Interview Tips for Senior PMs
Some quick tips I’ve been sharing on my Twitter and wanted to expand.
Instead of STAR for answering “tell me about a time when..” questions, try PEARL — Problem, Epiphany, Action, Result, Learning.
Start with the setup of the problem you were faced with. Ideally it’s a business problem or customer problem you noticed. Give enough background so the interview realizes that your boss didn’t just hand you the fully formed project: the less you just followed directions, the better. By framing this as a problem, you’re drawing the interviewer into the story and helping them understand why it’s important. You can start with the larger problem that your overall product is solving, and then get into the specific problem that you want to tell a story about.
Next, share your epiphany or insight. What’s the key thing you learned or realized that kicked off your action? Did it come from customer research, data analysis, or somewhere else? What did you see that other people were missing? How does that contrast with the ‘obvious’ path? This might sound like “Everyone thought we should do X, but based on Y, I realized we should actually do Z!” If there’s no epiphany, this story probably isn’t demonstrating your skills. If you just did the obvious thing, anyone could have done it.
The action is the work you did to make it happen. Keep it short and focus on the things that you did that a PM with less experience wouldn’t have done as well. You don’t need to list out every step of the process, but pick out the hard or clever parts. Give your interviewer enough context to understand how challenging your role was. That said, be diplomatic when the challenge came from other people: don’t sound too negative about them.
The result is the happy ending. It’s okay to have setbacks and failures in the story, but treat those like the middle of the story. For example if you’re talking about a failed experiment, keep going and share how you iterated and had a successful launch later or how you used what you learned to avoid a similar problem at your next company. When you have good results, connect them to the larger goals, strategy, and mission. For example, instead of just talking about how people loved your feature, talk about how it improved retention.
Finally talk about what you learned. What do you wish you knew earlier? What would you do differently next time? Did you get a chance to use that learning in a later project?
Pulling it all together into an example:
(Problem) When I was working on the search team, we knew that we weren’t returning good local results for queries about local businesses like “pizza restaurants”.
(Epiphany) I worked with the engineers and found that we had all the technical components we needed, but the leadership team didn’t trust the location information and didn’t want to risk returning irrelevant results. I knew I had to find a way to validate the location information, so I dug in to the data and realized something amazing! We could compare the location information on queries that had an obvious location, like “NYU bookstore” to see how accurate it was.
(Action) I hand coded a few hundred queries and shared the results with the leadership team.
(Result) They were convinced by my analysis and we were able to test and then launch. It was a huge success, as later measured by how many people used those local results and other global health metrics.
(Learning) My big takeaways from this experience were how valuable it is to look at the data directly, and how important it is for products to do the right thing without any configuration.
Before your interview, aim to prepare 10 stories you can talk about across all the topics an interviewer might probe on. Pick out the best ones that you’ll try to use if you get a chance. The best stories will be ones that really show off your seniority, which usually means that they’re recent, but not so recent that you don’t have the results back.
What makes a person look senior in an interview?
- Autonomy / Agency: How much did you notice and decide to do on your own, as opposed to getting direction from your manager? Did you see it as your responsibility to make changes?
- Strategy: Did you set the strategy for your team and build a good roadmap off of it? If not, how much did you understand and absorb the strategy? Do you tie ideas back to their larger purpose?
- Tough Decision Making: Did you make strategic decisions in a place where there was more than one reasonable option? Did you grapple with tough tradeoffs? Ironically, the more you try to make your decision look obviously correct, the less that decision makes you look good. Instead, build up how good the alternatives looked so it’s clear that you needed good judgement to choose the option you went with.
- Influencing other PMs or other teams: Did you introduce processes that other PMs started following? Did you convince other teams to voluntarily change their approach? This broadening of scope is a sign of seniority.
- Relevant experience: Look for excuses to reference your past work in relevant ways to help the interviewer see that your time translated into valuable experience. An easy way is to mention it during hypothetical questions: “Ah, this reminds me of a time at my past company when…” or “One of the things I learned a while back was …”.
- Confident grasp of the basics: If you’re a senior PM, you shouldn’t have just recently learned, for example, that meetings should have agendas. That’s PM 101 and should feel obvious and boring. If an interviewer asks how you’d improve a team, quickly mention “well obviously agendas for all meetings”, but then move on to more advanced ideas. Similarly, you can name-drop popular product concepts to highlight your familiarity.
Make the most of your past years of experience
If you recently switched to become a PM after years in another role, companies might not know how to level you. Should your years as a doctor count half-credit towards your PM experience? Full credit? Zero?
One option is to look for companies that specifically value your past experience, for example a health tech company if you have medical experience. You might also find that a company founded by an ex-doctor would value your experience more, even if the company currently does something else.