Cover & Diagrams

resource preview
resource preview
resource preview
resource preview
resource preview


How do you ace one of the toughest job interviews there is? When you apply to be a Product Manager, you will be asked to make sound business decisions with incomplete data. Interviewers expect you to know their products, product strategy and user goals inside and out. Your product instincts will be put to the test. And you may be asked to design algorithms or write code right on the spot.

In Cracking the PM Interview, author Gayle Laakmann McDowell provides the strategies and frameworks you need to land a PM job at any company — and even shares unique strategies to land a PM job at one of the top five biggest tech companies in the world.

Top 20 insights

  1. There is no one right background for PM candidates. The expected background varies from company to company. Amazon prefers MBAs while Apple hires more engineer graduates. Some Google PMs have MBAs, but the company prefers candidates with engineering masters. Facebook looks for a programmer background and startup experience.
  2. Companies use technical experience as a proxy to check for three qualities: ability to form a relationship with engineers, good intuition on how long engineer work should take and ability to be self-sufficient about minor technical tasks like data collection. If you don't have a technical background, find ways to develop and demonstrate these three skills.
  3. Side projects are the second most important criteria after actual PM experience. Great side projects fill gaps in your experience, demonstrate your PM skills and give you something concrete to speak about in interviews. Choose projects where you can demonstrate customer focus, product design skills, and experience with a shipped product.
  4. If you don't have a technical background, build a design and usability project to demonstrate PM skills. Pick a real-world problem from your local community, talk to people and come up with ideas. Build paper prototypes and iterate the design based on feedback. Use the Human Centered Design Toolkit from ideo.com to understand the steps involved.
  5. Interviewers see your resume as a product that demonstrates your PM skills like communication, design and your ability to put yourself in the user's shoes. Optimize your resume to highlight key professional skills and accomplishments within a 15-second skim. No bullet point should be longer than three sentences, and no more than 50% of bullets should expand into two lines.
  6. To get a sense of a company's PM role, check their ratio of PMs to engineers. In companies with few PMs and many engineers, you will get the opportunity to own the vision for a larger product and work primarily on high-level specifications. In companies with a higher PM-to-engineer ratio, you design technical specs and work closely with engineers.
  7. Interviewers expect candidates to know their company's products well and judge you harshly if you are unaware of ""obvious"" details. Study the company's products, their strategy and what the PM role entails in that team. Go prepared with concrete suggestions for product improvements based on common user complaints.
  8. Do not answer product questions based on what you want to see in the product. You may end up with a solution radically different from what users want. Approach them the way a PM would, with a structured approach that starts with the user.
  9. While you answer product design questions, keep in mind the organization's style. Some companies want bold, ambitious feature ideas, while others favor more practical, incremental features. Choose features that best align with the company's style.
  10. Interviewers will ask you to talk about your favorite product. Select a few products you care about that have exciting features. For each product, understand key metrics, user goals, strengths, challenges and competitors. Have ideas on how you can improve the project.
  11. When it comes to design questions, be opinionated. Interviewers expect PMs to have a clear perspective on the product's design and how it can be improved. However, don't try to pass off your approach as the best approach. Be transparent about the tradeoffs involved, particularly between business and customer goals.
  12. Interviewers ask brainstorming questions to test your ability to produce bold, audacious ideas instead of incremental linear thinking. Suspend disbelief, and don't be afraid to share ideas that you think seem stupid or impractical.
  13. The best way to prepare for behavioral questions is to create a Preparation Grid. For each behavioral question category like leadership, teamwork, successes and failures, map suitable instances from your previous jobs and projects. Select and master five stories that best represent why you are a great PM candidate and use them whenever you get a chance.
  14. Use a Situation Action Result(SAR) framework to structure your response to behavioral questions. First, explain the situation and provide background information to the problem and why it was necessary. Second, describe the concrete action you took. Finally, quantify the results of your actions in concrete numbers and explain the impact on the company.
  15. Be prepared with a good failure story. Interviewers will ask you how you failed, how you handled the incident and what you learned. The best way to answer this question is to talk about a failure that made you learn something relevant to the PM role.
  16. If you are from a consulting background, don't be fooled by how similar PM case questions look to consulting case questions. The roles are very different, and appropriate interview behavior differs. Unlike consulting interviews where candidates rely heavily on data to solve problems, interviewers use case questions to test the product instincts of PM candidates. You will be expected to make opinionated business decisions in the absence of data.
  17. While you can certainly ask questions to understand the case better, be careful not to probe too much. When the interviewer responds with a ""what do you think?"", it's a clear signal that you went too far with your questions. If you find it difficult to choose between two equally good approaches to solve an interview problem, choose the solution that aligns best with the company's business goals. These goals will not only vary from company to company. They will also vary from product to product.
  18. Some companies will ask PM candidates coding and algorithm questions that range from simple pseudocode to more complex programming questions. However, the good news is that expectations are lower than they would be for developers. You won't be evaluated on solution accuracy but on your willingness to solve the problem and the effectiveness of your approach. Amazon's PM interview revolves around their 14 leadership principles. Interviewers will repeatedly verify if the candidate's answers align with Amazon's leadership principles. If you know the leadership principles well, you can identify which one the interviewer has in mind during a particular question and address it directly.
  19. You don't need a lot of work experience to apply for a Product Manager role. Many tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft recruit PMs directly out of college. If you are in business school, take project-based classes to work on your ideas and launch a product to gain relevant experience. You can make double use of class time and pick the brains of a team of MBAs. Engineers who wish to transition to PM roles can demonstrate product leadership through leadership and cross-team coordination work. Stephen, a tech lead at Microsoft, volunteered to take on project management for a cross-team collaboration project. The project's success convinced his team of Stephen's leadership and PM skills. When a role opened up in his current team, Stephen got the job.
  20. The best way to learn Product Management is through observation and interaction with seasoned PMs. Look out for products users love and find ways to get in touch with the PMs behind them. Talk to them to understand their process the frameworks they use to make decisions. Besides the opportunity to learn more about Product Management, a robust network can open many PM opportunities.


