Engineer to Product Manager: The Preparation

How do you prepare for a job interview that you technically don’t have any professional experience for? Research, practice, freak out, repeat…

I am pretty sure I did this one wrong, but I waited until I got the interview to really do any prep. Sure, I Googled common PM interview questions, but I didn’t practice answering any of the questions or do mock interviews (not recommended). I was sitting in a hotel room in Sydney (yes, Australia) waiting for my girlfriend (now fiancé) to get done with work. I was on PTO as I just spent the entire week in China sitting on a factory line for 15 hours each day. Anyway, I decided I should do my prep for my first phone interview for a PM role.

Leveraging The Internet

I went on Udemy and searched PM Interviews. There were a couple ‘good’ classes that came up that walked you through common interview questions and provided guidance on how to prep. I figured $20 was a small investment for my future. The first couple of videos were straightforward… then it came to the question prep. The first one I was supposed to practice was ‘Tell me how to make a cup of tea’ or something like that.

Essentially, I was supposed to say, get 1 8oz cup, 1 green tea bag, and 2 cubes of sugar. Then, boil water to 200 degrees (F), pour the water into the 8oz cup, place the tea bag in the 8oz cup, move the tea bag up and down (vertically) 10 times, then wrap the string around the handle of the cup and wait 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, take the 2 sugar cubes and place them in the cup, stir 15 times, wait 1 minute and consume. To be honest, my first reaction was WTF is this? I’m an engineer and no PM or anyone has ever spoken to me like this. These questions were for someone not from a technical background. I texted my girlfriend and was like ‘If this is what this interview is going to be like, I am going to fail and honestly, I don’t care because this is stupid.’

So, I Googled ‘top questions for PM interviews’ and disregarded, the ‘design me x for y questions’. This was a phone screen with the recruiter, so I figured it would be more high level. From my reading, I knew I would be asked about a product that I enjoyed using and to go more in depth.  I picked my favorite consumer product, knew why I liked it, what could have been better, where the industry is going, etc. If anything, I figured this interview would be good practice and I would get a sense of what recruiters are looking for.

Semi-related note

The ‘Design me x for y’ questions are valuable to practice. We use them in some of our early-career interviews and it has been helpful from an interviewer’s perspective. Don’t Google ‘Design me an alarm clock for the blind’ and memorize the ‘top answer’. An interviewer will smell that from a mile away. I recently asked that question, it was the ‘top answer’ and when I asked to go a level or two deeper, the candidate struggled and fell hard. Think of creative solutions because you’re being tested for creativeness, but also looking to hear how you handle design trade-offs.
Also, It is valuable to be descriptive when building a PRD (Product Requirements Document). You want to ensure that the specific features or functionality is built in a way that is valuable. There is a balance between being too specific (e.g. 2 tablespoons of sugar) and too vague (e.g. make it sweet). It depends on the engineering team and how they operation. I’ve worked with teams that need everything specific to the tee or they won’t built it. Then, I’ve worked with teams that are more user story focused and can build amazing things without the details. I’ll most likely write a post about this.

Think Like a Product Manager

I knew my interviews would be more focused on product rather than engineering, so I focused on my experiences professionally, both on my full-time jobs and the start-ups I did on the side. The company I was working for at the time was a startup and after we launched there was a need to focus on product related tasks such as ad analysis, support, web page revamp, messaging updates, conferences, etc. I was able to dedicate time in these areas which helped me during my interviews and gain product experience in general.

Questions around ‘How did you know what to build’, ‘How did you build the MVP?’, ‘How did you collect feedback’, ‘How did you price this’, etc. Knowing your audience is key. PMs want to know that you understand the technical side, but they aren’t going to ask you how you build a method in Ruby or care about the capacitor value issue in the prototypes. They will want to know what the challenge was, how you overcame it, how it impacted the schedule, etc. PMs want to know about the features of a product, what problems they solve, customer feedback, prioritization, etc.

Some Advice for Engineers

Think about the product you’re working on. You need to show that you’ve put in the effort to understand the business side of the product and can put yourself in customer’s shoes. Some companies will bring an engineering manager in to interview you and yes, they will ask you technical questions, but not ‘write me a method that does X’. They want to know that you have technical chops and can understand what the product does and how it works, but more importantly, are you going to work well with them and the team?

  1. Know your favorite consumer product (not your phone). Why do you like it? Why is it successful in the market? What can be improved? Where do you see that product market in 5 years?
  2. Know the business behind the product you currently work on as an engineer. What are the features of that product, what problems they’re solving, who the target customers ares, feature gaps, who the competition is and why your product is better than theirs, etc.

Tell Me About Yourself

Prepare for ‘Tell me about yourself’. No one wants a 3 minute story about yourself. Practice on bringing this down to a minute and highlight items that are not on your resume. I often interview people and ask this question to get a sense of how well they communicate. It is not really a test of ‘does this person fit by what they’re saying’, but rather how. If you can keep it to less than 60 seconds and not just list off your resume, you’re golden. Tell me something that may spark my interest and we can take the conversation there. I have your resume, I can read it…don’t reiterate it to me – you’re not an audio book.

  1. Research the company. What products do they make, what markets do they go into, who is their competition
  2. Learn about the products – Watch videos, sign-up for a webinar, use the product (if possible)
  3. Learn about the market their in – Gartners Magic Quadrant is a great resource

You know when you’re studying for exams and you get to a point where you say ‘If I don’t know it by now, I am not going to know it?’ That is how I felt when preparing for my first PM interview. I knew my current company’s product inside and out, I knew the market, I knew the challenges both technically and on the business side. I could talk to the side projects I worked on and why they failed and what I learned from them.

Know The Why   

If you’re an engineer, the first question you’ll be asked by most interviewers is ‘Why product management?’. Saying ‘I want to see the business side of engineering’ is not a very compelling answer because 1. There is more to product management than that and 2. It doesn’t really show your passion in going into product management. Read and learn more about product management and really understand why you want to make the move. Devise what you think is a good answer and then practice it on friends and see what they think. It will be an iterative process, but you’ll get it.

I am writing a series of blog posts about my transition from engineering to product management. Click here to get the master list.

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