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How to Crack Technical Product Manager Interview

A short guide based on 5 years experience of hiring Tech PMs

Who hires tech PMs

If you are not familiar with what the Tech Product Manager role is about, first consider reading this article. Long story short, Tech PMs are the best fit for technologically innovative products and there are more and more job openings in different domains: search (Google), social networks (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), travel (, Uber), content streaming (Spotify, YouTube, Netflix), data processing (Elastic, Cloudera), infrastructure (Amazon, Microsoft Azure) and so on.
By the way, don’t be surprised if title doesn’t always have a prefix “Technical”and take a look at the actual job description (e.g. for Amazon PM: “Prior experience managing technical products or online services”, or Spotify PM: “… and a technical background, either as an engineer or in a previous technical role”).

Tech PM Interview preparation

Apart from other relatively obvious points (years of experience, soft skills, preferable domain knowledge), I would like to focus on the two instrumental aspects of a Tech PM interview which (not surprisingly) are: “Product” and “Tech”. Let’s take a look at both of them separately and deduce the main takeaways one can use to properly prepare.

Proven Product management skills

Since Tech PM is first of all a PM, candidates should be able to demonstrate product skills and support them by real examples from their experience. Good interviewee should:
  • Know the business basics of the products they work with: what problem do they solve and what main business metrics improve.
  • Able to switch between planning horizons: what is the next immediate problem to solve, strategical product plans for the upcoming quarters and overall vision/mission for the long term.
  • Demonstrate experience with day-to-day topics: research, brainstorm, planning, prioritisation, retro, working with stakeholders, conflict resolution.
For each of the points candidates should be prepared for deeper questions, because it is expected that the Product Owner knows their product to the very details. For example, if you mentioned a payments integration you’ve implemented, be ready to answer the follow up questions like:
  • What payment methods you’ve chosen to enable and why?
  • How they improve customer experience and how you’d measure that?
  • How did you handle security?
  • What still doesn’t work as you envisioned initially?
It is very important to stress out that pure mental models or definitions from the books will not help much, because even though all of us (including non-PMs) can “prioritise”, “manage stakeholders” and “build a vision” in theory, it takes much more sweat and mistakes (therefore — learnings and skills) to deliver a real project. Needless to say that the interviewing team can easily distinguish theoretical concepts from a legitimate product experience.
The conclusion is simple: preparation for the interview for a job you crave should start not a week before a call, but months and years in advance with all the projects you work on in your current company. Then you can use the last week to just refresh all the most important conceptions in your head.

Check box the Tech blocks

Previous set of questions proved that Tech PM is actually a PM, and now it is time to prove a Tech prefix. Ideal candidates should also have at least basic understanding about APIs, monitoring, reliability, architecture, infrastructure and security aspects of a product. Below you can find potential questions within these categories:
  • Architecture: as most of the online products are a combination of multiple services, APIs, databases, queues it is important for a Tech PM to at least understand what are those building blocks and how they can be connected together to solve a business problem.
  • APIs: since most of the systems talk to each other through some kind of APIs, it is important for candidates to understand what is it and how to use those as a part of a product ecosystem.
  • Monitoring: a good candidate should be able to explain the difference between tech and business metrics, know conception of Service Level Indicators and be able to reason about ways to measure it.
  • Reliability: if the product’s health is critical (e.g. YouTube streaming or reservation systems) it is crucial for a candidate to understand what it means to deliver uninterrupted service at the global scale. It includes awareness about alerting, SRE approach, post mortems, stress testing and other techniques to improve product robustness.
  • Security: for products dealing with customer data a candidate should demonstrate understanding of at least basic security mechanisms like authentication, authorisation, data encryption.
  • Infrastructure: especially for very tech products (e.g. AWS or IBM cloud) it will be also required to understand deeper layers services stand on (data centers, dev platforms, processing pipelines, etc).

