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Product Manager Guide: The 5-Step Framework To Acing Case Study Interviews

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In the world of startups, product roles are perhaps the hottest positions right now. Product manager (PM) jobs are highly coveted because their work is at the core of creating what the company is selling, while not requiring the extensive technical background needed for engineering. PMs serve as the connective tissue and driving force of a startup: they break down department silos by ensuring that technical product development is aligned with a comprehensive business strategy.

Because it is such an essential role, the interview process can be particularly rigorous. So how do you prepare for product interviews? The ideal PM is quick on their feet and unafraid of a puzzling challenge. The skills needed in each PM position depends largely on the product itself, the team, and the company stage. As such, showing off your adaptability and problem-solving skills will give the hiring team a clear view of your potential.



Succeeding in the Interview

Hiring managers know that early-stage hires can have an incredible impact on the direction of a company, for better or for worse. As such, the company will be trying to assess more than your ability to do the job. They want to see that you'd fit in with their company culture: that you are self-directed (a key skill in any startup employee) with a high ownership mindset who enjoys autonomy and having space to build. They need to know you have the persistence and resilience to stay through the inevitable ups and downs of a startup.

Most companies have multiple interview rounds with technical and nontechnical interviews. Here’s the breakdown of what to expect:
  1. Phone Screen: This step is typically conducted by a recruiter. It is meant for them to learn more about you at a high level and for you to learn more details about the role. Be ready to tell them about your background and why you’re interested in the company in a few minutes. For early stage companies, it’s not uncommon for the hiring manager or founder to take this call instead of a recruiter. For help navigating this round and beyond, check out our resource on answering questions as well as handling behavioral interviews.
  2. Meeting Your Manager: After the initial phone screen, you will chat with the hiring manager who you’ll directly report to should you land the job. They will more closely assess you with behavioral questions and product questions. If it goes well, you might go on to meet engineers and other members of the team that you’d be working with on a day-to-day basis. They will help determine how well you fit in with the team.
  3. Case Study: Nearly all product interview cycles will include some kind of case study. Many are done via a take home exercise, while some are done live during an interview. For at-home tests, companies will expect more detailed with structured thinking displayed. (More details on how to ace this step below).
  4. Onsite Interview: This is the final step. An invitation to an onsite interview is an accomplishment on its own. Most companies will have you meet a handful of members of the team, including stakeholders that you’ll likely work closely with (fellow PMs, engineers, designers, etc.). During the pandemic, the majority of companies have turned to a virtual onsite which is just a series of zoom calls.
For many, the case study is the most daunting part of the process that is unique to this type of job. Below is a guide to help you with these exercises.



How To Ace The Case Study

During this step you'll be expected to walk through and "solve" a business or product problem of some kind. Typically, there's no right answer, but they are assessing the way you approach the problem and communicate your thoughts. The case study may be given to you as a take-home exercise, or you may have to perform it live in the interview with no prep.
  1. Confirm the goals and the context: Begin the case study by confirming what the goals are, and make sure you have all the info needed to give context to the issue. Get granular as you narrow down the scope: who are the users for this product, what are their biggest pain points, and how do those pain points relate to what your product is trying to solve?
  2. Propose and test multiple solutions: With the background of the product and its users laid out, begin suggesting ways to solve the problem. Try out multiple solutions— you want to show you’re able to move on your feet and won’t get stuck after a couple tries.
  3. Narrow down the MVP: Once you see which suggestions are sticking, start narrowing down a minimum viable product (MVP). Explain the reasoning behind your decisions so you can show the thought you’ve put into this— and that you’ll be comfortable defending your decisions to others. Note that product MVPs shouldn’t be confined to engineering-driven features only. Think through how sales, operations and other functions could help to support a scrappy launch that optimizes for getting to market quickly.
  4. Plan the go-to-market (GTM) strategy: Next, lay out your GTM plan. How and where would you launch this product? Which functions (operations, marketing, sales, etc.) would you work with, and how would you work with them?
  5. Decide the success metrics: Lastly, explain how you would measure success. This includes the success of the features or product itself, but also how it supports broader business objectives. For instance, is the product in a market the company has been trying to enter? Or will it lead to growth in an area the business identified as under-performing? Show the company that the success of this product benefits all, not just your product team.



Product Case Study Resources

If you know there will be case studies, it's important to complete practice case studies ahead of time. It's recommended to do at least a dozen to prepare.
Product lead at Kyte and former Senior TPM at Uber Jen Yang-Wong has a great Twitter thread that quickly walks through the case study process, with input from other PMs in the replies.
Agile Insider’s guide offers some quick tips on how to succeed for a product management case study. It was written by the co-founder of Pramp, a resource for applicants to practice a variety of interview types.

For more in-depth information, check out Cracking the PM Interview. The book is widely respected in the product field, co-written by Jackie Bavaro, the first product manager hired at Asana.

The Street of Walls guide explains how to prepare for a consulting-style case study interview. There are many similar ones available for purchase online, but this one is comprehensive and free.

And subscribe to Startup Search as we continue our Product series with new resources, guides and company spotlights.

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