“Acing Product Manager Interviews: Strategies for Success”: Soundarya Chandar, Product Manager at Instagram (Video + Transcript)

June 7, 2023

Soundarya Chandar (Product Manager at Instagram) talks about how to gain a deeper understanding of the product management competency skillset, with practical tips on how to sharpen and showcase these skills, effective interview preparation strategies, including techniques for interview prep with a full-time job.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Soundarya is a seasoned senior product manager currently leading growth for small and medium businesses on Instagram. Before Meta, she was a lead product manager at Yelp, where she’s spearheaded a team managing over 10,000 US restaurants. She launched Yelp waitlist kiosk, driving growth and innovation in the restaurant technology industry. Welcome, Soundarya.

Soundarya Chandar: Thanks. Excited to be here and really distill and share what I’ve learned over the years. I’ll kick off this talk on acing product management interviews with a little bit about me. This year is special because I’m celebrating a decade of being a PM in the Bay Area, which has meant that I’ve worked at different companies and I’ve been an interviewee over 200 times, and I’ve been on the hiring panel maybe about half of that time. As I was prepping for this talk, the stat actually surprised me too, and I was like, whoa, that is a lot of information and insights that I’ve gained over the years.

Soundarya Chandar: The goals for today’s talk are twofold. After being in over 200 interviews, I realized I did half of them quite mindlessly. I followed all the prep tips that you felt that you read on the internet, and I will be honest interviewing did feel like a second job. Sometimes the search took months and there would be times where I get through the onsite rounds and things don’t work out, and it really sucked because I was back to square one trying to look for the for the next gig. However, today I’m at a point where I actually love the interview process and the task, both being an interviewee, but also being on the side of an interview panel.

Soundarya Chandar: Today I wanna walk through a little bit of how that mindset shift happened for me and how that my day-to-day job played a big role in it. And the second goal I want to highlight for today is how developing this continuous learning mindset is so important, and it took me a long time to get there. I’d really want to help you all see the value of building your skillset, especially – this is so tough because as a PM our job day-to-day jobs are already so difficult. There’s so much context switching, there’s just so much your task to-do list is never ending, and there’s a life outside of work that we want to participate and be present in. There’s a way to actually get around it, especially as we think about time and balancing work and time and investing in our skill sets.

Soundarya Chandar: Before I jump in, I wanted to take a step back and talk about perspective – on things that we absolutely cannot control. Especially now, the market conditions are so tough. And, and all of this, just as we were starting to feel like we were recovering from a global pandemic crisis. There’s the economy, there’s the market conditions, there’s global factors, politics, policies that are changing. Every company seems to have a different hiring process. And of course, we are at the age of AI, and there’s technology advancements are happening so fast that it’s, it sometimes feels hard to really keep up with it. As PMs, we like to be in control a lot – so when all of these things are happening, it can feel pretty depressing and deplete our energy resources. Which brings me to my next point on what can be actually controlled here.

 Soundarya Chandar: In my opinion, the only thing that you can control is in investing in your skillset. This is something that you keep building growing and it sort of never leaves you. The closest analogy is, of course, if you regularly go to the gym, your physical fitness is going to get better. The more experience you gain, you in theory will get better at decision making. We often forget that how important and critical it is to keep developing our skillset. I really believe that by focusing on building our skillset, we can actually showcase all of that very easily in an interview setting.

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Soundarya Chandar: Let’s talk a little bit about what these skill sets are. The first time I looked at this map, I felt pretty overwhelmed. This is a resource that I picked from this really amazing PM coach I follow on Twitter – Shreyas Doshi – who has been a PM leader at many different companies in the Bay Area. This skillset map looks so daunting – like where do you even start?

Soundarya Chandar: The good news is – if you’ve been a PM for some time, you’re already flexing a lot of these skills in many different ways. But, we don’t often take a step back to think about how we are calibrating. Are we actually building and sharpening these specific skill sets? Early on in my career when I was interviewing, I used my intuition a lot. That is just something that I’m naturally drawn to. I would research the companies, I would research the products, I would have all these ideas of how they can improve it. In a way, I was really getting good at building my product sense, and I would do really well in those interviews.

