Hamsa Pillai is a senior at Duke University and will be heading off in the fall to join Google as an Associate Product Manager. In this Path to PM blog post, Hamsa and Stephen discuss how to ace the undergraduate associate product management interview.
Tell us about your current PM career.
I’m still a senior in college at Duke, but I’m going to be an associate product manager (APM) at Google starting this fall. In the past, I’ve had the chance to work on developing products as a software engineering intern and as a business development intern at a startup.
How did you break into product management?
I had a very diverse set of internships before I got my full-time offer to be a PM out of college. After sophomore year, I volunteered in South Korea through my university. I worked with migrant children and North Korean refugees, teaching them English to prep for college in South Korea. That same summer, I also worked at a stealth startup, expanding their sales funnel and leading outreach efforts. After my junior year, I worked as a software engineering intern but I got to work on my own product. This internship, in particular, gave me product experience because I took the lead on creating personas, developing a roadmap and a vision, and prioritizing features. These internships got me in the door for interviews, but the interview preparation, especially with Exponent, that I did helped me actually get the gig.
How did you get interviews for PM roles at companies?
I applied primarily to APM/PM roles at the bigger tech companies (i.e. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Uber). Something that helped me get past the resume screen was that I networked to get referrals. One takeaway I had was that having a big name on your resume (something I didn’t have) can definitely get you far, but it’s not necessary to get an interview.
In terms of networking, I used my university’s alumni directory, and to a lesser extent, LinkedIn. Once I found an alum’s email address, I sent them a brief email saying I would love to chat with them about their experiences in PM. Over a 15-minute phone call, I usually asked questions such as:
- What makes you stay at company X?
- What opportunities for mentorship are there at company X?
- Any tips for preparing for PM interviews?
Usually, the alumni would preemptively offer me referrals and I doubt I would have secured interviews without them.
What were the resources you used to prepare?
Last year, I used Cracking the PM Interview and Decode & Conquer to learn the fundamentals. I enlisted the help of my PM friends to give me ~10 practice interviews. All of this was good but it wasn’t enough; I didn’t get any PM internship offers. This time around, I practiced with Stephen and utilized the resources in Exponent's PM course to improve how I thought about products and how I formulated answers in interviews. I also found Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng helpful in improving my analytical and communication abilities.
I also like to keep up-to-date on news in the tech industry so I subscribe to Stratechery and The Information. A pretty niche book that I also found helpful in elevating my product thinking was Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase. Product Hunt also exposed me to many new products and it gives a sense of “what people like.”
What should candidates avoid doing in interviews?
There are many things that can mess up an interview, but I’ll mention a few I’ve seen come up when I helped other people practice:
- Delving straight into an answer after being asked a question
Although this seems to convey that you’re smart and can think very quickly, it can leave the opposite impression on the interviewer. To an interviewer, it seems like you’re jumping to the solution without fully considering the problem and its intricacies. An example of this might be coming up with product ideas without asking clarifying questions or determining the user group.
- Surging ahead without checking in with the interviewer
There’s a fine line between coming off as a leader in a conversation versus dominating that conversation. A good PM candidate will focus on the former. In interviews, just as you would on the job, you should have an opinion about the way forward but you should also solicit feedback. An example of this in an interview might be saying to the interviewer “I think we should focus on user group A for X, Y, and Z reasons. What do you think?” Here, you present your argument in a collaborative manner and also ask for other opinions.
- Not considering tradeoffs enough
One mistake I myself had to consciously correct was not listing tradeoffs for ideas. I’d usually list feature ideas for a product but then forget to detail how it could go wrong or what use cases were being ignored. On the job, forgetting about tradeoffs could have huge implications since you could forget to think about how each decision will negatively impact users. Some common tradeoffs to think of include privacy/ethics, technological feasibility, ease of use, effects on brand, etc. I usually list tradeoffs right after discussing my justifications for decisions. Check out this great post on how to actually include the tradeoffs in your interview.
How did you improve your interviewing skills?
In my opinion, there are two factors separating an okay interview answer from a great one: creativity and communication. Many interviewees can come up with product ideas such as “integrate with X to reach a new group of users” but not many can re-imagine what a product should be. And even fewer can effectively communicate their ideas in a way that wins the interviewer over.
To improve my creativity, I did two things. I used mind maps during interviews and I abstractly defined the given product. Using mind maps gave me some more time to think but it also helped my brain “dump” ideas out onto the whiteboard. This almost always gave me some novel ideas to consider.
But before answering anything in a product question, I’d always take some time to define the product as abstractly as possible. For example, defining a computer mouse: a computer mouse is just an interface between the cursor on the screen and your brain. All it has to do is allow the user to select an item, move an item, and show the cursor position. Using this core understanding of a mouse, it made it easier for me to brainstorm better product visions. For instance, a piece of software could allow your voice to act as a mouse.
The other factor is communication. This consists not only of expressing your ideas clearly and logically, but also being able to persuade the interviewer of your ideas. Give your interviewer a roadmap of where you’re going with your answer. I usually lay out my answer structure before diving into all the parts. When actually discussing each part, I’ve found the inverted pyramid structure to be very helpful. Basically, start general, dive into the specifics, then summarize in general terms again.
Lastly, I try to define a vision for the product after discussing use cases. Basically, I come up with a compelling answer to “why are we doing this?” This is usually effective at bringing the interviewer on board with your ideas and it will help you cut out unnecessary ideas later on in the interview.
When I applied for internships, I didn't really excel in these skills. But working with Exponent's resources really allowed me to build that foundation, especially through repeated practice. I ultimately think the above two factors made the biggest difference in landing the role straight out of college.
What do you think interviewers are looking for in a college-level PM?
In general, I think most entry-level jobs are looking more for raw potential than refined experience. This also applies to product management. In my experience, interviews have been designed to see how I think about vague problems. Of course, although they don’t look for product experience, they do want to see good product intuition. This means you can empathize with users, come up with good feature ideas, and even zoom out to talk about strategies. Something related they look for is analytical abilities; given a problem, can you guide the interviewer through a logical set of steps to an answer, and then give justification for that answer.
Another skill interviewers look for is communication. Can you guide a conversation while still being receptive to other ideas and opinions? A good PM recognizes that the best ideas often come from sales or engineering, but the PM has to be the one to ask the right questions. Good communication skills are definitely something interviewers note down during interviews.
Any final tips for interviewing?
I’ve always calmed myself before interviews by listening to music and by thinking of the interviewer as a friend of mine. The latter helps me feel less intimidated and think of the interview more like a conversation. In terms of music, I always pick something that can hype me up. Usually some Kendrick but I also like the Avengers theme song.
If the interview doesn’t work out in the end, employ a growth mindset and work on improving your knowledge and abilities. And definitely try again. I didn’t get any PM/APM roles when I applied as a junior, but I worked on my skills over the summer and secured a role my senior year.
Hamsa used Exponent's PM Interview Course to prepare for his PM interview.