Aug 4, 2015 5 min read

Interviewing Like A Product Manager

Interviewing Like A Product Manager
Will product manage for food and options...

I’ve interviewed dozens of product management candidates recently, and many didn’t leave much of an impression. Here are some biased thoughts on essential product skills, and how these should shape how product managers interview for jobs.

(FYI: I’m doing this for clients to free them up for actual product work, and because my talent RADAR is well-tuned.)

Stating the obvious, every good product manager should be able to segment markets, target customers, turn features into benefits, and do basic solution selling. For instance, if you’re product managing a SaaS offering for single-location veterinarians, you know a lot about your customers (solo practitioner small animal vets, 2-5 person office, concerned about proposed regulations for tracking mood-altering pet meds), which are the best prospects (upgrading from old on-premise products), and how customers benefit from your features (cloud app mean no special hardware, no need to run local backups, drug reports auto-faxed to the local DEA office).

Then one-on-one, you can highlight less obvious features/benefits of interest to individual customers. (“You’re in California… so our ‘remember to hydrate your dog/cat’ email reminders will save pet lives and reduce weekend emergency calls during the drought.”)

This should be second nature.

But very few folks in my interview funnel apply these essential product skills to their job search. The take-away: in your job hunt, you are the product. You’re selling yourself as the solution to some specific company’s specific problem. Hiring managers aren’t interested in generic people with generic qualifications.

So you need to apply your product management tools to yourself: what special skills or experience do you have (features), which companies should value your particular attributes (segmentation/targeting), why do those features matter (benefits) and how can you demonstrate problem-solving abilities (solution selling)?

Think about this from the hiring manager’s point of view, since she’s your customer. She’s busy doing the work of two people (until this job is filled) and looking for someone who will solve her particular problems. She’s bombarded with unqualified or generic-looking resumés, often submitted multiple times. There’s little joy in the screening process. It’s as if hundreds of vendors have mailed her the technical specifications/data sheets for random office products, and expect her to sniff out the right one.

How About An Example?

Llama Box (subscription toy service)

Let’s imagine that you’ve spent two years product managing a subscription service for comic book illustrators, and another year on a failed BarkBox-like mail-order startup for llama owners. You love to surf, have prototyped some Android local shopping apps, and are a nationally rated crossword puzzler. An eclectic mix! What companies/segments should be especially interested in what you’ve done and learned?


Quirky B2C startups with some retail/gift-giving slant would seem relevant. Maybe companies building athletic outerwear or specialty sports gear. Brain training apps, multi-player trivia games like You Don’t Know Jack, prep courses for Mensa membership. Save-the-animals campaigns, high-end pet grooming salons… Something that you can tell a story about, that ties to specific expertise or experience, that you could show some passion for.

You really want that Senior Product Manager slot in Cisco’s enterprise network security suite? It’s going to be much harder. You’re swimming upstream in the submission and interview cycles with no B2B, no enterprise networking, and not enough experience.  Llamas and comic books are probably points against.  And the online application process won’t help here: instead, look for a friend/champion already at Cisco who’s willing to walk your resumé over to the hiring manager and explain why you’re special enough to sidestep the standard process.


smart dog

Next, you need to study up a bit on the company and pick a few relevant benefits. Assume that the hiring manager and resumé reviewers are busy, distracted or none-too-bright, so you need to clearly state your unique advantages. (“With your announcement of dog brain training apps, my experience in pet product retailing and Android building could be especially valuable to”) Include that in a short cover note, or put it at the top of your customized resumé.  Otherwise, you’re hoping that lazy readers will spot relevant items in paragraph 11.

Solution Selling

If you get a phone screen or in-person interview, plan to demonstrate your problem-identifying and -solving skills. That’s what the hiring manager really wants from her team every day.  Try her product, sign up for her service, poke her website, look at a competing offering. And identify a few likely issues.

As early as possible in your conversation, try to shift from reciting resumé details to talking about her product. (“I noticed that the SIGN MY DOG UP NOW button is below the fold on my browser.  Are some visitors abandoning the site because they don’t see where to click? “)  If that falls flat, have another issue handy.  You’re showing some product sense, demonstrating interest/commitment, and moving the discussion to how you add value.  A huge improvement over talking about universities or commute patterns.  And if you’re just a bit lucky, you’ve picked a real issue – one that Customer Service or Sales has been screaming about all week. Suddenly, you’re her #1 candidate. (“Wow! He spotted one of our hot issues from outside, with no prompting, and suggested some reasonable work-arounds.   Can he start on Monday?”)

I’m amazed at how many candidates don’t bother to find out what my company does, how my product works, or think through my likely issues. Instead, they hand me a generic resumé, wait quietly, and expect me to do all of the heavy lifting.

A lot of work?  Absolutely. But the scatter-shot apply-for-every-posted-job model doesn’t look very productive from this end.

Sound Byte

As a product managers, you’re trained to identify audiences, position products, and make persuasive selling arguments. You can separate yourself from the pack by applying those skills to yourself.

FYI, a related post on positioning yourself.  And if you’ve never read it, give Dale Carnegie’s classic a read.

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