How to Answer Engineering PM Interview Questions Without Prior Knowledge

Many of our members (and prospective members) share their challenges regarding expanding on their experiences with technical teams during the Product Manager interview. We hear many complaints about how many never had a chance to work with an Engineering team, so these kinds of questions kill their chances of qualifying for further rounds of interviews.

Here’s an example of a problem that our members face when they have to answer questions about how they interact with Developers:

In today’s article, we will be sharing with you four key strategies to formulate a great answer to these questions, even if you never had a chance to work with Engineering teams!

Strategy 1: Persona of an Engineer

Start by thinking about the persona of a Software Engineer. What do they do in a startup or a large company?

Engineers are the ones that build the final deliverable. They are not involved in the strategic part of the product’s development, but they are the ones that deal with the “how.” They have to figure out what has to be built and shipped to the user.

Engineers are the ones that are responsible for the final execution of the work. They are getting those requirements from other people and people who need clarity on how to execute.

Think about these people, their roles, how you interact with them, and the type of relationship with them in your professional life. This will help you get started with figuring out their persona.

Here’s a Google job posting excerpt for a Software Engineering position to guide you further on understanding the persona of an Engineer:

Strategy 2: Challenges of an Engineer

If you haven’t worked with an engineer in a professional setting, think about someone who fits the persona we just described in the first step. In thinking about that persona, try to find out what kinds of challenges that person would face.

The first challenge would be estimations. Software Engineers or anyone responsible for the execution of the work is responsible for giving all sorts of estimates to the stakeholders and leadership. They need to predict how long it would take to build the requirements that were given to them.

The second challenge they face is dealing with ambiguous and changing requirements. It’s very common for them to have clients that change specifications midway through a project. They have to deal with sudden changes in the plan and report these changes to their stakeholders.

So, who is it in your professional life that has to deal with these constantly changing requirements?

The third challenge that engineering teams have is having to depend on or getting sign off from other groups. Product development doesn’t happen in silos in today’s world, and the engineering team needs all kinds of input and approval from other teams to complete and verify their work.

Think about someone or some team that is facing a similar situation.

Keeping these challenges on your mind, always try to empathize with them and create your user stories accordingly.

Strategy 3: Be the Advocate for SWE

Now that you have a decent picture of an engineering persona, you can craft your story to show that you were an advocate for the Software Engineering team.

Remember that while a Product Manager is a cannibal for the product, they need to build a great rapport with all stakeholders. This, of course, includes the Engineering team that is behind the technical execution.

As a Product Manager in your professional career, you want to focus on how you strategically empathize with protecting your SWE team. In many of your Product Manager interviews, you will be asked about how you worked with your Engineering teams.

For these kinds of questions, you want to focus on how you developed that consensus-driven approach and how you empathized with your engineers that helped you defend the roadmap or the backlog. Remember that the answer to this question should highlight your people’s skills and not your technical skills.

Strategy 4: Understand the Different Types of Questions You’ll Get

This strategy is all about practicing. Remember that many of the questions you get in the Product Manager interview are about stakeholders in general and don’t necessarily focus on the Engineering team.

You can answer these kinds of similarly, regardless of which stakeholder you were asked to focus on.

Here are some common interview questions that you should think about:

  • How do you work with Engineers?
  • What’s a time when you and your Engineers disagreed?
  • How do you communicate changing requirements to your Engineers?
  • How do you deal with tech debt?
  • What are some of the ways that you managed the backlog?

You can get similar questions for different kinds of stakeholders. Don’t let the fact that you never worked with Software Engineers stop you from answering these kinds of questions. You should be comfortable with answering these questions because your answer focuses on the persona of an engineer and the challenges they face.

You must think about someone in your professional life that fits the criteria we described here to think about how you worked with them and how you acted as an advocate.

Unfortunately, there are a limited number of reliable resources online when it comes to seeking advice on how to communicate and work with Engineering teams. One of our all time favorites is this guide written by Ken Norton, a Google PM who joined the company in 2006 and helped grow Google’s Enterprise products.

The article contains 10 valuable steps that you should be applying to your career. Make sure you read the article until the end to really figure out what those steps are!

For Product Gym Members:

If you are already a member, you should be familiar with many technical terms after completing your Week 0 vocabulary homework. You should use the words highlighted in that assignment to craft your story.

In addition to completing the Week 0 homework, you should also watch our Product Manager terms video (available for everyone!) to understand how to incorporate these terms into your interview responses:

Here’s how you should craft your story about your work if you never had any experience working with Software Engineers:

  1. Write out what do you do at your job. Make sure that it is as detailed as possible and include who you work with, what you do, when you do it, and whether or not the cadence of your work changes daily, weekly, monthly, etc.
  2. Figure out who are your Engineers in your day-to-day and how you interact with them. What’s their persona like? Do they build an application, or are they supporting a product that is already in use? In summary, you should figure out what they do to fit with the engineering persona?
  3. Define your relationship by listing out the challenges you have with them. Many people think that they can’t answer this question because they never worked with an Engineering team. That’s not necessarily true if you focus on one level of abstraction removed from what the software engineer is responsible for. Write out and define the relationship you have with those people that are responsible for the final deliverable.
  4. Write out the specific resolution that happened when you interact with these types of people. So, is there a particular story to tell? Was there a specific challenge? Focus on what that resolution was and what that story was to make sure that you highlight yourself and the software engineer for that specific story.
  5. Now it’s the time to edit this script to include yourself in that particular resolution. Keep in mind that it’s also essential to include what you learned about yourself and Product Management. Often, people don’t have much problem talking about a challenge, but they get stuck when it’s time to explain why it was a challenge and precisely why it was a successful challenge. You must articulate what you learned about that challenge and what you learned about yourself.

If you are currently interviewing, you should already be familiar with these kinds of questions and have started formulating an approach to tackle them. However, if you are new, please check out our member portal to find resources on this topic.

Many of our members and prospective members wonder about popular technical questions that are asked in the Product Manager interview. You can find about more of them here.

You can watch the video version of this blog post, explained by Cody Chang, Senior Product Manager at Vimeo and instructor at Product Gym:

Are you still confused and feel like you need help? Schedule a call with us today to find out how we can help you with your Product Manager job interviews!

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