Soundarya Chandar: But when it came to some other aspects of interviewing, like analytics, storytelling, communication, something or the other would just wouldn’t work out. When I started later on interviewing at FANG companies where the interview structure is very closely aligned to how you measure your skillset, I worked with a program online, which I can share later that, that modeled the interview set up along the lines of the skillset. I was doing more mock [interview]s and getting more into the program, I realized the side effect, which was that I’m getting better at my day job.

Soundarya Chandar: I realized that I’m avoiding doing certain things at work because it was just not a skill that I felt really confident in. The a-ha moment for me was, oh, I’m doing these mocks. I’m improving the skillset. How do I do that in my daily job? A typical product sense question would look something like this. You are the PM for an amusement park. How do you improve the visitor experience? The old me would jump at this question. I would have all these ideas buzzing in my head, but I needed to learn to pause, breathe, remember, what am I really trying to answer here? Remember the user, remember the pain points? Remember what business outcome I’m trying to drive? Because that is the structure ideally that you follow in an interview, but you of course adapt it to your style.

Soundarya Chandar: If you actually think about it in your day job, you, you are constantly exercising and flexing these skills when you write a PRD or when you’re doing a product review or a strategy session where you are honing in on who the user is, who’s your audience, and why should that audience care? When you’re working with your designer, either whiteboarding sessions, you are mapping out the various happy parts and unhappy parts, or when you’re talking to your partner teams, if you wanna get some collaboration opportunities identified. At all times you are actually flexing your products and skills.

Soundarya Chandar: Similarly, a common question would be, you are the PM for talk’s feed. How would you set goals for your team? You may not. It’s a hypothetical scenario, of course. You start to think about, oh, what’s talk’s mission? Who are its users? What are their pain points? How do I measure the impact? Again? But again, you’re doing all of these things when you write your PRD when you’re setting up OKRs, maybe you’re debugging an issue, you noticed a dip in your metrics and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Or if you’re talking to XFN folks on tradeoffs, like, which features should we build? What has a better opportunity size? What will give us a more higher ROI?

Soundarya Chandar: To me, the shift really happened when I started to see the value of doing interview prep, the skills that it tests for, and how often we actually get to apply it in our day-to-day job. If an interview setting is so similar to a job setting, why aren’t we all acing our product management interviews? Well, obviously because there are some key differences, right? There’s time constraints. In an interview setting, you are you know, you’re given like 30 minutes, 40 minutes to solve that question. There is a lot at stake because you’re trying to prove who you are. There’s a lot about how you come across and how you are a fit for the role.

Soundarya Chandar: You’re interacting for the very first time with hiring panels, so you’re trying to make a great first impression and you’re evaluated on your ability to communicate clearly at all times. And this process can go on for many hours in a single day. But in your daily job, this is like a continuous process and you’re evaluated based on the success of the product. You’re interacting with customers, you’re interacting with your team members who you feel more comfortable with. There’s obviously some key differences, but I do believe that if we start to look at them slightly differently, start to look at how our daily job is preparing us for the next interview and how the interview process of prep preparation makes us better at our daily job. It can actually make the whole process much better give us more fulfillment from a career standpoint. And it does certainly work like that for me.

Soundarya Chandar: I think there’s two very important things of a mindset shift that needed to change. One is, how do I think about time and how intentional am I in taking the time to step back and think about how I did in my day job? It’s very rare that I’m actually questioning was my, this was my PRD number two better than PRD number one was, what was my opportunity sizing or my intuition on how a feature would perform? Is it improving over time?

Soundarya Chandar: A lot of times we do retros for the team to improve team processes, team culture, but very rarely do we apply that retro to our personal growth. The difference is, we certainly do it when we are prepping for an interview, but I really believe that not doing that on a regular basis, not allocating the time to check in and see how we are improving our own skillset, we’re missing out on the compounding effect it could have when it comes time to looking for the next gig.

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Soundarya Chandar: This is a cool image I like to look at. This is a grid, from this blog “Wait But Why” – If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend that you do. This entire grid, both on the left and right is about 1780 hours in a day that is divided into 10 minute little squares. Obviously a big part of our day is occupied by work. All I’m saying is that we need to set aside three to four little blocks. It doesn’t have to be contiguous, but for this intentional practice of investing in ourselves and building our skillset and using that eight R chunk to actually keep flexing and checking in on how we’re building those skillset.