Product Managers (PMs) work at the intersection of technology, business and design. Good PM candidates come from diverse backgrounds. The PM role and the interview process vary widely from company to company. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the role, candidates with backgrounds that range from freshers to engineers to consultants have cracked the PM interview. Here's how you can prepare.

Core responsibilities of a PM

Product Managers have three core responsibilities:

1. Product strategy

The PM is responsible to define two simple things:

  • What game the company will play: including the product vision, customer value, product differentiation and most importantly, the strategy to win in the market.
  • The metrics to define success

If they achieve both, it will allow a diverse team to run in the same direction. A clear product strategy allows the team to make the right decisions even in the absence of the PM.

2. Prioritization

The PM has to consistently choose from a surplus of great ideas for the next three things the team will execute.

3. Execution

PMs must define product specifications to bring clarity on what to build. To do this, they run analytics to understand customer requirements, how current features work and what features to prioritize in the product roadmap. PMs make time/benefit tradeoffs on features to ensure that the product hits the market on time with the right features. When product development hits a snag, they take a call on tricky edge cases.

Ultimately, Product Managers do whatever is required to ship their products. They cover gaps in design, write content and even do PR. PMs have to lead without authority. While the PM sets the product vision, strategy and defines success, they don't have direct authority over their team members. PMs have to lead without authority.

Build the right profile

Interviewers look for five key competencies in PM candidates:

  1. Analysis and Insight: Companies seek data-driven PMs who can analyze metrics and draw insights from usage patterns. Find ways to build and demonstrate data analysis skills.
  2. Customer Focus: Companies want candidates who can understand customer requirements and translate customer feedback into product specs.
  3. Business Cases: Companies love candidates who have built business cases, sized markets and made business decisions.
  4. Marketing: A background in marketing can help PMs effectively communicate the value of a product and design products that will do well in the marketplace.
  5. Industry Expertise: A deep working knowledge of a specific industry can be a good boost when you apply for PM roles in the same industry.

Is a CS background necessary?

Companies use technical expertise as a proxy for specific skills. If you don't have a CS background, find ways to develop and demonstrate three skills:

  1. Ability to form a working relationship with engineers. PMs have to work closely with engineers, understand their mindset and appreciate the complexity of their work.
  2. A good understanding of how long engineering work takes. PMs need to make informed tradeoffs between time spent and the value of the work to the customer.
  3. Hands-on and self-sufficient. PMs must be able to make minor product changes and gather data independently.

Side projects matter

Side projects are the second most important criteria after actual PM experience when interviewers evaluate a PM candidate. Side projects offer proof of experience in product design, technical work and an actual shipped product. A good side project will:

  • Cover gaps in experience: You can make up for a lack of technical degrees or experience with a website or a simple mobile app that you build based on online tutorials.
  • Demonstrate skills: A good side project can compensate for a lack of experience in project management, design or programming.
  • Give something concrete to talk about in interviews. A good project gives you the chance to explain why you have the necessary background and skills to be a PM.

