Most PMs I interviewed at Google did not pass the test. You won’t either unless you show that you’re more than just a product manager. You have to prove that you’re a Google product manager.
I remember my own interview at Google pretty well. I knew that most people who interviewed there didn’t get hired, so I focused on my mental game. I went in with an attitude that I’ll just try to have fun with it — show that I’m excited to work there and that I care. Most of all, focus on enjoying the experience and trying to learn more about what it means to be a product manager at a company like Google.
Across a phone screen and two on-site interviews, I was subjected to hours of questions that I had never heard before with lots of hard, ambiguous problems to solve. It was difficult and stressful, and yet I managed to stick to my plan — stay happy, stay excited, show you care. I left thinking that I had a good time. It would be OK if I didn’t get hired. And if I got hired, it would be a pleasant surprise.
To my surprise, I got hired.
And within a few weeks, I was interviewing other product manager candidates.
It was daunting. I barely knew what I was doing at my own job, and they were already trusting me to make decisions about who to hire. I knew I’d have to level up my interviewer game to ensure that the next PM who gets hired was better than me.
By the time I left Google, I had interviewed dozens of product managers. Most of the time I was conducting phone screens. That meant I was the first product manager you’d talk to at Google. It was my sole decision that determined whether or not you moved on to the next round of interviews.
Out of the over 50 product interviews I conducted, I gave top scores to only 3 of them. And even if I signed off on you, you’d still have to get the approval of all your other interviewers, the hiring committee, and company executives. It’s a huge feat to get hired by Google.
Why is it so hard? Mostly because we’re told very clearly that we should only hire people who make Google better. Most PMs I interviewed did not. It’s not that they’re bad PMs; it’s just that they’re not Google material.
Here are some specific reasons why you didn’t come off as Google PM material in your interview.
You’re not user focused
I always enjoy asking open-ended questions like, “if I delegate this problem to you, what would you do?” Many people answer they’d go build some solution or dig into data. Those are the wrong answers.
The best answers are always about understanding people and the underlying problems they have. Tell me you’d go do some interviews, conduct surveys, talk to experts, or somehow get to the heart of the problem. Then you can get to the data analysis and other bits. I was always stunned about how frequently I’d get an answer like, “I’d go build a new app…” without any attempt to dig into a problem first.
Show that you really care for and empathize with people who use your product. Prove you’re willing to go the extra mile to understand their pains and problems. This is the heart of product management at Google and anywhere.
You weren’t excited and confident
Most people who interview at Google are nervous — and that’s totally understandable. You’ve been given this one shot to get a job at one of the best companies in the world. You don’t want to fuck up, and that makes you jittery and anxious.
When nearly everyone is like that, I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get that candidate who’s happy, engaged, and enthusiastic to be there. They usually have a little smile on their face. The tone in their voice shows their happiness. They’re clearly excited to be here, and that makes me excited to be there with them. It shows they’re confident and ready to handle any problems might come their way, even though they might be stressed right under the surface.
So channel that anxiety and nervousness into confidence and joy that shows you came here to get this job. It helps if you go into the interview as if you have nothing to lose — you don’t because you probably won’t get the job anyway. If you embrace this feeling of excitement and happiness, you’ll amaze yourself how different your answers and behavior will be during the interview.
You didn’t communicate clearly
“Product manager” is a fancy term for “communicator” because most of what we do is listen, explain, and negotiate. Because of your nervousness and stress, sometimes it’s hard for you to think clearly. Your brain is firing off all kinds of thoughts, you’re not sure which way to go.
Then you try to speak. What comes out is a lot of words — a stream of consciousness, not an answer. I’m sitting across the table from you struggling to reassemble your words in a way that I can understand. You have a picture in your head that’s not developing in mine because your brain is getting in the way.
The best way to handle this is to take a few seconds before you answer to plan what you want to say. Then focus all your effort on clearly communicating those concepts. Make sure you answer the question I asked, and make sure to explain why you chose that answer. Don’t think of new things to say while you’re talking because that will get in the way of your clear communication.
You weren’t Googley enough
I always asked the same questions in my interviews. It made me more consistent as an interviewer, and it gave me a baseline that I could use to measure you against. Because of this, I could tell in the first few minutes of the interview whether or not you’d pass the test.
Most people’s answer’s were middle of the road. They lacked that creativity that shows they were masters of tech, design, and strategy. The candidates didn’t show their enthusiasm about applications of new technology or the brainpower that’s available to them at Google. Their tone of voice was flat or nervous, and they looked like a deer in headlights. They gave answers I had heard before — nothing novel or interesting. It was boring to be with them. I wanted to get out of the interview as soon as possible and even less to be their coworker.
“Googley” is the term that’s used to describe the intangible factors that separate out the people who are really enthusiastic about their work and working at Google. It’s a combination of being knowledgeable, passionate, humble, and friendly that embodies what an ideal Google employee should be. In short, I should be excited that you’re going to join the company — that you’ll fit in with everyone, that you’ll be fun to get lunch with, and that you’ll do it with zest.
This is really the hardest of all to advice about because it’s so subjective. First, you need to do the things above — prove that you care about people and their problems, show your excitement and engagement being here, and clearly communicate what you’re thinking. Then you have to go the extra step to prove that you really know and love product –that’s the best you can do to show that you’ll fit right in as a Google PM.
There’s a part of my Google interview history that I neglected above… That was my second time interviewing at Google.
My first interview with Google was three years earlier. I managed to pass the phone screen and get an on-site interview. And then I fucked up. I was nervous. I couldn’t think straight. I gave terrible answers. I walked out knowing that I didn’t make the cut, and I was proven right.
A few years later, a Google recruiter got in touch with me asking to come back and try again. I said yes, and I went in with that attitude I mentioned before. I probably won’t get hired, so I should embrace the experience so I can stick to my core values instead of fighting against my nervousness and anxiety.
To my surprise, I got hired.
I got lunch with my new manager a few days before my start date. He said, “do you remember me?”
I said, “no.”
“I interviewed you when you came on site a few years ago…”
“…and when I saw your resume come up as a new hire, I went to the HR team and asked them to put you on my team right away. You’re exactly the kind of PM that I was looking for.”
It was that moment that I realized I had really passed the test.
You can do it too.