BMPA Mentor Session 2: Interviewing

Alan BelniakBPMA, business6 Comments

job interview strength

A few weeks back, the Boston Product Management Association’s Executive Council and Mentorship program held another session.  (in the past, I’ve written about BPMA mentoring here).  Sadly, I had a last-minute conflict and was unable to attend.  However, the discussion topics and dialogue transcript were sent out afterward to BPMA mentor/mentee members.  I saw the two questions discussed, and thought I’d add my own thoughts to the matter.  I resisted the temptation to look at what others have said – perhaps my thoughts are the same, or completely different.

As with the last session, the discussion is aimed at the ‘PM’ in BPMA.  However, I think much of what is mentioned below can be applied elsewhere.

What are the differences in Product Management dynamics between large and small companies?

I’ve only been a PM at a larger company (~5000 employees).  I operated in a qusi-PM role at a smaller company, though I know the feeling and effect isn’t the same.  However, my thoughts are below.

  • In a larger company, there may be a more formal structure to how things are completed.  For example, specific steps for PRDs, routing specifications for approval, etc.
  • In a smaller company, it may be more ad hoc.  In a smaller company, it also may be less rigid and therefore a bit less arduous.
  • In a larger company, there may be other PMs or other people who were in the PM role that can act as sounding boards for ideas, or to provide some history on a topic.
  • In a smaller company, this might not be the case.  In fact, if the smaller company is a start-up, you could very well *be* the first PM.
  • Access to professional development resources is probably easier in a larger company, such as attending conferences, seminars, or tuition reimbursement.
  • Budgets at smaller companies might not permit this.
  • In larger companies, the PM role may be very layered, thus diluting ones overall contributions to a product.
  • In a smaller company, it’s possible to have a more direct effect on the outcome.

What are the questions a Product Manager should be prepared with for an interview?

There’s a healthy debate brewing about the balance of domain experience and expertise and actual product management/product marketing skills.  The best candidate will have the right balance of each.  However, that isn’t always the case.  Some believe that domain expertise is more important that product management/marketing skills; others believe the inverse.  I’m of the opinion that if you have a stronger skill set in product management and marketing, you can learn the domain skills quickly enough.  Remember, you’re never going to be the expert.  In software anyway, the customer always knows a few tips and tricks and uses that you never thought of.

  • That aside, I think it’s more important to be prepared to answer questions centered around your analytical skills, ability to solve problems, work with teams, under deadlines, dealing with conflict, and the ability to exert influence without authority.  It makes sense to prepare for the interview with company and product knowledge.  Having a sense of where the company is and where it is going helps.  It also helps to know if the product had a bad release or product; be prepared to comment on that if asked.  Perhaps you can offer some insight into why you think it went that way.
  • Display any domain expertise that you can, and specifically any expertise with that product.  It will go a long way (despite what I wrote above; I think it’s important, I just don’t think it’s the most critical).
  • Aside from that, being prepared to answer the classic behavioral questions will help.  After all, you’re not interviewing for a ‘check the box’ kind of role; you’ll need to know how to work and think abstractly.
  • Be prepared with many examples to aid your answers.  It’s one thing to say why you think something, or what you would do.  It’s another to say what you did when faced with that exact scenario.  Think SAR: situation, action, result.  Keep each to about three sentences.  You’ll be able to give a digestible, yet informative answer to a question in nine sentences.

Of course, none of these are right – or wrong.  They are just some things to keep in mind when looking at differences between the PM role in large and small companies, and how you might prepare for an interview.  What about you?  Do you have other differences between large and small PM organizations?  Can you recommend specific interview questions?

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