Acing Technical interviews for Product ManagersAug 30, 2022
Photo credit: Christina Morillo
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Companies and teams are increasingly realizing how important technical literacy is in product managers and the benefits to team efficiency, effectiveness, and overall team cohesion. This in part explains the industry’s shift towards conducting technical interviews as part of the overall interview process for product managers.
That’s why it’s important to develop your technical chops and ace the technical portion of your PM interview in order to stay ahead of the curve. In this article I’ll give you the lay of the land and guide you through how to think about technical PM interviews, and how to ace them.
How “technical” are technical interviews?
The short and quick answer is not as technical as you would think.
PM Technical interviews vs. Technical PM interviews
Before we get into the thick of it, it’s worth clarifying the difference between technical interviews for product managers, and Technical Product Management interviews.
Technical product management (TPM) is a separate role from traditional product management (PM). While the main focus of traditional product management is on the customer, a TPM’s main focus is on the technical aspects of building software. The TPM role requires a deep understanding of what goes into building, maintaining, and shipping software while working very closely with engineering teams to come up with solutions and generally play a very active role in the software development process.
As such, technical interviews for TPMs will go deep into the “how” of building software which usually involves system design. An example of a system design question for TPMs would be “Design TikTok.” or “How would you build TinyURL?”.
These sorts of technical solution/design problems are what we usually think of when we hear “technical interviews”. But it’s rare that technical interviews for PMs will ask you to go deep into system design or the how of building software. That’s because the main focus of traditional product management is on the customer and business/product strategy, not on the technical aspects of building software.
Instead, the technical interview portion of product management interviews focuses more on testing what I like to call technical literacy.
What are interviewers looking for during PM technical interviews?
Product management is a multi-disciplinary role with the main focus being the business/product strategy and understanding the customer/market. But another important role of PMs that’s less talked about is enabling cross-functional teams to do their best work.
One of the main jobs of product managers is to enable their teams to do their best work.
Interviewers are essentially looking for this quality from product managers during the technical portion of PM interviews. Will the product manager be able to work well with and effectively support their development teams throughout the software development process?
Specifically we can break down this quality down into 3 specific traits interviewers are looking for:
- Skill #1: How effectively you’re able to communicate with engineers
- Skill #2: How effectively you’re able to collaborate with engineers
- Skill #3: How well you understand how technical limitations and trade-offs affect product decisions
All the questions you’re asked during your technical interview will be around assessing the three skills above. So let’s talk a little more in-depth about each of these skills interviewers look for and go over some examples of the types of questions asked to assess each of those skills.
Skill #1: How effectively you’re able to communicate with engineers
Communicating effectively with your engineering team really comes down to whether you’re able to talk about and understand technical points and concepts. Technical concepts like the client-side (frontend) and server-side (backend), APIs, systems architecture like monoliths and microservices, data, infrastructure considerations like performance, latency and scalability, etc.
You don’t need to be a deep subject matter expert in any of these technical areas, but at the very least you should be familiar with the most common technical jargon, possess general knowledge on how software systems operate as a whole and how data moves throughout the system. You’ll also need to be familiar with the common available technologies like protocols (HTTP, HTTPS), delivery networks, caching, etc.
Interview questions that test this skill will generally be around assessing your understanding of general technical concepts without going deep into design. So when you answer technical literacy questions you want to showcase you’re comfortable with using technical jargon and have a broad understanding of how software works.
Example Interview questions:
- How would you explain what an API is? (Spotify, Stripe)
- How does an HTTP request work? (Better.com)
- What happens when you navigate to a website? (Google, LinkedIn, Amazon, Microsoft)
- What are the major factors to improve response time and latency for a website? (Google)
- Walk me through the technical architecture of your product. (Amazon, Meta, Dell)
Skill #2: How well you’re able to collaborate with engineers
Working closely with and being a good partner to developers throughout the product lifecycle is a key part of being a great product manager. Since you’ll be working a lot day-to-day with the development team, interviewers want to know that you won’t be dismissive of developers and that you’re willing to learn about and empathize with the engineering experience which helps you understand how best to support their work. This means you should have an understanding of the software development lifecycle (SDLC), the methodologies dev teams use to deliver work (i.e. scrum, agile, waterfall), how to write proper user stories, and bringing dev teams into your product process.
As much as possible during the interview process, you want to talk about your role in partnering with and enabling your dev team. When the opportunity presents itself, you want to provide specific examples of ways you’ve supported your dev team in the past. Check out this article I wrote with ideas on how to actively support your dev team.
Example Interview questions:
- Our engineering teams are pretty used to employing x methodologies. What is your opinion of them? Have you used them in the past? (Apple)
- What is the importance of engineers and technical teams as stakeholders? How do you integrate them into the overall product vision? (Yelp, Peloton)
- Explain a project you worked on with Engineering. How did you decide what to do and speak to all interactions with Engineering. (Yelp, Peloton)
- Tell me about a time you disagreed with engineering. (Airbnb, MasterClass, Yelp)
Skill #3: Your ability to understand how technical limitations and trade-offs affect product decisions
Experienced product managers have a sense of the product implications of technical decisions and know product decisions affect technical decisions just as much as technical decisions affect product decisions.
