By: Danielle Langone, Fractional Product Leader
After 9 years in product management across several big companies (including Apple), I have spent hours (and hours) interviewing on both sides of the table. Some interviews were great, while others … well, let’s call them learning experiences! Thanks to these hard-won learnings – as well as tons of helpful advice from peers and mentors along the way – I have learned some tips to make the process more effective and a bit easier.
I have three main recommendations when preparing for product manager interviews with big tech. First, dig deep to find out all you can before the interview. Second, tailor your approach to behavioral questions to match the role and company you’re interviewing for. And third, spend some time prepping for product sense questions.
Research, research, research!
Every company is different. They’ll want to see that you’ve done your homework and that you understand their values, their organization, and their ways of working. It’s not only important for doing well in an interview, but it can also help you avoid taking a role that might not be the best fit for you.
- Organizational Culture and Structure: One of the first things many interviewers look for in a candidate is whether they can work well within the organization. All companies have a culture, and the larger tech companies often have a specific organizational culture that they’ve spent time, energy, and resources developing and maintaining. The better you understand this culture, the better you’ll be able to hone in on stories and examples that show how you’ll fit with this culture.
For Apple specifically, there is a comprehensive Harvard Business Review article all about their organizational culture that is an excellent resource for interview prep. Another important thing to know about Apple is that the employees are some of the biggest fans of the company and its products. So if an interviewer asks you, “Why Apple?” you’ll want to be ready with an answer.
- How a PM is Defined: There is a lot of variation in the way companies define the PM role. For example, at Apple, as a product manager, I often worked with program managers, engineering project managers, and product marketing managers. At another big tech company, they may structure it differently. At a smaller company, the product manager might take on all these roles. It pays off to research what each of these roles is and how they’re different so you can make sure you’re pitching yourself for the right role.
- Values and Mission: Every company has a set of values or a mission statement that’s core to how the company defines itself and how it operates. For example, Amazon evaluates candidates based on their Leadership Principles, which are listed publicly on their recruiting site. If I were preparing for an Amazon interview, I’d probably go through each of those core values and prepare a story or example that matches that value, making sure to incorporate the key concepts into my story.
- Financials, strategy, and focus: Ideally, you would come into the interview knowing exactly what new products the company is going to launch and what their strategy and focus will be in the coming months and years. Will the company tell you this directly? Not necessarily. However, you can pick up on some clues by reading their public financial disclosures, like their 10-K. You can usually find these – and other relevant documents – on their Investor Relations page. What are their fastest-growing products? What are they investing in the most, and what are their priorities? What areas of the business are they shifting focus away from? This context can help you position yourself as the right candidate for where the company is going.
- Everything else: Leveraging your network for research can be invaluable. As I was preparing for my interviews at Apple, I went through my network and reached out to several people I knew at Apple to ask for advice. They were able to help me understand more context about the role and team I was interviewing with, plus plenty of other tidbits that I might not have known to ask.
Tailoring Your Approach for Behavioral Questions
Most product manager interviews will include behavioral questions. The most common recommendation for structuring your answer is to use the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action, Result. This method is well known, and I find it works well to provide a structure to a story.
But just using the STAR method isn’t enough. It’s essential to identify the right stories and tailor them to your audience, the role, the product, and the company. This makes it easier for the interviewer to imagine you as a successful addition to their team.
It’s probably obvious, but there is one important caveat: never lie about the experience you actually have. Tailoring can involve reframing, customizing, or focusing on certain parts of your story. It shouldn’t be about changing the facts to make it look like you have qualifications you don’t have.
- Tailoring if you’re nontraditional: After working in campaigns and politics for 8 years, I got my MBA and started interviewing for jobs in the business world – a completely new experience for me. I would look at job descriptions in tech, then look at my resume with job titles like “Speechwriter” and “Press Secretary,” and wonder how I was ever going to convince a hiring manager that I could do this job.
Over time, and thanks to the guidance of many people who’d successfully made this kind of transition, I learned to talk about my background in a way that translated to the role I wanted.
In my previous career, I wouldn’t have thought about describing what I did using phrases like “cross-functional partnership” or “launching new features.” But I most certainly was doing those things. Working cross-functionally in my past might have been less about working with marketing, legal, and engineering teams and more about wrangling six different governmental agencies to agree on a draft of a speech, but the core experience and associated challenges were relevant. Think about the core skills you have from other jobs and whether any of those apply to the job you want. It helps to use similar words to describe them if you can.
And if you are nontraditional, don’t underestimate the benefits of standing out from the crowd. During one of my first interviews at Apple, my interviewer told me he actually liked my nontraditional background and thought it was an asset (it turns out he also had a nontraditional background!).
- Tailoring when you’re coming from a different company or industry: Even if you have a similar job to the role you’re interviewing for if you’re coming from a different industry or a different company, it helps to switch out any company-specific words or acronyms that may not resonate with your interviewer. If you can use the terminology of the company you’re interviewing for, it helps minimize the distance between where you are now and the job you want.
- Tailoring when moving from a smaller company to a larger one: Similarly, if you’re at a smaller company and want to show a bigger company you have what it takes to fit in, it’s more effective to focus on only the skills you bring to the table that are applicable to the new role, even if you wore a lot of hats in your old job. It helps the interviewer quickly understand if you’re a fit for this role.
- Tailoring when you think you’re short a key skill: Are you concerned that you’re missing a key skill set for the job or that you have a weakness that other candidates don’t? This is something you can (carefully) address. In the interview, tell a story about a project you worked on that allowed you to flex that skill or certification you have that addresses it.
As someone who came into product management without much of a technical background, I would often emphasize in interviews how strongly I valued building partnerships with software engineering partners, how I prioritize getting up to speed on the technical aspects of the product quickly, and any relevant technical projects I delivered in the past. This was a proactive approach I took to address concerns before they were raised. The caveat here is that you may not want to draw attention to something you’re lacking, especially if it’s not that important to the interviewer. Use your best judgment here.
Showcasing Your Product Thinking
Questions that get at product thinking or product sense have come up in almost every product interview I’ve had, and I have been asked a few different variations of them. One overall tip for talking through these questions is to narrate out loud your thought process as you answer the question. It feels weird at first (it did to me!), but it helps the interviewer understand how you think through problems.
As I’ve prepared for interviews in the past, I always liked to think through a few examples that I might be asked about, so I felt ready for anything. There are 3 categories of product thinking questions I would prepare for.
- Products you worked on in the past. This is the easiest category to prepare for since those are likely top of mind for you. This will come up in behavioral questions as well as product sense questions, so it’s a good idea to make sure you remember the details of the products you launched (both successful and not), what you were proud of, what you could have done better, and what you learned.
- Products that you like and/or use. A lot of interviewers will ask about products you like outside of work. They want to get a sense of what kinds of ideas you would have for something you’re familiar with but that you haven’t worked on in a professional capacity. Spend some time thinking through what you like and dislike about these products, what problems they solve and who the core user is, and what you’d change about it.
- Products that are sold or built by the company you’re interviewing with. This category can be harder to prepare for when interviewing with a big company because they may offer a lot of different products. I might prepare some thoughts on one or two products that either you think they might ask about, that are handled by the group you’re interviewing with, or that you particularly like or use a lot.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Danielle is a fractional product leader based in Portland, OR. She advises tech and retail companies on strategic planning, prioritization, and roadmapping, and serves as a coach to product teams.
When she’s not working, she likes to host big family dinners, do yoga, and try Portland’s finest craft beers.