How to handle technical questions during PM interviews without a technical backgroundJul 27, 2023
This article is featured in the Skiplevel newsletter where I answer questions directly from the tech community about leveling up their technical skills and communicating with engineers.
Q: I’m interviewing for product roles and I’m wondering how to best handle technical questions during PM interviews if I don’t have a technical background? — Asked by Product Manager @ Walmart Data Ventures
This month’s question is answered via an interview with Kenton Kivestu, CEO of RocketBlocks.
Irene: Kenton, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview with me and providing some of your interviewing expertise to Skiplevel’s readers. Before you started RocketBlocks, you had a full career in product management including being a Director of Product. What was your experience in product like?
Kenton: I started working in product at Google — in what feels like ages ago! I was focused on ads products and spent a little bit of time working on search ads but pretty quickly shifted to building a series of new ad format products — like a very early internet radio ad product we built in 2009 (it was an audio clip + clickable companion banner).
I learned a ton at Google, both about how to build products and what type of projects I like to focus on as a PM. On the former, a key lesson was speed: it was better to build a product or feature and get it out quickly, get feedback and iterate then getting stuck in analysis paralysis. On the latter, the key personal lesson for me was I enjoyed zero-to-one projects — it was more fun to build a product from scratch and see if we get adoption, usage, revenue, etc. than it was to optimize an already successful product (which is also a great and fun challenge, just not my personal preference!)
After Google, I went to Zynga where I joined a tiny team making a mobile poker game for iOS and Android — this was fun for me b/c it was the super early stages of mobile gaming and there was so much to build. Ultimately, I helped build Zynga mobile poker into the #1 top grossing game on both iOS and Android simultaneously — we went from making about $10K / day when I joined to over $200K+ / day and we grew the team from about ~6 to ~35 people.
After Zynga, I joined Flurry, a mobile analytics and ads company, as a Director of Product and led their demand side ads team. Again, I was drawn by the opportunity to build a new product from scratch — which was a mobile demand side platform. It’s less sexy than mobile gaming — but was a fun challenge nonetheless. Flurry ultimately got acquired by Yahoo during the Marissa Mayer era and after integrating our products, I started by own company: RocketBlocks.
Irene: Your PM experience is incredible and sounds like a ton of fun. So what ultimately was your inspiration for starting RocketBlocks?
Kenton: When I first tried to break into PM, I ran into all sorts of obstacles around official qualifications (e.g., “you don’t have a CS degree”, etc.). This didn’t make sense to me because I viewed the real requirements as skills and believed that how you obtained the skills (self-taught like myself or formal degree) was irrelevant.
Given the barriers, I found that I needed to be very sharp at demonstrating those skills in interviews. For each interview I had, I went through an exercise mapping out the key basket of skills the company cared about and then devised all sorts of little tools to help me build those skills day in, day out. Over time, I started sharing these tools with friends and they all found them really useful as well. That was the inspiration for RocketBlocks — whether it’s PM or consulting, pretty much anyone can do these jobs if they’re given the right tools to understand what matters and how to get good at it.
So that’s ultimately what RocketBlocks: a place to build skills for your interviews and land the dream job.
Irene: That’s an incredible story. Speaking of skills that can be self-taught but hard to demonstrate, having technical skills is often a requirement for PM interviews, yet coding is not part of a product manager’s job responsibility. So why do technical questions exist during PM interviews? What are interviewers looking for?
Kenton: Haha, it can be confusing! If you don’t need to code on the job, why test people on it!
The simple answer: it’s a proxy.
When companies ask technical questions in PM interviews, they’re typically trying to assess whether you’ll be able to communicate and collaborate successfully with engineers — which is a core part of being a PM.
The point is not to figure out if you can actually code an algorithm in python or whatever BUT rather figure out if you can identify 1) where technical topics impact product (or vice versa) implications and 2) how to successfully communicate that to engineering so high-quality decisions can be made.
For example, imagine someone asks a PM in an interview — “Suppose you want to add a button to this interface to do X, what would you need to build?” They don’t care if you know how to code all that BUT rather they want to see if you understand implications like, “Oh, we’d need to store some new info to do that and we’d need some process to run daily, etc.”
NOTE: Of course, there are always some caveats but they’re rare! If you’re applying for a super technical PM role like owning an API team, the company **may** actually have some preference for more technical experience.
Irene: Are what interviewers looking for different for candidates with and without a technical background? If so, in what way?
Kenton: Theoretically, no. If a company has a clear idea of what type of PM they need, then the skills they’re testing for shouldn’t be influenced by the background of the candidate.
In practice, sometimes. If you’ve got a CS degree or some other technical experience on your resume, people will generally assume a level of knowledge associated with that. So if someone asks a CS major what an API is and the answer is sloppy, that can be a really bad sign.
Irene: Can you give us an example of a common technical question asked and how you would go about solving it?
Kenton: Company X is planning to launch feature Y — what needs to be built to support it? This format is super common and I really like this type of technical question because it gets DIRECTLY at the heart of the type of technical discussion a PM should be ready to have.
One particular one I like is thinking about Gmail’s delayed send functionality. It illustrates the concept well PLUS reinforces that this isn’t just thinking about new features! The exercise is simply about thinking through the components to build anything and whether that already exists or not is irrelevant.
Example from RocketBlocks: Gmail is considering adding new, delayed send functionality which would allow a user to schedule an email he/she wrote to be delivered at some point in the future. Which key part(s) of the gmail tech stack would require work to launch something like this? Assume that no work to support a feature like this has been done before.
1) The user will need some new button or option to create a delayed send (e.g., a button linked to a scheduling widget that lets them set when to send it)
2) The system will need a new process to check for delayed emails and deliver them, but we can utilize existing code for actually sending the emails themselves.
Design: The UX team will need to create the right assets for a new button (if chosen versus a link) and a scheduling widget.
Mobile front-end: Similarly to the web, all the mobile clients will need to be updated (e.g., iOS app, Android app, Windows) to display the user-facing changes.
Back-end: We’ll need back-end code to check on a continuous cadence for scheduled emails that need to be sent, gather any emails which need to be sent and then send them.
Database: Potentially, you might create a new table to that could act as a holding pen for all scheduled-but-not-sent emails. Alternatively, pending emails could be stored in the status quo location and marked with a new status (so as not to be confused with emails which have already been sent or are in another state (e.g., draft).
Irene: Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us Kenton. To end the interview, what are some resources that candidates can use to prepare for technical questions during interviews?
Kenton: Well, I’m biased but RocketBlocks has technical interview drills (e.g., sample technical interview questions you may face along with sample answers from experienced PMs)! As I mentioned above, I think practicing these in a targeted way is a super effective way to build skills in advance of an interview.
Another way, albeit more complicated, is build a deeper understanding of technical skills by launching some sort of side project that requires you to build some technical skills (e.g., coding, setting up a db, etc.). This is obviously a lot more work but it is definitely another effective route for learning. Obviously, programs like Skiplevel would help!
If you want to level up your technical skills and your ability to communicate and collaborate with engineers, enroll in the Skiplevel program. The Skiplevel program is a comprehensive, on-demand course + community that helps you become more technical without learning how to code.
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