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The Product is You: The Most Powerful Interviewing Secret in Product Management

Written by
Ian Randolph Ian Randolph
VP Product @ Qured
Published
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I’m consistently surprised by humans’ capacity to compartamentalise. You see it most obviously with unhealthy doctors, criminal lawyers, and unethical religious leaders. People too often don’t practice what they preach.

Product people are not immune to failing to apply what they know in one domain to another domain. For me at least, nowhere was this blind spot more glaring than in the way I interviewed for product management roles.

Once I started following my own advice, my offer rate flipped from around ~20% to ~80%. I’d learned how to find product-market fit in the job space, and with this perspective on interviewing, I hope you will too.

Undoing academic brainwashing

First, let’s start with why I (and I’d wager most others) struggled to find consistent success in the job market.

Human beings are creatures of habit and easily programmed. For me and others raised in the West, the lead programmer for our brains was the schooling system.

Particularly early in our careers when most of our life has been in school, we tend to view life like school by default. This inculcates an academic narrative frame on life’s challenges – that of the exam. For me in particular, raised in a very academic family, tests were anxiety-inducing events to be survived. The game of school was to overprepare for such events and measure up to the testing standard, to win by proving myself smarter than the exam

"Human beings are creatures of habit and easily programmed. For me and others raised in the West, the lead programmer for our brains was the schooling system."

Ian Randolph, VP Product @ Qured

Given that both share the same pass/fail result, I could be forgiven for seeing interviews like tests, and yet I’ll have trouble forgiving myself for all the opportunities this paradigm made me miss out on.

The story of my early product interviewing career is that of psyching myself out. Coming from a place of anxiety, I would either show up at the interview scared and make a boneheaded mistake or otherwise oversell myself and come off as arrogant and self-centred. I really blew some big opportunities.

It took me too many years to realise I had it all wrong. My biggest problem with interviewing was not my lack of talent or preparation. I was just brainwashed into a losing strategy and failed to apply the most fundamental product principles to my job search.

Taking on the PM role for my career

One of modern product’s top truisms is to “Fall in love with the problem, not your solution” because iterating through solutions to a meaningful problem almost always yields better results than trying to find a problem for your pre-determined solution. The anti-pattern of modern product management thus is leading a feature team delivering to requirements written down on a roadmap, while we’ve learned it’s far more effective to lead an empowered product team solving problems for customers in ways that work for the business.

In recruiting terms, I was treating the job description as the product requirements doc and trying to mould myself and all my artefacts – CV, LinkedIn, and interview prep materials – to match what was in the document, transforming interviews into some kind of QA testing run in which I was being evaluated for meeting the acceptance criteria and deemed a suitable launch candidate. I’d fallen in love with my solution – my candidate identity with all my skills and accomplishments – but didn’t know the first thing about the problems I was being interviewed to solve.

Everything changed virtually overnight the moment I decided to fall in love with my prospective customers’ problems and to treat my role as a product to be discovered. Much of the anxiety drained out of interviews when I realised there was no examiner judging my worthiness, only a customer with jobs to be done in need of help which I might provide. I started treating job interviews the way I treated customer interviews during product discovery, no longer leading with questions about job benefits but instead asking questions like:

  • What are your most important goals for the next 3-5 years? (OKRs)

  • What are the biggest problems you're facing when it comes to achieving these goals? (Opportunities)

  • What have you tried so far to solve these problems? What did you learn from these efforts? (Solution history)

By really understanding not just what the customer says they want (the job spec) but also why they’re actually hiring help (their full opportunity-solution tree), I understood exactly how my product (myself) could help them, granting me an enormous advantage compared to other candidates. Candidates who sold themselves as they were (the way I used to) were shooting in the dark the same way a feature team ships features and hopes the customer appreciates them. I was now operating more like an empowered product team who had done their problem discovery and so could co-create great solutions with their customers.

One advantage of this product-led approach to interviewing is that it’s much more efficient. I was able to “fail fast” by bowing out of the process early for companies who had business problems I wasn’t passionate about and competent for solving. Part of finding product-market fit is choosing the right market, and focussing on high-opportunity customers is certainly aided by this technique.

The other advantage of this approach is that it’s much more fun. As soon as the hiring manager starts talking about their problems, I psychologically move from across the table to alongside them, an implied consultant and confidant. The conversation transforms from an interrogation into therapy.

In summary, by starting with truly understanding what the (job) market really needed, I was much more easily able to find product-market fit for many roles and elevate offers from being a relatively rare result to a default expectation. Remember that your hiring manager is your customer and not your examiner; your job interview is a discovery interview and not an exam; and that you are the product and a student to be graded – and you’ll find much more success (and have much more fun)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Randolph

Ian Randolph
VP Product @ Qured

Ian is a product leader with over eleven years of experience building ground-breaking products and teams with special expertise in designing and delivering UX powered by AI and psychology.

His experience spans Health-tech, e-commerce, and behavioural Science where he has cut fashion returns by 4X with AI-powered interfaces as a start-up founder, earned £3M profit for a B2C economy by boosting AB tests from 15 to 115 YoY, and scaled team from 15 to 50 with 6 squads to deliver a web app with >£1Bn ARR ahead of schedule.

Currently, VP Product at Qured, Ian is on a mission to shift mindsets away from reactively treating illness and make preventative health screening accessible to millions.

Ian is also a product coach, he's mentored >15 people into product and created a course at pmcampus.io, describing himself as a "ways of working" nerd.


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