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Ace the product management take-home assignment

As you progress through product management job interviews, you may notice that many companies ask for the PM candidates to complete a take-home assignment.

This take-home assignment can consist of product design questions, metrics and analytics, and sometimes strategy.

The take-home assignment helps the interviewer assess two important qualities in the PM candidate: their thought process and their communication skills.

In this article, I’ll discuss the overall strategy on how to tackle the PM interview take-home assignment so that you can progress further in your PM interviews and improve your chances of landing your next product management gig!

Clarifying your assignment

When you first get your assignment prompt, take 5 minutes to make sure you completely understand what the interviewer is asking. Oftentimes, you can pick up on subtle themes if you’ve completed enough of these take-home assignments which will help frame your answer in a favorable manner. Here are some things you should do to fully understand your prompt:

  1. Deliverables/Answer the question: The first thing you should do is make sure you fully understand the deliverables. If the recruiter is asking for designs, a PRD, a file format, make sure you take all of those things into consideration.
  2. Timeframe: Next, clarify with the interviewer when they’d like the assignment completed by and how long they typically expect interviewers to work on the assignment. Now is the time to ask for rescheduling if you think you can’t commit to the assignment at this time. While no one will be keeping track of the exact time you spend, you still want to be somewhere in the recommended ballpark. Additionally, this will help you block out the appropriate amount of time to work on the assignment.
  3. Assumptions: If you have any major assumptions, feel free to ask the interviewer or recruiter to clarify them at this point. The answer may lead you to completely different approaches when it comes to your assignment. Don’t be afraid to gather this extra intel if the opportunity presents itself.

Managing your time

The take-home assignment usually requires a few hours of dedicated work time. Depending on your work style, I would recommend blocking out the anticipated time to complete the assignment. Here’s how you should organize your time:

  1. Minimize interruptions: While working on your PM interview take-home assignment, I highly recommend minimizing any interruptions and focusing on your deliverables. The assignment requires you to communicate a lot of information and interruptions to your thought process may reflect in your deliverables. It’s important that you keep your writing direct, contextual, and concise - staying focused will help accomplish those goals.
  2. First draft mentality: While you want your final product to be polished, try and take an agile mentality when completing your take-home assignment. Spend the minimal amount of time to work through your first draft as you’ll likely make multiple changes as you go. Once you’ve completed your draft, you can always go back in later to make changes, add details, and improve any areas that may be lacking.
  3. Save time for review: I recommend not spending all of your allocated time in one sitting. It helps to come back to the assignment with fresh eyes and clear thoughts (after you’ve completed a full draft of course). Plan to come back to the assignment a few hours later to reevaluate the state of your responses.

Working on the assignment

The meat of the take-home assignment is actually sitting down and going through the thought experiment proposed by the interviewer. Here’s some tips on working on the actual assignment itself:

  1. Be concise: A mark of a good PM is knowing when to add just enough detail without overloading the document with details. Use your best judgement in determining what topics can be skimmed over and which require precise explanation. Think of your writing as a prioritization of sorts, another skill PMs should be proficient at.
  2. Fully articulate your decision-making process: While you want to aim to be concise, make sure you organize your thoughts in a way that helps the reader understand your decision-making process. Using a formal framework or template like a PRD (product requirements document) will help tremendously in this effort. Here’s a PRD sample by Jackie Bavaro that I highly recommend: https://medium.com/@jackiebo/asanas-spec-template-spec-training-33bfd9d4dd32
  3. Utilize visuals: The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words. If you’re good with mockup and prototype software, utilize that to your advantage in your PM take-home assignment. Good design can really help you keep your deliverables concise, as well as communicate key feature ideas to your interviewer. It also helps to show that you have some level of competency in design principles. I recommend tools like Figma or Balsamiq.
  4. List out open issues or possible doubts: Somewhere in your project, I highly recommend listing out any open questions, risks, and dependencies. This demonstrates to the interview a level of awareness that your solution may depend on some key assumptions. Additionally, the recruiter will appreciate your transparency, and likely applaud you for knowing the limitations of your solution.

Review your work

When you’re done with your assignment, it’s time to review your work one last time and make any final adjustments. Here are some ways to really polish up your work:

  1. Ask for someone to review: It’s always a good idea to have fresh eyes take a look at your assignment and see if they can follow along. I not only recommend asking other PMs to review your work, but also friends who are not in the industry. If non-product people can follow along, then you know you’ve done a decent job of explaining your core ideas.
  2. Play devil’s advocate: While it’s good to be confident in your proposed solutions, it’s also a good idea to look at the other side of the coin. Review your work from different perspectives: would this be a viable solution if you had zero resources? Is this solution measurable? Why are your competitors not trying this? Think of novel ways to poke holes at your assignment and address them.
  3. Answering the prompt: At the end of the day, you want to make sure that you answer the prompt the interviewer gave you. It’s easy to get carried away in your work and forget where your end goal was. Take a moment to make sure you’re providing what the interviewer asked.

Submit your work/Gathering feedback

When all final touches are done it’s time to submit your work! If you’ve never done a take-home assignment before, pat yourself on the back. I like to keep a copy of all of the assignments I’ve done so that I can refer back to them whenever needed. Additionally, I encourage you to ask for feedback so that you can continue to improve your take-home assignment skills:

  1. Submit your assignment on time: This goes without saying. Deliver your tasks as promised and on schedule. You don’t want to be making bad impressions this early in the process.
  2. Be prepared to discuss further: Some interviewers may have a follow-up conversation for you to present your work or walk them through your assignment verbally. Be prepared to defend your decisions and discuss your process in detail.
  3. Utilize feedback to improve: If the interviewer does provide feedback, make sure you make note. As I mentioned before, I like to keep copies of my assignments along with these notes to refer back to in the future.

Conclusion

It’s very likely you’ll come across some sort of PM take-home assignment during your PM interviews. Remember that this is a great opportunity to showcase your skills as a PM in a real-world scenario. Take the time to knock this assignment out of the park so you can advance quickly to the next step in the interview process!

If you’re looking for more interview tips, check out my article on PM interview tips. For all your other interview needs, sign up for mock interviews with great coaches, or enroll in PM courses, all on Exponent!

Jeff Lee

Jeff Lee

Startup Product Manager. Former PM @Autodesk. Co-founder @Roughdraftgames. Georgia Tech & Berkeley Alum. Fluent in Rocket Science & Slack. DM about Technology, Board Games, ATL sports.

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