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Product Management Design Challenge Interview at Top Firms - Part 1

It's very common for top consulting and product orgs to put rigor in interviewing PM candidates using a wide array of case interviews. One of the key cases given commonly is called Product Management Design challenge.
Sajjad Khan

Senior Vice President of Product Management, Onesource Virtual

The Product Management Design Challenge gives organizations the ability to collaborate with candidates on a real project and, therefore, authentically experience what it might be like to work with them. It allows organizations to get a more accurate read on the skills that candidates need to be successful in Digital. A lot of top-tier firms like Mckinsey, Capital One, Intuit and more want to find the cream of the crop and the success rate of this format is usually under 10%. The success rate is really how many candidates were able to successfully go through this process and check the mark across the board. Wonder why this is so hard and why most of these top-tier firms are so selective in hiring the best candidates?

Interviewing for a job is a process and is a highly stressful process. For digital product managers, there is often added pressure of this on-the-spot thinking where you as a candidate are being constantly judged and observed for everything from how you talk to even your body language: an exercise in which you’re tasked with walking through a design problem right then and there.

In addition to the anxiety these types of challenges would cause candidates to struggle to understand the value of attempting to hack away at an abstract task —coordinate a party with some constraints like $500 and 2 people startup —or something mundane and completely unrelated to what they'd be doing on the job—run a lemon stand and make it profitable.

Trust me as I went through the process of being interviewed through this case interview and always asked myself "Why?" I used to fear the problem-solving part of the case. Attempting to solve a problem in 60-90 minutes, with unknown constraints, no preparation and only research, and an often very vague objective? That’s a lot of pressure.

A common trait many digital product manager share is their affinity for framing a problem, researching the solutions and storyboarding the customer journey; the design challenge part of an interview is a lot like being given a crossword or a photo puzzle to solve as part of the interview process.

This design challenge is a highly condensed format of the day-to-day work a candidate might do as a product manager, there isn't one solution to the exercise as nobody expects the candidate to come up with an ideal solution or to demonstrate a perfect process from understanding to storyboarding to reflecting on the solution. Coming up with a great solution is simply a bonus in the evaluation process of interviewing.
Some of the key areas in this format that allow the organization to gauge a candidate's skills are below:
  • Do the candidate shy away from an ambiguous or daunting task or are they the type to dive right in?
  • Do they jump to a solution or ask for intellectual curiosity?
  • How thorough is the candidate when exploring a problem or potential solution?
  • Do they ask to clarify the objectives of the challenge and what the outcome might be, or make assumptions?
  • Do they scribble/doodle when you think or write or openly talk it through?
  • Can they effectively manage within a stressful environment with multiple interviewers observing and asking questions?
  • Can they lead a conversation and think outside the box?
  • Where do they ask for help and do they take the feedback?
Human-Centric Ability: Will they be successful in adapting to our human-centered process?
Creativity & Innovation: How comfortable are they with blue-sky ideas? Do they inspire you to be more creative?
Teamwork & Collaboration: Do they have an energy and working style that jives with their future team? How well do they think on their feet?
Problem-Solving Capability: What is their thinking process? Do they approach and solve problems in a way that meets our standards?

This format usually takes 60-90 minutes with 1-2 interviewers spending time with the candidate with a lot of whiteboarding. Before you know it the allotted time will have passed and you’ll have a whiteboard or stacks of paper filled with words and drawings and some semblance of a storyboard that you never thought you would ever come up with. Sit back and be proud of the fact that this is a great process you led the interviewers through. As a candidate, there are plenty of frameworks out there that help you prepare but what they don't help you well with is to be structured well (As Mike Tyson once said: everyone has a plan until they get in the run and get punched in the face!!! I know this isn't boxing or MMA but its a gauntlet at the end of the day. You want the job! and the firm wants the best candidate for the role and they have a plethora of candidates applying) and be ready for the constraints of the process.

As an interviewer, you could be looking at a lot of things but some key areas around research and solutions stand out as areas that can drive the candidate's success through the process. Being in both interviewer's and interviewee's shoes, I know what it takes to take something abstract and make it a fun process.

As a hiring manager, I have put a lot of onus on running this program for all my teams as this process has helped me hire the best PMs who are well-seasoned.

Next time: I can dig deeper into how to prepare for this format and how to ace this format. I can help you understand what are these top-tier firms looking for in candidates and how they evaluate each phase of the process. 

I have been running this process at top-tier firms for a decade plus and understand what an interviewer and an interviewee have to go through to complete this process. It is not easy on either of the parties and I can help you prepare regardless for both sides of the equation. 

If you have questions or interest in learning more, please reach out to me. 

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