Changing Jobs in Product Management: Interviewing and Offer Evaluation (Part II of III)

This post is part of a three-part series about changing jobs in Product Management. Part one was about doing a self-evaluation and farming your network.

Feeling naked in the negotiation process?After you’ve done your evaluation and reached far and deep into your network (which you are doing anyway – right?), at some point someone will find you.

The point of any your search is for you to find, but also for you to be found, because hiring managers and companies will make a much more lucrative offer to someone they feel like they’ve vetted. I highly encourage raising your online profile through creative PR. It’s not about putting yourself out there to find a job, it’s about being recognized as a “go-to” Product Management expert in your field/geography/niche. Face-to-face events like ProductCamp are great for showing your depth of expertise, which you can leverage into fun online conversations down the road (aside: every city should have a ProductCamp. Email me if you want help setting it up).

No one gets a formal request to interview right off the bat anymore. You’ll get an email, probably from the HR or recruiter, saying that they saw your profile on LinkedIn and you’re a match for some talent that they are looking for. This is where you critically need to have done your self assessment so that you already know if this company is one of your targets, and why. If you’re interested, ask to have an informal meeting with the hiring manager, which may be face-to-face or a phone screen.

The Phone Screen (aka “The Drool Test”)

Don't drool on yourself :)I refer to phone screens as “drool tests.” They like what they see on LinkedIn bio and they basically want to poke you and see if you’re real or if you drool on yourself. Depending on the hiring manager, you’ll get questions ranging from the normal “give me your elevator pitch” to “why are you looking to leave,” all of which you already know the answer to based on your self-evaluation. Take care: phone screens are meant to eliminate you from consideration, so the best you can do is pass on, and the goal is a face-to-face sit down with the hiring manager where you really get the goods on what they want and if it is a match.

After the screen, you’ll have a follow-up meeting for coffee at Starbucks. This meeting is pivotal and you will use it to determine if you are right for the role and if the company is right for you. Every one of these I have done has been one-on-one, but I have heard of 2:1 meetings as well. The hiring manager is interested enough to meet you on his/her drive to/from work, so they will be trying to answer the following questions:

  • Is this person worth bringing in to meet the team?
  • Can I trust this person?
  • How competent are they?
  • Do we demonstrate chemistry? Hint: your questions will impact this.
  • How well to their skills match with my current team?

You should walk out of this meeting knowing at least:

  • Is there a fit for me on a personal, role, and company level?
  • Can I work for this person?
  • Does this role interest me, why/why not?
  • Is this role going to further my career path?

I’ve found that these meetings usually involve a gentle give and take, and as you build a report with the person across the table, you can gradually move to harder line questions. It’s great to treat this as a customer interview, and ask lots of open-ended questions:

  • Can you describe your process of Product Management today?
  • How do you define success for this role in 12 months?
  • What is your biggest challenge today? Why?
  • What is going to make your company win in this market? Why?

It should become apparent very quickly if they are looking for someone with your skills and interest or if they are looking for something else. Often, since Product Management and Product Marketing are confused terms, they will ask which side of the matrix you prefer – be honest, and talk about why you prefer one over the other.

This meeting will close with an indication of interest from the hiring manager if they want to proceed. She will offer to follow up and have you talk to some more people, probably through the recruiter. Thank her and move along, and expect additional conversations to be at the company location in a more formal interview setting – if you get to that point the people who will talk to you are there to test the hiring managers impressions from the first sit down, you are more than likely not part of a (large) candidate pool.

If you are not interested in moving forward, shake his/her hand and thank them for the opportunity to speak. Tell them that it sounds like what they are looking for probably isn’t the best match with your skills but that you might know some people you could refer them to (if you do). Move along and keep casting your net.

The Compensation Discussion

Get into comp talk at the right timeYou’ll noticed that I have not talked about compensation yet. Do not broach the topic of comp. The recruiter will try everything to get you to talk comp early, but you must, must, must never talk comp.

Don’t let them bully you into revealing your current compensation package either – that is nobody’s business but yours, your significant other, your accountant, and the IRS. Your current compensation has ZERO influence on your future comp, and even less relevance on the value that you will bring to this new company. The only reason the recruiter wants your comp is to “pre-qualify” your offer and either rule you out as too high (bad for you) or offer you less on the assumption that you will take your current comp plus x% (bad for you).

Here are some recruiter tricks of the trade to get you to reveal your comp plan, don’t fall for them!

  1. Standard question: “Where are you at now with regard to compensation?”
  2. Blocking question: “Before we move any further, I’ll need to get an idea of your compensation.”
  3. Range question: “What range of compensation are you in?”
  4. Process question: “My database won’t let me process your application without your current comp.”

Always turn the question around on the recruiter – “I’m more focused on where I’d like to be than where I am, what is your range for this role?” Recruiters are used to this dance and will usually get you a ballpark range that you can use to determine if you can work something out. If not, simply state that “I am competitively and fairly compensated in my current role, and I am sure that if and when we determine that there is a mutual fit, we will be able to work out the comp.” Just remember, if you give up your comp, you are giving up lots of future earnings potential.