For example, let’s say you’re working on creating a new customer dashboard experience and want to include some new piece of data. However, if the data is not already being collected and stored in a database, that would affect product decisions.
Technical decisions can also affect product timeline. For example, if your product is doing extremely well and growth is projected to outgrow current system capabilities, your engineering team may decide to break up the current monolithic system into microservices for improved scalability. Moving to a microservice system can be a complicated and long process requiring lots of dev resources and this needs to be taken into consideration for product decisions and timeline.
Having a sense of the product implications of technical decisions helps you pivot and improve product decisions quickly along with generally writing better business requirements. While this skill is usually developed over time as you get more experience partnering with engineering teams and successfully shipping products and features, it’s an important skill interviewers look for and that you can prepare for before interviews.
Example Interview questions:
- What are some concerns with ingesting data from a 3rd party source? (Shopify)
- Explain a project you worked on with Engineering. How did you decide what to do and speak to all interactions with Engineering. (Peloton, Yelp)
- As a PM, how would you prioritize improving performance vs. other features? (Asana)
- An engineer wants to make a major change to the ranking algorithm. How would you evaluate it? (Google)
Preparing for PM technical interviews
There’s lots of resources available to help you prepare for interviews. Here are some notable standouts:
- RocketBlocks helps product managers (and many other roles) prepare for interviews through comprehensive, skills-driven prep including drills, coaching, and concept reviews. Check out their product management interview prep. There’s even a specific section for technical fluency/literacy!
- Exponent and PM Exercises also provides interview prep for product managers. They have a large selection of community sourced interview questions including interview questions for PM technical interviews along with answers from the community for practice. There’s also lots of other resources including coaching, courses, and lessons.
Technical topics to study
While there’s a ton to learn about in software, the good news is for interviews, you only need to study a select few and you don’t have to go too deep into each one.
Here’s a list of the top technical topics you should have a firm grasp on:
- Frontend vs. Backend: Be prepared to explain what the difference is between the two and be able to explain how the two work together. Hint: The technical definition of the frontend and backend is the client side and server side. Be able to describe the difference!
- APIs: When describing frontend and backend, talk about APIs. Be able to explain APIs in simple layman’s terms. Be prepared to know the components of APIs and common API jargon: GET, POST, request, response, etc.
- Infrastructure: No need to go too deep into this. Just understand and be able to explain protocols (HTTP/HTTPS) and servers.
- Architecture: Specifically learn about microservices and monoliths. Understand the technical trade-offs between the two architecture types and why engineers may choose one over the other (i.e. latency, independent scaling, fault tolerance, etc..).
- Software Development Lifecycle: Learn about the phases of the SDLC. Understand what role you as a PM may play in each one. Learn about different types of testing: unit tests, integration tests, regression tests, user acceptance tests, etc..
Know that interview questions are meant to be critical. Seldom will there be rote memorization “What is..” questions like “What is an API?”. That’d be too easy and frankly doesn’t assess all that much. So when you’re prepping for your interviews, don’t just memorize technical definitions.
Instead, practice giving responses via examples and narratives. Interviewers will ask you to talk about your past experiences using “Tell me a time..” questions, freeform problem solving questions (“Walk me through how you would…”), questions to test your communication like “How would you explain frontend and backend to your grandma”, and general technical knowledge like “What happens when you enter a URL in the browser?” and “Walk me through the technical architecture of your last product”.
Domain Subject Expertise
I want to quickly point out that if you’re interviewing for a PM role that requires specific domain expertise, then you will likely be asked technical questions around that domain. For example, if you’re interviewing for a role at Vimeo working on a video product, you’ll likely be tested on your technical knowledge around streaming.
In this case, use the technical resources I listed in this article to look for technical questions asked specifically at the company you’re interviewing for and make sure to study up on that technical domain.
Keep in mind that every company and team is a little bit different so while you aren’t expected to possess a deep understanding of technical solutions and therefore shouldn’t be asked system design questions, it also doesn’t hurt to practice them. Make sure to reach out to your recruiter and ask whether there will be system design questions along with a list of topics you should prepare for.
Positive feedback is feedback too!
We often think of feedback as “critical feedback”, but positive feedback is just as important! Team cohesive and effective teamwork ultimately comes from a place of positivity and a sense of forward/upward momentum. It’s difficult to have these when just focusing on critical feedback. You want to know what you’re doing right along with ways you can improve. So as much as possible, ask for positive feedback like “What did you like about [x] that you’d like to see me continue doing?” and “What was your favorite part about [x]?”
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