Level of Technicality

Now as you know the main categories, it is important to mention that the level of technicality depends on the industry and the product within this industry, for example:
  • It will be just nice to know a bit about API terms for a PM owning a user experience for a video streaming platform as such a product gets all the data to expose from internal content processing systems.
  • It will be important to know API specifics for a PM whose product is exposed mainly via APIs (e.g. Facebook messaging functionality).
  • And finally, PM must be an API guru if an API is a product by itself (e.g. Google API gateway or an Uber’s one)
Another example: security knowledge PM expectations for services which do not assume customer data handling (e.g. Open Maps) will be different from the one which needs to store at least some details (e.g. Spotify) and the one which store extremely sensitive data (e.g. your DNA by 23andMe or payment details by any Payment Service Provider like Stripe).
Bottom line here that different products in different domains assume variable level of technical knowledge and it is a part of the research to understand exact job expectations and ensure that your level matches.

Example of a Tech PM interview flow

Let’s summarise: during the interview Tech PM should prove product leadership and top it up with tech product part to the level of technicality needed for a particular job. Below you can find a potential conversation which can happen on the Tech PM interview in a company providing food delivery services:
  • General product question: “You mentioned you worked on a product X. What was it about?”
  • More concrete product question: “Could you please explain what business metrics your product improves?”
  • Another concrete product question: “You mentioned there were 3 features to build. How did you prioritise which one to start with?”
  • Touch on technicality: “How did you know that your product was technically healthy at any point in time?”
  • Touch on monitoring as part of technicality: “You mentioned latency SLI, that’s indeed a very important metric of a system’s health. At the same time it is always tricky one to measure. Let’s maybe come up with a concrete metric definition or formula for it”.
  • Pivot to the main company product (delivery) and architecting: “Let’s now take some time and together try to architect a simple pizza delivery app. Which building blocks do you think we need to power such a product? What would be the connections between them?”
This point is usually an hour long discussion, with a lot of questions from both sides and step by step progressing with a solution. Needless to say, there are no right or wrong answers in such discussions, but they are a great opportunity for candidates to demonstrate an ability to reason about a problem from a very scratch.
  • Potential touch on security: “Your delivery system should probably store customer’s home addresses. How would you go about security aspects?”
  • Potential touch on reliability: “Do you need to do anything additional to handle Friday evening avalanche of pizza orders?”
As you might have noticed, good interviewers will try to ask questions of increasing complexity and connect them to the cohesive story to ensure they cover all the aspects important for the concrete job.
I completely made up this example, but I hope it gives you a preparation recipe which is: take any product you like and (keeping in mind the product goals) try to “draw” it from scratch check boxing all the Tech Product blocks mentioned above (if you would like more practice, check out the innovative Tech PM simulator built like a game to solve real job challenges). End result of your “drawing” will likely be 10-20% of real system complexity, but it might be already enough to prove that if you are given more time (so the job), you’d make it fly.

As a summary: passion for technology

It is important to remember that at the end of the day, the ultimate goal of the interview process is not to just get the offer, but actually enjoy it after you start working. In the Tech PM case it is important that the candidate loves technical products and will be totally happy even in the team with zero UI, but a lot of traffic, algorithms, internal clients, complex architectures and other exciting technology challenges. Of course, there are also only partially technical areas (like online shops, maps, streaming) where tech savvy is needed, but the product is still very customer facing.
To summarise: it is not news that leaders in their sweet spot can energise teams to deliver solutions of high complexity and at the same time — of an immense product value. Today we see such examples in search and reservation engines, recommendation systems, video & audio processing, messaging, fintech and tomorrow world will need more Tech PMs to power AI reasoning, autonomous cars, smart homes, virtual reality and many other cool products we still can’t even think of.
Coming back to reality — it is impossible to pass interview only with understanding of the topic, so if you would like to practive — here you can find 200+ practical exercises on Tech PM and other product topics. Enjoy!