At some point in the process, this will come to a head and they will demand it. It took my far too long in my career to realize that I held the cards for this conversation, and I gave up my comp too easily. Remember: if they found YOU, if they talked to YOU, if they have their people meeting YOU – that means that you offer them a skill that they do not currently have in-house, and you are a hot candidate to them. They’re not going to let you go without a fight, and if they do, you don’t want them anyways!

One of my mentors advises to lie about your salary if you must give them a number. I can’t agree with that, but I would advise walking away. That’s a tough choice; but put it to them this way “My current level of compensation has no bearing on the value that I’m going to bring to you, and therefore is irrelevant. I am more than happy to discuss where I feel I should be with regard to comp based on the market and your stated range for this role.” If HR still balks, write a very courteous note to the hiring manager thanking them for the opportunity and that you don’t feel like moving forward would be productive. If the hiring manager cares about you as a candidate, they’ll go sort out HR. In my current move, I actually delivered this message at least 3 times (verbally) after I wasn’t satisfied and each time received a much more lucrative offer. It’s a game, and if you’re happy in your current role, then you can play to win!

The Interview

There are a billion interviewing resources online that I won’t try to duplicate here other than to say be “Old School.” Wear the suit and tie and present yourself as what you are, which is an Executive. If you’re good enough to be a competent Product Manager, then talking to your peers at some other company should be a relief! It is much easier than talking to customers and discovering new problems, because these are “your people!”

In the interview process I just went through, I had several two-person “panel” interviews, in a small cramped room with just a table and a whiteboard. They were intense, but also very revealing – you can learn so much about a culture just through a 30 minute discussion. By the end of each session, we had filled up the whiteboard with process diagrams, use case models, discussions of markets and segmentation, all the good stuff. That is my personal style (visual), but leverage your strengths to show what you’re good at and where you shine.

A quick word on the “scenario” interview – these are becoming more en vogue. I had one of these during this last process that was actually really interesting, and I got the role so something went right. The hiring manager brought in 2 of his PM’s and told me:

I’m going to lay out a scenario for you, and I want you to describe for me what kinds of actions you would take as a Product Manager to make this product a success. You work at Mozilla Foundation, and you are now the PM of Firefox. Mozilla has decided that in order to get revenue for other products, that they want to make a pay version of Firefox. What do you do?

<gulp!> These kinds of scenario interview questions are designed to test your adaptability to stress and ability to think on your feet. Go back to basics and remember your PM/PMM training. What makes a process successful or not? Start with the problem and work up from there.

After all of this is done, you will have blown everyone away, and they will thank you for your time. Go get a beer and decompress. An offer will be coming to you soon…

Evaluating the Offer

The hiring manager will call you and congratulate you for making the cut and let you know that they will be extending you an offer soon. Thank them and wait for the email. When you get it, make sure that it contains at least:

  1. Base comp
  2. Bonus comp
  3. Stock options or restricted stock (if applicable)
  4. Deferred comp (401k, matching, etc)
  5. Benefits info (standard health, dental plan info and paycheque deduction)
  6. Personal Time Off
  7. Start Date

Any offer without these is incomplete and you should follow up to get the details. I prefer to create a scenario builder in Excel to model these different offers and you can see how changes to bonus vs. base affect your take home, and also the effect of the cost of health insurance. You can get a huge bump in compensation and cash if you get a better plan at a lower cost.

This is the stage where you finally negotiate. They have invested so much in you at this point that they will not let you go; in fact imagine the disappointment of hiring a World class PM/PMM who didn’t negotiate their salary. Use resources like Pragmatic Marketing’s survey and others to back your case, and remember that those are averages – you are above average or they wouldn’t want to hire you. If they push back on going above your “average” curve, remind them of that fact. Be realistic, you’re probably not going to get them to double the offer. For reference, the delta between the first offer and offer I accepted (across several companies) has been 15-25%.

If you have equity (stock options) in your current company, remember that they don’t know the value of your options or the valuation of your company. That is a massive lever for you, so use it. Draw out a 5-year model in Excel for them showing them one potential scenario where your comp gets very aggressive based on equity and the fact that you have more (theoretical) control over comp increases in your current role than in some fuzzy future with them. The numbers need to make sense, but it’s another arrow in your bag if you need to reach for it.

Once you’ve weighed the hard factors around comp, consider if all of your “soft” factor questions are answered. Are you comfortable with the work environment, people, and culture? You’re good at your current job, and you’ll need to spend time coming up to speed as the “new guy,” are you OK with that? Where are you with your family situation – will your significant other back you up during this vulnerable time in your career?

If you like the answers you’ve made, accept the offer. You’ll have to sign the papers and set your start date. Make sure you give yourself decompression time between jobs – I’m taking 3 weeks. Last time I took 1 day and it was a mistake. The time between leaving one job and going to start another is a gift, use it. Finally, discreetly prepare to leave your current role and clean out your office.

In Part III we’ll discuss leaving gracefully.

Other resources:

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    […] in Product Management. Part one was about doing a self-evaluation and farming your network. Part two was about interviewing and evaluating offers. In this final part, we will discuss how to leave […]

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  • Reply Amit Shetty October 2, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Looking forward to Part 3! :-)

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