If you don't have technical experience, you can do design and usability projects. Find a problem in your local neighborhood, talk to potential users and prototype ideas on paper. Test with potential users and iterate.

Optimize your resume

Interviewers see PM resumes as a product that showcases the candidate's design skills, communication skills and the ability to put themselves in the user's shoes. Resumes are not read. The screener skims them for about 15 seconds to decide whether or not to interview the candidate. In particular, interviewers look out for:

  • Passion for technology: If you don't have technical work experience, demonstrate a passion for technology through the highlight of side projects, online courses or your website.
  • Leadership: If you have managed people in some capacity, highlight it.
  • Projects: List your side projects, their goals and metrics of success.

Company research

Interviewers expect candidates to know the company's products nearly as well as they do and may judge them harshly if they don't. Make sure to extensively research the product, strategy and role description before an interview.

Study the company's products, features, key competitors, target market, revenue model and critical product metrics. Use the product extensively and formulate a clear opinion on it.

Understand how the company's products fit into its mission statement and the company's overall strategy. Study the product's strengths, how the company should address its weaknesses, key challenges and ways to overcome them and opportunities on the horizon. Form a researched opinion on the product's strategy and how it can succeed.

Understand the PM role in the company and find good answers for why you would be a good fit. Finally, be prepared with some ideas for what you would like to change about the company's product.

Product design questions

Product design questions are the most critical part of the interview as they deal with the PM's core work: the design, architecture and improvement of products. Companies use product questions to test an interviewee's core product, user understanding and design skills. To get these questions right, understand deeply what the user and business product goals are. Approach these problems in a structured way.

Here is a framework to approach these problems in a structured way, that begins with the target user requirements.

resource image
  1. Clarify the problem. Ask questions to understand the organizational and user goals behind the problem. Products may have primary and secondary goals. Candidates who jump into a solution for a problem without clarity on the goal will design a radically different product from what users want.
  2. Provide a structure. Provide a clear structure upfront on how you will approach the problem. At every step, you can explicitly mention which part of the structure you are at so that the interviewer can follow your approach.
  3. Identify users and customers. Customers are those who pay for products, and users are those who use the product. Their needs may diverge. An excellent way to identify users is to think of different ways a product is used and who interacts with it.
  4. Report customer needs. List goals and use cases for each type of user.
  5. Prioritize significant user issues. For each use case, evaluate to what extent the current product meets user goals. Identify key user issues with the current product will provide a clear idea of areas to focus on in product design.
  6. Design features and evaluate tradeoffs. Brainstorm a few feature ideas for key user issues. A good feature idea will solve multiple customer issues at once. Select ideas that align with the company's risk appetite. Some organizations love big, bold ideas, while others are more interested in minor, iterative improvements. Explicitly tie each feature idea to a customer use case so that the interviewer knows that your ideas are customer focussed. Discuss the tradeoffs involved for each feature. Use the whiteboard for this step.
  7. Summarize your recommendation. Provide a summary of your final solution so that the interviewer clearly understands your final proposal. Discuss how the solution can be implemented and what resources would be required. Finally, explain the metrics you will measure to validate your solution.

Favorite product question

Prepare for this inevitable interview question with the selection of a few products that you love. Make sure they have features you can discuss at the interview. Use the framework below to structure your answer:

  1. What user problems does it solve? Focus on one or two key user goals.
  2. How does the product accomplish its goals? Explain what makes the product uniquely good at what it accomplishes.
  3. How does it compare to alternatives? Focus on the reason why users don't prefer the alternatives.
  4. How would you improve it? Take a critical approach to product shortcomings and explain how you can make it better as a PM.

Practice repeatedly and make sure you understand key metrics like users, conversions, referral rates and engagement for your product. Interviewers want PM candidates who have a well-thought-out opinion about products. Be opinionated.

Behavioural questions

For Behavioural Questions, prepare five great stories from your work experience that correlate with important question categories like leadership, teamwork, successes and failures. Interviewers use behavioral questions to test if a candidate's experience matches what the resume says and test if the candidate's communication is structured.

Master 5 great stories

You can easily ace behavioral questions with some preparation. Create a grid with common behavioral questions as columns. These can include leadership, teamwork, successes, challenges and failures. Add significant work experience and projects as rows. Finally, fill each cell with one or more stories.

Select five great stories that best represent why you are an excellent PM candidate. Each story must have a substantial Situation, Action and Result. You must have at least one story for each behavioral question type. Practice these stories with friends to polish the narration.

Use the nugget-situation-action framework

Use this framework to structure your response to behavioral questions.

