In this post, we interview Stephen on how to ace your product management behavioral interview questions. Stephen Cognetta is the co-founder and CEO of Exponent, a tech interview prep company. Previously, he was a product manager at Google.
In an interview, how should you answer the question, “Tell me about yourself”?
Tailor your answer to the company you’re interviewing with. Include your work history, and also explain why you’re passionate about the type of work you would be doing in the role you’re interviewing for. Be sure to mention any volunteer work you’ve done, conferences you’ve attended, etc. that demonstrate you’re desire to be involved in the space and to keep abreast of developments in the space.
For instance, if I were to interview at a mental health startup, my pitch would be:
"Hey, I'm a former product manager at Google, where I used to work on Google Search and Android Wear. For the past few years, I've been building Exponent, which is a company dedicated to help people break into tech career fields including Product Management and Software Engineering, and I have grown this company to now partner with top-tier MBA schools like Stanford and Yale. I've been passionate about product management ever since I found out about the role in college, which I thought to be a perfect fit for my technical, yet people-oriented skillsets. One particular aspect of product management that I like is a "therapist-like" role a PM plays sometimes. Whether it's volunteering through Suicide Hotline or my broad interests in the field of mental health by planning Hack Mental Health, I've come to realize that I want to leverage my skills in product management to make an actual impact in this space, and that's what brought me in here today."
How should I actually craft my version of the answer to the above question?
This question is often asked in a casual setting, so first pay attention to how the question is asked. Is the interviewer expecting a brief or exhaustive answer? You’ll need to decide on the fly, often by reading the room, from cues such as eye contact and body language. Have multiple versions of the answer ready to deploy depending on your read of how long you should talk for.
As you answer, try to align your background with the company and where it’s going. Craft a narrative that answers the biggest questions, including “What makes you special? Why this company? Why this position and the industry?”
Narrative is really important in answering behavioral interview questions, so ideally you should craft a compelling story around not only yourself, but also about you and the company, and how your stories align together.
Why do companies ask behavioral interview questions? What's the point of them?
Although behavior questions can be problematic and subject to biases (as a result, companies like Google don't even bother asking behavioral questions, while companies like Amazon put a lot of emphasis on them), you should prepare for them as they will come up inevitably during your interviews.
Usually companies are looking for culture fit and how you might resolve conflict within a team. My three core principles to answering behavioral questions are:
- Give a structured, clear, coherent answer.
- Be authentic. Don't be a robot and be truthful.
- Create a narrative that aligns you and the company.
How can you prepare for behavioral interview questions?
Don’t over-rehearse and don't depend on a framework like STAR. Instead, actually practice answering question with self-awareness and self-reflection. Practice is at the center of how we coach our clients at Exponent, and we always recommend instead of rehearsing a perfect answer based on a gimmicky framework, clients should practice being confident, comfortable, and excited during these interviews, while observing and reflecting on their answers. Practice makes perfect, but only with self-awareness and reflection.
Lastly, do your homework. Know all about the company; watch its keynotes; talk with a couple of people within the company to get a vibe of the company’s culture; have a vision and opinions about the space it is in; again, prepare a narrative of why you and the company are a good fit.
Where do interviewees most often fall short?
They don’t listen! They don’t read the room. They talk too long. Emphasize with the interviewer who's taking an hour off their job and engage with the interviewer so it's not just them listening to you talk the entire time. Practice active listening. Make sure you understand the question correctly and answer the right question.
There's an effective method to get better at this: as you practice answering questions, record yourself. How long are your answers? Don't go on for 10 minutes just answering "Tell me about yourself."
Once again, the key to nailing these questions is to be concise and empathetic in your answers.
How to deal with nervousness?
First of all, I fully empathize with the nerve-racking nature of interviews. It is scary and sometimes demoralizing to be grilled and pushed to be on your toes the whole day. It often feels as if this one interview, this one day will make or break your career.
However, try to zoom out and get some perspectives around this. At the end of the day, this is just one interview, one company, and one job. People make mistakes all the time, and it's okay to do so. It's all about mastering the self-talk to calm your anxiety.
There are also some tactical things you can do to work around your anxiety. Make sure you get enough sleep. Try doing some power poses. And approach the interview with the mindset that you’re interviewing the company, because that is what's happening in reality. As much as you are hoping to impress the company, the company is trying to do the same so that you will want to join them.
Lastly, getting stuck and being stuck could be one of the most anxiety-inducing moments during interviews, and Exponent has a course around how to un-stuck yourself when this happens, so make sure to check it out if you want to learn more.
What if I don’t have the “right” work experience for product management?
Get experience. There are plenty of opportunities to do so. Plan an event. Coordinate with other teams in your existing company. Also remember that you might already have the right experiences to talk about. Don’t discount ways you might already be acting as a product manager. Often times it's about reframing your experience to fit it into that of a product manager, by asking the question "How is what I'm already doing like being a product manager?"
If you want to learn more about this, Sachin Rekhi and I spent some time digging into different things you can do to gain and reframe various experiences to break into product management in our previous interview.
What are common behavioral interview questions in product manager interviews and how should one go about answering them?
There are three main ones that I want to touch on:
- “Why this company?” – Why do you want to work at this company? How does your personal narrative align with the company’s goals and objectives?
For instance, as you might have noticed in my pitch, I've been genuinely interested and involved in the mental health space, and that's where I want to make a broader impact by joining a mental health startup as I can't do this just by myself.
- “Why PM?” – This is a common question for those breaking into the PM field.
Have an advanced opinion beyond the surface level, and provide something juicy and specific to you. Tell a story about the time that you realized product management is your calling.
- “Why you?” – Why should we hire you? The companies won't ask this bluntly, but it will come up in one form or another, such as "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
Self-awareness and self-analysis of your strengths and weaknesses are really helpful in answering these questions, and you should demonstrate your abilities and fit as a leader and a product manager in these answers.
Are there any resources you'd recommend to prepare for these interviews?
Definitely check out Exponent as we have a course, a blog, and a Youtube channel addressing careers in product management and how to prepare for the interviews revolving around our ethos of practice being at the center of everything.
One additional resource that I'd recommend is The PM Interview, which is an online PM interview bank with a simple and beautiful interface that helps you get more practices in quickly.
That's a wrap! Thank you for reading and I hope you had as much fun reading as I did talking to Stephen.