Cracking the Google (PM) Interview

As the co-founder of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to empowering women to become future Product leaders, I often get tapped to give advice on how to ace the PM interview, or just the Google interview in general. So with this post, I hope to accomplish both of those goals and bestow some of the insights/learnings I’ve gained after giving 50+ Google interviews while during my tenure there. Mandatory disclaimer: all of the following thoughts/comments are my own and do not reflect that of Google or greater Alphabet.

Starting off, the Google interview: Google prides itself on hiring only the best of the best. During my orientation, I distinctly remember the orientation leader saying, “We got on average 4 million resumes a year, but we only take about 4,000.” (While that was back in 2014, I’m fairly confident ratios have stayed around the same.) So that’s a 0.001, or 0.1% chance of getting an offer from a cold resume drop…so why do it? Well, because you’ll have the opportunity of a lifetime to work amongst the brightest, sharpest, and most down-to-earth bunch of people on the planet.

Prepping can differ greatly depending on the type of role, but for the most part (and interviews where I’ve sat on the other side of the table as an interviewer), roles at Google are divided into Engineering and Global Business Org (or GBO) (e.g., Business Analyst, Biz Ops, etc.). I won’t cover engineering here, as there are a slew of coding interview study guides out there (hint: don’t forget your Big O Notation concepts). However, as a former consultant, I will say for those going for GBO roles, remember to review your frameworks and be prepared for estimation questions (e.g., the classic, how many golf balls can fit in a Boeing 747).

  1. (Even before the interview) Get referred! Why face 1/1000 odds when you can drastically increase your chances to getting that first recruiter screen by getting a Googler (a Google employee) to refer you? So go out there, explore your network (significantly easier to do if you’re already in the Bay Area, or living in areas with Google offices, e.g., Seattle, Boston, SoCal) and find a Googler who you can connect with, and ask him/her to refer you! No guarantees, but chances are a lot higher that you’ll get that recruiter email to connect and talk about open positions.
  2. Learn about the role: This should really be a no-brainer, and I don’t want to list it here, but fact of the matter, you’d be surprised how many interviews I went through at Google where the candidate had no idea what the job entailed, or which stakeholders the role would interact with. With that said, those candidates didn’t make the cut — but also begs the question, why wouldn’t you want to learn anything and everything about the role, team, and cross-functional teams you’d be working with? Even if you got the offer, you’d still have to work with these people once you accept. So in short, read everything you can about the responsibilities of the role, the team, and especially — any updates about any recent product launches and/or releases from the team. And expect these questions to come up during the interview.
  3. Map your core competencies: When scoring our candidates (and I won’t go into detail, as Google’s scoring system is quite proprietary), we typically will score them on their intellectual abilities, their functional abilities (how well they can do the job), and their emotional intelligence (how well they handled a difficult situation or conflict with a peer/superior). What I typically tell interview candidates or hopefuls, is to make sure they have 3 solid stories they can share during the interview, and read up on the STAR method. For sake of brevity, I’ll let readers go to the link (or multitude of links about it online) and read on their own time. Going back to the 3 stories one has to prepare, the candidate should (without a doubt) choose stories that will fit the STAR method, and highlight each of the core competencies that the interviewers are looking for. If you don’t have 3 stories, that’s fine — but it better be a megastory that can walk your interviewers through how you handled all these diverse situations, but also provide new material for each question so that the conversation doesn’t get stale, which can happen if you’re re-hashing the same story.
  4. Staying cool: Though it’s no longer common practice (or maybe it is…), Google will still give a few brainteaser questions once in a while. I did it sometimes just to ensure a candidate would stay cool under uncertain situations (I promise I derived on pleasure from it, but simply to assess whether the candidate would handle pressure well). One simply cannot prepare for all the brainteasers in the world, but one can train oneself to remain calm under pressure and talk through the solution/or if you can’t get to the solution, talk through how you would solve it. Sometimes we’re not looking for the right answer; we’re just looking for 1) if this ruffles your feathers and 2) do you think logically. But here’s a bone for those wondering…’can you just give me an example brainteaser already?’
There are 3 lightbulbs upstairs, and 3 downstairs — each switch connecting to one lightbulb. If you can only go upstairs one time after flipping a switch/combination of switches, how do you figure out which switch goes to which lightbulb? (For the answer, please visit the AWIP website: www.advancingwomeninproduct.org, and drop me a line there!)