  1. Nugget. Begin with a clear thesis about your story. An opener statement helps the interviewer focus on the core idea and organize information around that context.
  2. Situation. Provide adequate background information for the interviewer to understand what you did and why it mattered in that context.
  3. Action. Describe the actions that you took. Make sure to focus on your actions and not what the team did.
  4. Result. Explain how your action helped your team or company. Quantify the impact.
resource image

Estimation questions

Interviewers care more about your problem-solution approach than a numerically accurate answer. Use this 8 step process to answer estimation questions.

1. Clarify the question

Repeat the question back to the interviewer and ask about any detail which seems ambiguous.

2. Identify knowledge required to solve the question

Find out what data you have and what needs to be computed. You can ask interviewers for critical facts in some cases.

3. Make an equation

Form an equation to solve the problem. Before you choose one approach, brainstorm multiple possible equations and choose the best plan of attack. Communicate your approach to demonstrate your thought process to the interviewer.

4. Think about edge cases

Think about possible edge cases and problems in the approach. Be open about challenges to show the interviewer that you are detail-oriented and unafraid to discuss shortcomings of your approach.

5. Break it down

Compute each component of the equation through the construction of sub-equations.

6. State your assumptions

Rely on experience and intuition to make reasonable estimates for key variables. State your assumptions clearly. Pick round numbers.

7. Compute

Do the math. Remember that estimation questions only require a ballpark answer.

8. Sanity check

Before you share the answer with the interviewer, double-check if your answer is reasonable in accordance with commonly known facts.

Case questions

PM interview case questions can lead you astray because they are dangerously similar to consultant case questions. Unlike case interviews where consultants will be asked to solve organization-scale problems based on data, interviewers expect PM candidates to solve product questions through reliance on their product instincts. PM candidates must make sound business decisions in the absence of detailed data. Use management frameworks like the 4P's, SWOT analysis and Porter's five forces to structure your response.

""The best way to learn Product Management is through observation and interaction with seasoned PMs. Look out for products users love and find ways to get in touch with the PMs behind them. Talk to them to understand their process and the frameworks they use to make decisions. Besides the ability to learn more about Product Management, a robust network can open many PM opportunities.""

How hiring works

The following is a breakdown of the PM hiring process for the "Big 5" tech companies.

1. Amazon

Amazon prefers management candidates for its PM roles and often hires right out of business school. Amazon is highly data-driven and expects PMs to have strong data analysis skills.

Make sure you know Amazon's 14 leadership principles well. Interviewers will validate your responses against the principles to see if you are a good fit. Weave the leadership principles into your responses and screen your resume to spotlight details that demonstrate these principles.

Amazon has a bar raiser interview that is a high challenge to ensure that the candidate is better than 50% of current Amazon PMs. The bar raiser interviewer and the hiring manager have veto powers.

2. Microsoft

Microsoft's PM role must have a strong business focus. Microsoft hires candidates with a management background.

Microsoft's PM interview focuses more on behavioral questions and product design questions. Most Microsoft teams hire independently, and therefore some teams may want excellent technical skills while others focus more on design skills.

3. Apple

Apple has both software and hardware Engineering Program Manager (EPM) roles and prefers candidates with engineer backgrounds over management backgrounds. EPMs can range from freshers to those with 15 years of work experience.

Depending on the team, the candidate may have four to five interviews that last an hour or as many as 12 interviews that last 30 minutes. Apple only hires people who are passionate about its products. Know Apple's products well and expect questions on why you want to work for Apple.

resource image

4. Google

Google prefers to hire candidates with four years of experience or an MBA for PM roles. The company prefers an engineer background over an MBA.

Google puts a strong emphasis on estimation questions and technical questions, which will include the need to write code on a whiteboard. There are separate interviews to assess your technical, product and analytical skills. To qualify, a candidate needs an average interview score of 3.0 or 4.0 and at least one interviewer who strongly supports your candidature.

Many Google interviewers may not read your resume thoroughly beforehand. If you want to highlight a key aspect, mention it across interviews to improve the odds that this fact will reach the hiring committee.

5. Facebook

Facebook has fewer PMs and prefers highly technical or entrepreneurial candidates. Facebook expects PMs to code and often build initial prototypes on their own.

There are separate interviews for quantitative questions, program questions, design questions and a round dedicated to futuristic thoughts about technological trends. Candidates will be asked to code, so make sure to brush up on your programming.

6. Startups

Most startups expect their PMs to be hands-on and work closely with engineers. Sometimes PMs may have to write code to fill gaps.

Most startups prefer to hire seasoned candidates who have previous product management experience. Expect rigorous technical interviews and questions about relevant experience.