This article was written by Timothy Fallen-Bailey, an Exponent PM Coach. Tim has worked for HP, Apple, Sybase, Siebel, Oracle, and Citrix before starting his own consulting company. Tim has recruited, mentored, and managed product managers in each of these positions, so you could say he knows a thing or two about interviewing for product managers.
As a coach for Exponent, I conduct several mock job interviews for product managers every week by video teleconference, and it often surprises me to see how poorly prepared many people are with the practical aspects that are within their control. Initial interviews nowadays are often conducted using teleconferences rather than in-person, and during the current Covid-19 crisis, all of your interviews may be done that way. You want to do your best, so it is important to be able to present yourself well on a video or audio teleconference. Using my experience from hundreds of video teleconferences, I have assembled the most important tips below on how to prepare, no matter which teleconferencing software you use. You can’t predict the interview questions you will get, but you can certainly control how you prepare the location, equipment, and lighting you will use. And you will be able to use the same tips and equipment for working from home occasionally once you get the job!
The focus of these tips is on having the fastest internet connection you can have, with minimal possibility of interruptions or distractions in the short time available, so that you can focus on the questions, and the interviewer can focus on you!
You need to find a space that will be quiet, well lit, with a neutral background, and with internet and power connections. If you are doing this from home, clear out any clutter that might be seen in the picture behind you. A simple bookcase with a house plant is fine, but not a kitchen sink full of dishes or a pile of old taxes. If you are doing this from work, reserve the conference room, and ensure that the connections are working.
Wi-Fi and cellphone connections are usually much lower speed than using a direct connection, and often have dropouts or 'dead' areas. If you can, use a computer rather than your phone for the video conference. If you will be at home, attach your computer directly to the router with an Ethernet cable. You may need to get a long Ethernet cable, and some computers (Apple Mac) may require an Ethernet adapter. A direct connection provides greater bandwidth and eliminates one big source of potential problems. If you know how to tune your router, ensure that QoS (Quality of Service) is enabled for your teleconference program.
The sound quality of a good headset is much better than from the internal microphone and speakers on your computer or telephone. Get a headset that plugs in (sometimes called 'corded'), rather than one using Bluetooth, so you can eliminate one more thing that might go wrong. For your computer, that will mean a headset that connects via USB. You don't need a headset that rejects background noise, but it will help if you have any kind of background noise such as traffic. Go for a headset that is as lightweight as you can find - these are usually listed as 'call center' headsets. A microphone that is on the headset cable tends to pick up a lot of noise as it moves against your clothing, and tends to make your voice seem distant. I recommend a corded headset with a boom microphone and two earpieces (see the photo). That way you get the best quality audio, while focusing completely on what you are hearing.
Don't forget to test the headset (both microphone and earpieces) each time you plug it in - that is a standard feature in all teleconference software. Just be careful to adjust the microphone and turn down the volume (gain) control a bit so that it doesn't pick up your breathing. Heavy breathing noises are a big distraction!
Downloading the app, whether it be Zoom, Skype, or another program, will generally give faster response times and lower latency (delay) than using the browser. Download it a day or two before your interview and try it out with a friend. If you already downloaded it last year, check that you have the latest version. Too many people try to download it just before they connect for the interview itself and end up being late!
This is probably the least followed tip, and the one that will make you look your best! Often it is very difficult to see a person’s face in a teleconference, but your interviewer will want to get a friendly feel from you and see your reactions to what is being said. An office is usually well lit, but a home is probably not. Natural light is preferred, but if that is not available, any photographer will tell you that you should have your face lit by at least two lights, each at 45° to your face. Use two angle-poise LED lamps for this, and perhaps also improve the overall lighting in the room behind you.
A ring light is an alternative – there are models for taking selfies, doing makeup, or working on your embroidery that are much cheaper than the photographic ones.
Avoid strong light shining from a window or light behind you – it is very distracting! Best to try out your lighting a day or two before in a test session, at the same time of day as your interview is scheduled, so that the daylight will be the same.
There is also a technical reason for having good lighting – the digital cameras in phones and computers automatically increase the sensitivity of the camera in bad light, resulting in a fuzzy picture. With good light the resulting picture is much clearer and sharper. (Compare the photos above and below.)
