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Interviewing for an Entry-Level Product Role: Why Presentations Matter

Jeff Champa

Vice President Product Management at Lexipol

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Problem

Some time ago, I was managing a relatively young team of entry-level PMs. The first people to join the team were reasonably good, and we wanted to make sure we would continue to bring high-quality people into the team. At the same time, I felt that our entry-level PMs should become involved in the interviewing process and have their say in who was joining their team.

Actions taken

I deliberated for a while on how I could include our juniors in the interviewing process. I wanted to incorporate their feedback, and they wanted to have a hand in picking new talent that was coming in. By asking candidates to deliver a presentation, I could have my juniors serve as the audience that would ask questions while at the same time presentations as such would demonstrate key product skills of candidates.

I decided to ask all of our candidates who would be coming into the team to deliver a presentation, and I would have the entire product team sit on that presentation and do QA. That was a good way to include less experienced people who were not sitting on the interview panels to ask questions, get to know candidates, and provide feedback to the people on my management team. Our entry-level PMs would be encouraged to share how they felt about those candidates and if they thought candidates would be able to operate at the expected level. Those were the things I thought they might be able to accurately assess at their career level.

By asking candidates to do homework (in the form of a presentation), I was also able to separate candidates who were self-starters and willing to take the initiative. If we would like someone on the phone screen, we would give them homework. The idea was to assess if a. They were interested enough to do the homework; b. If they could follow instructions. Candidates would be given a topic for a presentation that they should deliver in 15 minutes or less, asked to bring their slides in PowerPoint on a USB stick, and told to expect 15 minutes of QA after the presentation.

I was surprised how many people were unable to follow clear instructions. We filtered many poor candidates by discarding those who were unable to deliver as instructed; there were people who would be talking for 30 minutes or wouldn’t cite their references. It also helped me highlight to the people already on the team the importance of following directions. Moreover, many of my entry-level PMs develop a critical approach to their own presentations by listening to other people -- they paid more attention to how they would deliver a presentation, what would be compelling content, and how to cultivate their style and energy. Presentations also helped them understand the importance of building strong working relationships in and out of the company. If you can’t deliver a presentation to your own team, you probably won’t be able to do it well in front of customers.

This was why I selected presentations to help me identify a good fit with ease. Many companies will ask an engineer to do a coding challenge. When I boil down product management to the most important skill to interview for -- it is the ability to build strong working relationships with people inside and outside the working organization. The ability to connect with people is best demonstrated during presentations; besides connecting with an audience, it would allow me to see if a candidate can do their research and defend their position in a QA session.

I could ask a candidate to write a user story, but that is not the level of detail I need. But suppose I frame a presentation around a simple topic like, research our product and tell me why people are buying our product and how we should position versus the competition. In that case, I will get the exact level of detail I need to make a solid assessment.

Lessons learned

  • Homework proved to be essential. If you are not going to work a bit extra to get the job, you are not going to work a bit extra to keep it. The hardest thing to assess in a candidate is if someone has a drive and ambition.
  • Whatever task you decide to assign to a candidate, make sure that it is something they can present in 15 minutes. You don’t want to give them something that takes an hour to explain. Make sure that they understand the level of detail you expect to see and be very clear about what their presentation should include.
  • Make sure to leave time for QA. An essential part of our assessment is how a candidate interacts with other people and deals with slight pressure. Don’t shy away from asking someone to prepare for a presentation because it would take too much time. Ninety percent of our candidates took the challenge and, moreover, enjoyed it. Don’t underestimate people. Most people would put some extra effort to get the job they like.

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Jeff Champa

Vice President Product Management at Lexipol


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