This is a guest post from Alexis and Adrienne's Product Managers at Work.
I know people who are really good at strategic thinking. One of my friends can instantly take a problem that at first appears intractable, like “How would you drive down the cost of Tesla’s autopilot system to increase profit?” and then instantly break the question down, identify the most important levers, and separate signal from noise to drill down at an airtight strategic plan.
People who do this well are not only great at strategy and would make sharp executives, but also tend to ace Product Strategy interviews like the one in Google’s Product Management Interviews (for Facebook’s Product Sense interviews, read How to 10x Your Product Intuition). When I interviewed for Google several years ago, the Product Strategy portion of the interview asked questions similar to: “What business would you build on top of self-driving cars?” or “How would you revolutionize the car wash industry?” I was successful and landed a job at Google. What made me successful was constantly thinking of different example responses (repetition) and finding patterns in good answers vs bad answers. Developing lots of examples helped me understand what makes good, clear strategic thinking compared to cloudy strategic thinking.
Here are some observations I’ve made which will also allow you to answer these questions better and build your own intuition for good vs. great product strategy.
Good vs. Great answers to Product Strategy questions
To start off, Google tends to ask three main types of product strategy questions (these also align with questions business executives tend to face):
Defining company strategy
- Imagine that you’re the CEO of Netflix. What is your strategy for the next 10 years?
- How would you revolutionize the car wash industry?
- How would you solve homelessness in downtown San Francisco?
Entering/expanding a market
- Pretend Google Next wants to acquire iRobot. What do you look for/how do you position.
- What is an area where Google is under invested?
- What new vertical should Amazon get into?
- How can Tesla sell more cars?
Building a business on top of a new technology
- Let's say Google is able to develop self-driving cars. What are some of the businesses you could start with that technology?
- Let’s say internet speed was 100x faster. What are some of the businesses you could start with this technology?
- Let's say you have a technology that allows people to time travel. How would you monetize this?
1. Defining company strategy
For defining company strategy, one useful technique is breaking the product down into smaller, more tractable building blocks. For example, let’s say you are asked:
How would you revolutionize the car wash industry?
Bad PM: *just starts brainstorming* Customers care about convenience, and especially millennials. So I would launch a mobile car wash service that allows customers to have their car washed while they’re at work.
Good PM: There are several aspects of a car wash business: (1) payments, (2) cleaning, (3) marketing. For (1) payments, car washes probably struggle with the cyclical and weather-dependent nature of car wash demand, so we could experiment with a loyalty program to help with the cash flow. For the (2) cleaning itself, one issue with car washes is that people have to drive somewhere and often wait in line -- instead of having people go to car washes, I’d design a way to have car washes come to people. For (3) marketing -- currently, car washing is a commodity. Car wash services sell beautiful cars, but a way to make it a habit would be to sell a sensation and turn getting your car washed into an experience -- maybe the liquid soap sprays different colors and EDM music blasts and neon lights flash while you go through the car wash tunnel. There are many different ways to transform a car wash into a sensational experience.
Great PM: A great PM would break things down the way a good PM does, and would also take into account changing consumer preferences (for more on how to keep up with market trends, read How to Make a Competitive Analysis Useful) or a solution that adds a layer of new technology. One example of changing consumer preferences is the declining rates in car ownership among millennials and Gen Z. A great PM would recognize this and might instead propose a car wash maintenance service that partners with car rental services like Turo and GetAround.
2. Entering or expanding on a market
For example, let’s say you are a PM at Tesla and you’re trying to answer:
How can Tesla sell more cars?
Bad PM: *just starts brainstorming* There are a few things, Tesla could launch a car rental service, or rent out their EV charging stations to other EV car companies.
In this way, the PM is throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. If something works, they won’t know why and because there is no methodical process, there is no way of figuring out what is working vs. not working how to double down on the things that are working to repeat success.
Good PM: Tesla’s goal is to sell more cars. So Tesla could launch a car rental service that allows Tesla owners to rent out cars on a network. This would lower the friction involved in potential buyers test driving a Tesla, and also create an extra stream of revenue.
This is better than the previous answer, because the PM establishes a framework but then falls short when the PM immediately deep dives into one solution. The ideal would be to explore several options (breadth-first search), come up with criteria for honing down on one, and then dive deeper into one (depth-first search) because X.
Great PM: Tesla’s goal is to sell more cars. There are several aspects from which we could look at this:
- Launch new features
- Sales and Marketing
Then, for each of these buckets, the PM could deep dive.
Tesla could sell new cars by (1) launching new features that get customers excited, or investigating (2) manufacturing, which could involve either bringing down the manufacturing cost of the car to make it more affordable or producing more cars in less time, or (3) improving the sales and marketing strategy.
If you ensure these buckets are Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE), you can have confidence that you have explored the entire territory and not let any granules of sand (that could potentially be significant business opportunities) fall through any holes.
3. Building a business on top of a new technology
With these types of questions involving a new technology, it's helpful to think through the downstream impacts of the new technology. Every new invention has a consequence, and those consequences have consequences.
Suppose you are asked:
Let’s say internet speed was 100x faster. What are some of the businesses you could start with this technology?
Bad PM: *immediately jumps to one answer* If internet speed was faster, then a big business opportunity would be in gaming, especially virtual reality gaming where you need to send a lot of image data over the network.
Good PM: With faster internet speeds, we’ll see a decrease in latency which means that things like high fidelity VR are possible, because you need a large feed for VR. This creates some exciting opportunities, like high-fidelity VR video conferencing that actually makes users feel like they are in the same room with their co-workers.
The Good PM provides more justification but still jumps to only one answer, and hasn’t taken the interviewer clearly through their thought process.
Great PM: New technological inventions will often change the structure of an industry. The best way to figure out how the industry will change and discover the new business opportunities is to consider the consequences of the new technology at each level.
In this case, the 1st order consequence of faster internet speeds is a decrease in latency in data transfer, making cloud computing easier.
The 2nd order consequence is that devices will no longer need onboard computing and less storage is necessary on-device. For example, phones can just store photos in the cloud because they can be quickly loaded and pulled up.
When devices no longer need powerful onboard computing, there are many opportunities that open up. There are two categories I see: (1) the wearable technology space, and (2) the nanotechnology space...
Keep at it!
Google Product Strategy interviews are some of the hardest interviews to nail – you could take it any direction you want, and while it could seem like there’s not a clear bar for what makes a killer answer, seeing lots of examples of good vs. bad responses is one of the best ways to improve. You can practice by using example questions in this post, and answering them by yourself and evaluating whether it’s bad vs. good vs. great using the way we evaluated examples above. With repetition, you’ll see yourself progress.
In addition, there are several exercises you can do to practice your muscles for coming up with great answers. Stay tuned for part two in this series.
To read more on how to ace PM interviews and be at the top of your game as a PM, see more of Alexis and Adrienne’s memos at www.productmanagersatwork.com