, see if the company has a YouTube channel or Vimeo page, and watch a couple of videos to learn how the company perceives itself. This exercise is especially important if you’re interviewing for a startup which 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.

Competitive Research

Once you feel you have a strong understanding of the company, you should know which other companies 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 company you want to work at, and why.

Industry Research

Your next task is to conduct a Google search for “<insert industry here> trends <insert year here>” (e.g. “mobile gaming trends 2017”) 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 company 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. Here are our past articles on great questions to prepare for:

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, competitors, and industry trends / reports / conferences. If you have more time, then allocate in similar proportions of 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 target company, 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. 

Summary

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 company fits into the industry.

By preparing upfront, not only will you impress your interviewer, you’ll also better understand whether this role is right for you or not.

Best of luck!

 


Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around how to prepare for the product manager interview? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!

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