Don’t have the camera pointing up from below your chin(s) unless you like the ‘monster’ look. Best to raise the camera up to head height if you can. If you are using the camera in your laptop, that means propping up the whole laptop on a stack of books or maybe a stand. It is not the best angle for typing, but of course you won't be doing much of that during an interview.
If you are using a phone, then best to use a small stand sold for photography. Don’t forget that you will need to be looking at the camera and not at the screen while you talk! Some people put a little label beside the camera to remind them to look there.
When explaining a process, user segmentation, or working through an estimation question, it is really helpful to show your thinking visually. Remember that some people understand visual aids better than words, so get either a small whiteboard that you can hold in your hand, or white paper on a clipboard. Don’t hesitate to draw out your ideas on it and hold it up to the camera. Yes, there are plenty of drawing programs you could use instead, but there isn’t enough time in an interview to use them – don’t even try!
You might want to put a link in the chat for the interviewer to see your webpage, or temporarily mute your microphone while you sneeze. You might need to share the results of a take-home exercise stored on your computer. Know where these controls are in your teleconferencing software, and practice using them in a test session with a friend a day or two before the interview.
It is surprising how many people think they can do an interview in pajamas or a T-shirt! Dress the way you would if you were hired by the interviewing company – usually smart casual will be fine. If you are doing the interview from home, don’t run the risk of only putting on a shirt/blouse with no trousers/skirt – you never know what might happen during the interview that will make you jump up!
You don’t want your friends popping up on your screen during the interview, nor does the interviewer want to hear constant ‘ping’ sounds from your phone! Best to turn off all social media apps before the interview, both on your computer and on your phone. You don’t want other programs competing for CPU or memory while you are doing your interview, so kill all backups, downloads, or web pages that constantly update data, like news websites or pages with rotating ads. If you share your internet connection with other people, encourage them to defer their movie downloads or online games for an hour.
Plug your computer or phone into a power socket, so that you don’t lose power during the interview.
This is especially important for those doing an interview from home. The dog jumping on your lap and looking at the camera, or children running around screaming will certainly grab your interviewer’s attention! Likewise, a spouse getting dressed in the background, or a colleague coming to ask you something will be equally distracting. (Search online and you will see some amazing things that happen to people during teleconferences!) Put pets away in a safe place where they won't disturb you. Prepare your interview space beforehand and let people around you know that you don’t want to be disturbed. If you can, put a sign on the door and lock it!
At the start of the interview it is a good idea to agree a backup telephone number that the interviewer can call you on in case your computer freezes, the internet goes down, or the electricity quits! That way you can at least finish the interview, even though the circumstances will not be ideal. If the interviewer has your resume, they will probably try to call the telephone number shown on it, but that may not be where you are sitting right now. Having a backup plan is particularly important if you are doing an audio-only interview - with a video call you have 2 ways to communicate. Don't forget - if your telephone also depends on the internet connection, give a number that uses the cellphone networks instead - 3G, 4G, or LTE, and move to a place where you can get good reception.
I’m sure you have noticed how often one person interrupts another on a teleconference. Often it is because the other person thinks you have finished talking, and jumps in, but you continue talking. Part of the reason for this is the latency (delay) that is a regular problem with all teleconference connections, and part is due to the lack of non-verbal cues that you have in a face-to-face situation (even worse in an audio-only teleconference). Best to learn how to make your points in short sentences, and deliberately pause in between to allow your interviewer to jump in if they want.
Sometimes the sound stops working, either on the interviewer’s side or on your side. There is no point in letting the interview continue until you fix this, so use a hand signal to say that there is a problem, and to interrupt the session. To get attention I put my hand up like a stop sign, and to indicate lack of sound I put my hands above my ears, but any signal that is understood by the other person will work. You can try typing something in the chat window, but often someone speaking won’t look at that until they are finished.
Follow these tips, and you will look and sound your best during your interview. And of course, the best preparation you can have before doing any interview is to use the Exponent mock interview service! We also offer an extensive library of preparation materials, and even a database of typical questions asked by individual companies!
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