Inside the Google job interview process: What it takes to land a top product management role

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There are job interview questions we’ve all heard at some point, like asking to name your greatest strengths and weaknesses, and then there are the ones a product management expert like Moharyar Ali is expected to answer from the likes of Google.

“How would you capitalize on the World Cup? What products would you make?” is one example. “What’s your favourite non-tech product — and how would you improve upon it?” was another. Then, a few interviews later came the real whopper:

Design an algorithm for Scrabble. Assume that each letter in the alphabet gets a specific point (i.e. A=3, Z=1, D=7 etc). You have access to a dictionary. Scrabble has seven words, your opponent already has a four-letter word on the scrabble board. How would you develop the algorithm? How would you improve that algorithm?

For those just beginning their journey towards a career in product management by finding the right educational experience through Course Compare, these questions might seem a tad overwhelming. For Ali, however, they were par for the course during a recent job application process when he was exploring an opportunity to join the search engine giant’s Gmail team.

Ali, who shared notes from nearly a dozen 45-minute interviews he had during Google’s recruitment process, says it takes passing the third interview before you’re brought “in house” to speak with actual Googlers for a product management role.

“You have to pass every interview with a score of at least 80%”, failing any one interview out of the total 10 or so interviews means failing the overall interview process.”

Besides testing his technical knowledge, the interview process also required Ali to talk about his values, such as making sure that if you put a feature into a product — even a minimum viable product (MVP) — you execute extremely well or not at all. He was quizzed on how he would prioritize in order to achieve goals around product growth. Some questions required him to talk specifically about the use of technologies like augmented reality (AR), while others tasked him with figuring out the best way to calculate the number of Lego bricks in the world.

In the end, Ali, says, the opportunity with Google wasn’t the right fit.

“Honestly, I was not excited about working on Gmail,” he admits. “As a product, it’s now  in its maturity phase and I like working on high-growth products. I think they saw that.”

That said, the experience was valuable for Ali in his current role as the principal of Product Faculty, which offers a 10-student, in-person product management MasterClass. The next one begins  June 18, and Ali says he’ll not only be offering insight into what it takes to get into a firm like Google, but how to grow within it.

“I spend a lot of time on the strategic module — product managers run the risk of getting stuck as a product owner or technical product manager where you only do what you are told and manage the day-to-day backlog,” he says. “If you want to be a product leader (i.e. director of product) and have a long-term career, though, you need to be strong in strategy. That’s why we spent a week on various ways of stretching your strategic muscles.”

And once you’ve honed those muscles, don’t be afraid to flex them, Ali says. 

“You’ve got to be visionary,” he says. “Any company in Toronto that has received a significant amount of funding and/or have ex-Googlers on the management team expect this. You have to show that you can be bold, and paint a picture of what you believe the future looks like for the company you are interviewing with. Giving “incremental” improvement ideas to interview questions won’t work – and you’ll be left surprised as to why you didn’t end up getting the job even though you gave “reasonable” answers.” PM’s need to be more than just “reasonable” – as the owners of the long-term success of a product they should also be strategic and visionary.

Interested in becoming a product manager? Check out Canada’s leading product management courses

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