The Ultimate Guide: Interview Homework
How to crack those pesky take-home assignments
Homework is Everywhere Now
If there’s anything that strikes fear into the heart of product management job searchers, it’s the homework assignment.
Write a PRD for X feature for us
What are the main problems you see with X feature
How would you construct a strategy for Y product team
Too often, you end up sinking your heart & soul into an assignment only to a receive an e-mail ‘No.’ You’re lucky to receive a single sentence of constructive feedback.
It’s a total let-down.
But that’s just the reality of the PM job market right now. Supply is at a maximum while demand is only just now coming back. The brutal market means that employers can ask for assignments at their discretion, and candidates do everything they can to succeed in that homework.
Well over half of PM interview processes these days ask for homework.
A Hard Job, But An Easy Interview
And the trend is only accelerating. Study after study shows that work products are some of the best predictors of work performance.
I would argue that this is doubly true for Product Management. It’s fairly possible to watch every video on YouTube for interviewing, practice for 30 weeks, and act like a good PM case interviewer.
You just have to put in the time.
On the other hand, it’s not easy to be a Product Manager. Not everyone can be one. You have to be among the highest performers at the company. You have to be able to write well, fast. You must be the voice of the user while understanding how to drive the business.
That’s where homework comes in. It helps the company understand just how quality your PM work products can be expected to be.
As a result, I would forecast that: the prevalence and weight on PM homework will only increase over time.
I myself have assigned homework in nearly every PM role I have hired for, across 20+ PM hires. So this piece will give you a behind-the-scenes look of at least one hiring manager.
Over 3,800 words, we’ll break down:
Part 1 - Debrief on PM Homework
Part 2 - 10-Step Formula to Rock Your Homework
Part 3 - The Most Common Mistakes in Homework
Part 1 - Debrief on PM Homework
1.1 The Major Types of PM Homework
The four most common patterns of homework I have encountered while mentoring candidates out in the market are:
Let’s break down each.
HW Type 1 - PRD
Example Prompt: [Airbnb] Write a Product Requirements Document to show the total price
Why They Ask This: Writing a great Product Requirements Document is an art that you can never truly master. It’s like music: it’s easy to see skill and appreciate beauty, but it’s not clear there’s ever an end-state in quality. I thought my team had written some of the best PRDs possible at thredUP, then I went to work at Google. The bar is constantly being raised. Now, I’ve realized the field as a whole keeps raising the bar.
HW Type 2 - Strategy
Example Prompt: [Discord] Write a Strategy Document for our Creator Monetization
Why They Ask This: As you progress in your PM career, product strategy really becomes everything. It’s important to be able to break down the ambiguous competitive and user situation into a set of problems and tactics. Many people lack the ability to think end-to-end, with a growth model to back it up. So this homework is a clear way to separate the talkers from the doers.
HW Type 3 - Roadmap
Example Prompt: [Notion] Write a roadmap for our table functionality
Why They Ask This: One of the key artifacts we own as PMs is the roadmap. It’s the project plan for what features engineering and design are going to build. So being able to build a strategic one, at the right level of detail, is important. Seeing someone’s roadmap is one of the easiest ways to assess their product sense.
HW Type 4 - Problems
Example Prompt: [Roblox] Prioritize the top problems that our editor team should focus on
Why They Ask This: It’s pretty easy to research a company’s high-level product strategy and parrot it back to them. It’s much harder to actually have empathy for one of their core user bases. But that’s the art of Product Management. So companies will ask you this to understand your combination of user empathy and product prioritization sense.
1.2 The Rubric They Have
The people reading your document are primarily asking themselves three questions.
How does this stack up to docs of this category at our company? Generally companies are looking for bar-raisers. So your document has to be better than what the person has read in their company internally.
Has this person demonstrated clear insight? Great homework assignments show core insights about user and business problems. You can’t just send in the ChatGPT response. Assesors are looking for something uniquely you.
Who worked the hardest? The PM role requires people who care and work hard. Hiring managers are comparing users on all of the details on their homework assignment: extra work done, writing quality, organization, proof-reading, etc.
Of course, that’s not actually the rubric they will fill out on you. That will look something more like:
User insight: Did the candidate put the user first and show insights about their product usage and needs?
Usage of data: Is the homework writer capable and understanding of the data needed to drive impact?
Business sense: Did the candidate come up with a solution that work work well for the business?
Writing clarity: Did the homework writer demonstrate a way with words and ability to write clearly for PM audiences?
Structured thinking: Was the candidate able to presenting and deliver on a structured process?
The relationship between scoring methodology and evaluation criteria
There are loads of different people. But at the broadest level, most people tend to judge you based on the evaluation criteria for your Yes/Strong Yes/No/ Definitely Not grade. But they fill out the scoring methodology in their scorecards for their colleagues to see. So both elements are important - but focus on the intangible feeling you leave most.
Make a doc that people wish was the quality being written at their company, that demonstrates clear insight, and shows you worked hard. That’s what you need to focus on most.
1.3 What Your Competition Is Doing
Analysis of common practices
Most commonly, I’ve noticed that people go above and beyond on their homework. So - the basic bar is high and has been rising over time.
Most people tend to send over:
Format: Slides, Notion, or Google Doc
Length: 7-10 pages
People tend to stick to what they know and focus on the types of product documents they have written in the past.
But some people go beyond that. You can go above and beyond by doing three key things:
Talk to customers: Source and interview their actual customers on the topic you’re writing about.
Create a prototype: Use a tool like Balsamiq to create a working prototype to showcase your feature on top of their product.
Include Contemporary PM Best Practices:
Jobs to be Done & User Problem: Include a tight description of the relevant user jobs to be done and problems in the product to accomplish them
Impact sizing: It’s rare to see someone build a model for what the impact would be. Use assumptions to build these into your assignment.
Rollout plan: Not everything needs to be an A/B test. Describe what’s the ideal rollout plan for items.
For readers of this post, the above is basically mandatory. It conveniently puts you ahead of 75% of people.
1.4 Companies Most Likely to Have Homework
Let’s first start with who doesn’t have homework:
The biggest FAANG companies pride themselves on being at the forefront of interview practice liberalism. So you are actually very unlikely to encounter homework at these companies.
The companies that aspire to be like FAANG also don’t have homework.
The more intense startup companies with intense product cultures are most likely to have homework. In these cultures, leaders can’t afford to make a bad hire.
Within that most likely bucket, there’s a clear delineation between scrappy startups and “best OS startups.” Little scrappy startups with 3 PMs are unlikely to have homework. But unicorns with high valuations and intense work cultures are very likely to.
Part 2 - 10-Step Formula to Rock Your Homework
Step 1 - Do One At a Time
There’s absolutely no point to be in multiple homework assignments at a time. You should be focusing your evenings and weekends on your homework assignment in the time allotted. It should be the subject of your mental energy. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to differentiate from other candidates.
To do that, then, you’ll need to focus. Focus on quality homework for roles you really care about, versus homework for any odd role.
Step 2 - Get Advanced Notice
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Product Growth to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.