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Why Decode and Conquer is no longer enough to prepare you for Product Manager Interviews

Decode and Conquer written by Lewis C. Lin has long been a favorite prep book for those interviewing for product management roles. The author, Lewis Lin, is widely impressive as he was the Director of Product Management at Microsoft and worked at Google where he was responsible for launching new AdWords products.

What's great about Decode & Conquer

Decode & Conquer functions as a great introduction to product management philosophies and interview approaches. It is easily understandable even if you do not have a computer science education. The book also offers a dialogue style format for the answers to the example questions - which help the reader get an initial feel for how these conversations might go in the interview. The frameworks are at light and digestible and offer you a great place to get started.

Why you need to go beyond Decode & Conquer

Decode and Conquer was one of the first books written on how to navigate interviews for what was still a fairly new role at the time. The first edition of 179 pages was published in 2013. However, the book has largely not evolved to cater to the vastly changed landscape of what it means to be a product manager nor the interviews to become one in 2020.

In 2020, the functional role of a product manager has been deeply defined by many thought leaders. Product managers are coveted and are counted on to be a multiplier force within the company. Having an understanding of technology, domain expertise, knowledge of different functional teams, and being able to work with engineers have become table stakes. Rather, product managers are expected to be highly rigorous in their approach and offer unique insights that few can produce - both in their day to day role and also in the answers recited in interviews.

Understanding this context helps enlighten the following gaps in Decode & Conquer:

Frameworks are too simple for producing insightful answers that your interviewer wants

The given frameworks (e.g CIRCLES or DIGS) are at surface level and will not suffice in answering an interviewer that confronts you with complex and current issues facing the company.

For example, relying on CIRCLES will not aid you in identifying the appropriate customer personas and nor their emotional needs. Instead, you will have to develop your mini-frameworks to give a compelling answer for the ‘I’ and ‘R’ portion of the framework. For example, a mini-framework can be to “imagine a day in the life of” the customer persona you picked so you can distill: emotional needs, common and frequent behaviors, touchpoints with technology or items they use already and etc.

The frameworks do not help in providing answers that adhere to company values or quirks

For example, if you are interviewing at Facebook, I'd recommend you do not refer to 'users' as 'users', rather refer to them as 'people' or 'individuals' because it displays a subconscious level of empathy you have for the people you serve with your products. This is important for a company focused on building products around community building.

The example questions and answers can be misleading

  1. The provided answers can be misleading in the sense that they offer a lower level of depth than what is required to meet the rigorous standards in the hiring process. Or at other times, example answers include such highly detailed information that you would never remember in an interview like "5-7% annual market growth rate" unless you worked in that domain.
  2. The book does not offer information on why a particular problem was solved in one way or another.
  3. The answers feel over-rehearsed and mechanical - two adjectives that you do not want your actual interviewer to ever use in their feedback form.
  4. Since everything is presented as a dialogue, if you try to meaningfully engage with the content and come up with your own answers, you will not get an indication as to if your own answer was right or wrong, unless it happens to match the fake candidate's.

So what does this all mean for you on your PM interview preparation journey?

For all the reasons above, we suggest that you utilize Decode & Conquer to help you get started and to get your feet wet with PM interviews. However, to truly excel and to get the offers you want, for example, a Facebook PM role, we recommend you go above and beyond.

How do you go above and beyond in your preparation?

  1. First setup and follow the recruiting steps and timeline we’ve built here

  2. Second, as you begin your interview practice by setting up 1-on-1 mock interviews on Exponent’s Slack community, do reference other frameworks that other product managers have built. For example, We’ve written a post on high level Strategy Frameworks. Or you can also reference and review Exponent’s own practice question forum where the community answers interview questions with their approaches.

  3. Third, after trying these frameworks out for a while, you MUST begin to build your own frameworks. Build frameworks to help you move faster, to think differently, to help you brainstorm, to do anything you might need to in an interview. To help you do this, refer to this

  4. Fourth, review, tune and polish your frameworks and approaches by doing a few mock interviews with product managers at your target company

At the end of the day Decode and Conquer is still a good start for your product management interview journey. It provides a simple overview of the topics you are tested on in the interview and provides enough examples to orient yourself on how to communicate your answers. Beyond that, we suggest that you go deeper and create frameworks by learning from other product management leaders or using our guide so that you can provide answers that are truly insightful and rigorously methodical.

If you would like to cover all your bases, we suggest that you take a look at our PM Course offerings. And if you truly want to take all of your practice to the next level, sign up for one-on-one coaching sessions with our brilliant Exponent Coaches.

Karthik Menta

PM at Omni. Passionate about social enterprise and building products for marginalized populations. Ex-Accenture Consultant, Cornell MBA

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