Take home assignments, case study, business case - they go by different names. But, this is the stage of a PM interview that candidates are often anxious. Why do companies hand over such assignments? Primarily, they want to understand your thought process and see how it is to work with you. However, there are strong opinions regarding PM assignments. Some have stated that they dislike problem statements related to the company's product. Some pretty much despise it.
I started by hating these assignments and grew to love them. Having gone through quite a few of these over the years, I wanted to share a few tips on how best to handle PM assignments.
Personally, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to flex your skills, interact with the product team, and get to know what it feels like working with them. Here are some things that helped me excel at PM assignments, after learning from mistakes,
Pick the metric that matters. Don't stuff too much into the outcome. In one of the interviews, I choose 4 metrics. I was just trying to make sure that I showcase my research and ended up documenting vanity metrics. This was not a good idea. Stick to one metric, and in some cases where you need to track direct and indirect outcomes, two metrics.
Be concise. Your research document or presentation should speak for itself. It is ok if your assignment goes to 2-3 pages, but make it worth it. Resist the temptation of adding a lot. In on of my first PM assignment, I did so much research, and cramped everything into the document. I made it look great, but it was information overload.
Ask for inputs. The very first assignment that I worked on, went very poorly. Not because I didn’t draft it well, but because I ended up interpreting the problem incorrectly. It's easy to misinterpret words, so you'd rather request the recruiter or hiring manager for some time to clarify the problem. You will be surprised to see that they will be more than happy to give you inputs. This is also a treasure trove for more ideas and context. But beware that you are requesting for someone’s time, so be well prepared to make the most of it.
Be clear about the time you need. I always prefer to work on assignments during weekends, and prefer to give the audience enough time to go through my work. Communicate in advance, the time that you may need. For the assignment itself, I noticed that less than 2 hours is too less. More than 5 hours is an overkill. Manage your time well, and don't immediately focus on aesthetics. Spend 50% time on research and notes. Then 25% in brainstorming. Remaining in compiling your research.
Set the stage. Remember that this assignment is an opportunity to flex your skills. If you get an invite with all the team members, take the opportunity to prep the audience in advance. Send in your assignment and request the team members take a look. During the presentation, introduce what this session is about (as if it was a backlog refinement session), set expectations, and state the goals.
Introduce yourself. I can’t imagine how many times I had a case study presentation with new team members, where I wished I had more time to introduce myself. Instead, I use a service like Loom to customise an intro message for the participants. You can save 5 whole minutes! That way the audience will already get to know you, and you can just add an intro slide instead of spending your valuable presentation time. This has worked wonders and has even earned the audience’s appreciation. Share this video while sending in your assignment.
Engage the audience. Always remember that the point of this presentation is to get a feeling of how it is to work with team, and vice-versa. Narrow down the scope of the session immediately. Don't spend too much time trying to set a context. Leverage the fact that you had already sent the documentation in advance. Also, don't just rant, keep the audience active. Here are some tools you can use to make the presentation interactive:
Use a polling software like Slido. The free version offers 5 polls, and it has worked great for me. Start with a contextual icebreaker. If the problem is about music, ask the audience their favourite artist. If it is about public transport, ask what challenges the audience faces.
Use a collaborative editors like Google Docs. During the presentation, there will be many opportunities to bring collate the audience's ideas. Use this opportunity and make this more a workshop than a presentation.
Use a distributed workspace like Miro. During one of the interviews, someone recommended Miro. It's an awesome product to organize product workshops. Give that a shot. This will also help you showcase your ability to work remotely, seeing that post-COVID this may be the way forward.
Summarize the presentation session. Remember there is no right or wrong way to do present a PM assignment. Even if it means that you as a PM should do more research and come back, let the team know, and don't leave them hanging. The idea of this session to help the team get a shared understanding of the problem you're working on. Does the audience have any tasks? Do they need to help with some more research? What are the tasks? What are the priorities? If you still need to do more research state so. Use the Strategy section to list the way forward.
Keep track of time. The presentation session typically lasts between 60-90 minutes. Make sure that you be wary of time. While it may be tempting to show off your research, be aware that the audience, many of whom have not met you, may have many questions to test your skills. The best thing you can do is rehearse in advance. Note down the time you want to spend in each section and practice. Leave ample time for feedback and discussion. The team knows very well you can't do a lot. Just as a good PM would, prioritize well.
If you have come this far, here's a little token of appreciation: PM assignment template. This is a template from my previous interviews. Please feel free to leave your feedback or comments to improve it.
If you or someone you know have been part of PM assignments, I'd love to hear what your experience was and hear how I can improve myself.