5. Be Googley! Be what…? Yes, the last and probably most important thing that Google looks for is that “Googliness” factor. Remember the Google motto of, “Don’t be evil”? Exactly. Now this isn’t something I can coach you through, but generally (and I’m hoping) most people will exhibit that through their demeanor or experiences throughout the interview. This means, will you stay late one night to help out a colleague with a tough problem? To something as small as, will you clean up after yourself in the cafe? I have to say, out of all the ‘large’ companies I’ve worked for, Google is hands down the best with their recruiting process (which for me, included 2 phone screens and 1 onsite consisting of 6 back-to-back interviews and 1 lunch interview), and their meticulousness shows with the quality of new hires they bring on board.

Now on to PM-specific interview tips.

  1. Know your product: whether the product is consumer, healthcare, hardware, or backend infrastructure, you should have a good idea of what that product is, how the product was developed, and how you would improve upon it (or add to the existing vision/roadmap). And that’s just the basics. The candidates who really excel in interviews are those who make me leave the interview with an interesting insight about the product or a potential downside I hadn’t thought of before. And those are the aha! moments that stand out about that candidate, when we (as interviewers) fill out our interview feedback afterwards. And you want to be that candidate that leaves an impression, especially when your interviewer has had to do 5–6 interviews that week :).
  2. Express product sense: this is something I tell a lot of VCs who think about going into/back into Product Management, but is also something I’ll stress for the wider audience as well. Knowing how the product you’re interviewing for stacks up against competitors in the market is a great way to show interviewers that you have your own unique insight about the product (and have the qualities to become a visionary product manager). Case in point, WhatsApp is a hot product under Facebook’s portfolio, but they need to acquire more customers (who are currently concentrated in Europe) and seem to lack common features that are present in Messenger. So if you were the PM candidate, could you tell me what those features are, and which ones (specific ones, or all of them) you would add to WhatsApp to build upon the user base that is within Facebook’s umbrella without cannibalizing, (or if cannibalizing is the way to go, tell me why) Messenger? And what do you think are the pros/cons about this product? How would you compare WhatsApp to the other messaging or collaboration tools out there? Who is the ideal user base? I could go on and on, but you get the point — think big, think 360 about the product…that’s why you want to be a PM, right?
  3. Be technical: I know candidates are all across the spectrum in terms of their technical abilities. And personally, I’ve worked with some great PMs who were history or English majors, but they all exhibited a common trait — they were curious to know how the product worked and had a lot of trust and understanding with the engineers on their team. Engineers are some of the smartest people out there, but if you don’t have their respect, you will not be a successful PM. Period. How can you do that without having a CS degree? Well, you may not need to code during your interview (although this really differs by type of PM role, some infrastructure roles will require the PM to code or write psuedo-code), but try to wrap your heads around an actual Google PM interview question: “What happens when you type google.com into your browser and press enter?” For those who don’t automatically jump to DNS lookups, TLS handshakes, and HTTP protocols, here’s a pretty good guidesomeone put together on Git. By having at least some fundamental technical acumen, you can also be more confident when you’re talking to your engineers or scheduling product releases.
  4. Be a leader: some people are afraid to use the whiteboard during an interview. I rather enjoy it — because I like to map out everything I think about, and especially if it’s a broad question like, “Tell me about your favorite product, and what you like/don’t like about it”, it really helps to have a white space where you can draw circles (or boxes, if you so desire) for features/wireframes. And by doing so, you also appear to be more of a leader during the interview — because an important quality to have for PMs, is to be leaders of their product. Note: this does not mean that you get to make arbitrary calls about the product, but rather that you are a hub for all the product stakeholders, and you have the important responsibility of integrating and prioritizing all of their voices…and making that into one coherent voice. And speak confidently when you describe the product (this goes more into presence and impact, which I will write another blog post about).

If you can master all 4, and my earlier points about a Google interview, I think you are on the right path to success! And of course, the best way one can prep for PM interviews (or any other interviews really) is to talk to people who are already in the role, and get opinions from leaders in that field.

So I would encourage those who are reading this post to come to the next AWIP event, “How to Crack the PM Interview”, featuring Sudip Shah, Principal PM for Amazon Alexa. And if you’re interested in becoming a PM, or growing in your career, join our community at: www.advancingwomeninproduct.org.