Career, Product Management

Why a Software Engineer might not get that Product Management role

Interviewing is a skill. Often you might think that you checked all the boxes from the job description but still ended up failing miserably in the interviews. There could be a few reasons that you failed like you suck at answering interview questions, you are not actually qualified, or you might have prepared it incorrectly.

Suck at answering product management interview questions

Interviewing requires practice and preparation. Maybe you can still get away with it if the last time you interviewed was 4 years ago and you are applying for the similar role. However, applying for a new role is pretty much starting from scratch without a lot of past experience to carry you. You won’t have the day to day examples to present and you don’t have experience interviewing for that specific role.

Even if you were given the list of questions before the interviews to prepare, you might not actually answer it well. Let’s take “How do you manage competing priorities?”. The answer could be “to understand the value and cost of each piece of work and visualise it in a roadmap. You can use tools like RICE, Kano model, Value vs Efforts to help with estimating your projects”. All of these are “correct” answers, but what interviewers really want to know if you have done any of those yourselves. Without a real experience in Product Management, it’s almost impossible.

One can try to draw examples from engineer’s day to day. For example, you can talk about Sprint Planning and how you estimate works, visualise it and make decision based on the key criteria. For example, if something requires a few hours but will save the developers hours of manual task every week, that’s a quick win and should be done as soon as possible. While a big task that bring smaller values can wait.

You might not be qualified for the role

You don’t always know what is required by the job even if it has a very detailed job description. Every interviewers has their expectation of the role and it doesn’t have to be the same as the job description. And I think interview is not only a great way for a company to get the right person for the team but also for the candidate to clarify the exact role description.

Nevertheless, you might walk into the interview and realised that you are not qualified for the role. Just like a software engineering role where every team needs different skillset. For example, one might be looking for a higher tier senior engineer who can upskill very quickly and start coaching others. You might be a senior developer with very strong technical skill but not really invested in coaching skill and that’s just not a good fit. You are still a great developer for the right team, but just not for this team.

Preparing it the right way

As a software engineer, interviews are mostly technical. You know how to code, how to draw system diagrams, how AWS works. How well you perform in your interview depends on your experience and being prepared with good examples. You might be asked to explain a system, for example. And you would refamiliarize yourself with one of your systems and even draw a diagram from memory one or twice. Product management interviews are a lot more functional. How do you manage stakeholders, how do you sell the product, how do you manage senior managers, what is your vision.

On hindsight and after listening to one of the interview tips from Modern Product Management podcast, I learned that I should have role-played the role before the interview. The gist was to know as much as you can about the team and product, plan out the 30/60/90 days, map out the stakeholders, make some showcase materials and just working on the product. This will help put you in that role and be able to answer the questions more from a first-hand experience rather than basing on nothing. It is also a big bonus to show that you have done a lot of work to know their company.

The we vs the I

We often look for great team players when it comes to software engineers. And we are trained to almost exclusively use “we” instead of “I”. It becomes very important when interviewing for a product management role to know when to use “I” and when to use “we”.

For majority of the questions, it’s about what you do. So I’ll say that prepare to use “I”s more to show that what exactly that you did to achieve those goals. Often it’s just the product manager that’s talking to different groups of customers and juggle between their request, the team might not know about them until it’s at the top of the product backlog. So is managing the senior stakeholders, your team don’t usually go with you to those meetings. So take the pride and own your stories.

And there will be times to use “we” and it’s important to know when. For example, it is important that you give your team the credit when it comes to building a successful product. You might also need to tell a story of how you sell the dreams to your team, how you collaborated with other roles in your company like the engineers, designers, delivery managers, team leaders etc. Although product management can be a lonely role, you are still a part of a team.


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