Soundarya Chandar: One of my mentors, she has a CPO role at a high growth company, two kids, does a lot to contribute and give back to the community, product community broadly. She was telling me how she finds time to journal every day. If you look at all the big leaders, they always talk about all these books and podcasts that they’re reading. It’s because I think somewhere along the lines, people have started to internalize how important it is to build this intentional practice of reading and really sharpening our skillset.

Soundarya Chandar: When it comes time to interview, when you’re actually ready to look for that next role, that intentional practice time block is probably occupied by mock interviews, which in my opinion is the most effective way to get conf to gain confidence while you’re interviewing. All the skills that you’ve been practicing in your work by recalling and being intentional about every time you have a conversation on who the user is, what their pain points are, by reflecting on it every single day or every now and then, that’s habit sort of naturally flows in to a mock interview time or in interview time when, when you’re just sort of then focused on keeping to the structure, keeping to the time constraint, but you’re more creative, you’re more insightful, you bring about net new ideas because you’ve been already practicing that previously.

Soundarya Chandar: Here are some ideas that has really worked for me about how to build that intentional practice, this image on the right, something I absolutely love. It used to be my screensaver for the longest time because it took me a long time to internalize this, the power of being consistent. This image on the right is about how the more consistent you are, the further you can get, but the more inconsistent you are, the harder it is to get to that next level. Certainly for me, when I started interview in my first early days of interviewing, I was pretty inconsistent. I would only care to reflect about what I learned, how the features, like how do I frame the success of the feature? How would I do it differently when it came time to interviewing? But now I’ve built a more consistent habit of writing, of occasionally sharing on the internet of what I think.

Soundarya Chandar: That has really helped change how I do my day-to-day job and also practice for interviews, pausing and critiquing products you see every day. This is an idea that I stole from Julie Zhuo, who’s a XPM design lead at Meta. She’s written a book on making the manager. She’s an amazing writer, highly recommend if you don’t already follow her to check her newsletter out. She talks about how there’s products all around us. All we need is to set that intentional time aside to think about, oh, what is it about this product that’s different?

Soundarya Chandar: The new Apple Vision Pro headset just launched yesterday. Did we take the time to think about, oh, it’s $3,500. Who would pay for it? What other use cases exist? Even if that’s just on a own, on your own personal notes, that is building intentional practice that really helps build a muscle. And the last thing about around numbers and execution. When I was prepping for execution rounds, I would study like what the population of the of United States is. What is that of California? And now when I look my look at my MAU, DAU numbers, or if I look at the stats of OpenAI and ChatGPT, I’m trying to actively put that in perspective.

Soundarya Chandar: Some closing thoughts on this. A mentor once told me that your next job is really a stepping stone for the job after that. That’s how you sort of build this practice of thinking about your career and you’re being more intentional about it, and you’re building the skillset that will take you to that next level. I’ve already talked a lot about making the time to invest in sharpening your skillset, but I also wanted to highlight the importance of, you know, occasionally paying for it.

Soundarya Chandar: Do courses, attend conferences to step back and gain some perspective. And then lastly, consider interviewing even if you’re not actively looking. One, you never know what job opportunity you may be passing up on. Two, it’ll quickly tell you where you stand and what you need to pay attention to in your daily job so that you can keep flexing that skillset muscle.

Soundarya Chandar: Lastly, I wanted to share this really cool visual on product manager competencies. It’s from Ravi Mehta’s blog. He’s also a very famous PM leader. If you notice that the top half of the section, as you start off early on in your PM career, your focus is on the top half of the circle, which is really about feature specification, data fluency, voice of the customer. As you grow, the competencies that you need to actually develop are completely different. By the time you get to a VP or CPO level, it flips to the other half of the circle.

Soundarya Chandar: This was pretty interesting for me to look at because it’s very easy for us to forget that when we want to get to that next level, we need to be intentionally building the skillset that’s going to be exercised at that next level. In closing, really making the time, being intentional using our day job to sharpen our skillset, which, trust me, will help you in your interview. I will set you up for success. That’s it. Good luck with your journey today.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Soundarya. This was wonderful. Thanks everyone who attended.

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