Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

November 2, 2016

phone screen materials

The interview process frequently starts with a phone screen. Follow these tips to make sure you’re ready.

Prep your physical space

If you might invest years of your life at this job, take the extra 15 minutes to make sure you’re ready for the interview. Plan exactly where you are going to take the call. That means privacy, little background noise, and either a landline or good cell phone reception. Also, have your resume handy along with a pen or laptop to take notes.

Rehearse your intro

Research shows that most interviewers make their decision within the first five minutes of an interview. This means you need to rehearse your opening. Again. And again. And again. Trust me. It’s work, but it is critical. The phone screen is similar to your resume, think of it like a movie trailer. Your goal is not to tell your whole story on the phone, but to entice them so they want to bring you on-site to see the rest. I recommend describing yourself in two to three unique sentences. Then use the rest of your conversation to prove those sentences true. Also be clear about what you’re skilled at, what you’re excited about, and how this role fits into your career goals.

Review your resume and ask yourself questions

Pretend you are the interviewer. Now read your resume and for every project and every bullet, see what questions come to mind:

  • What happened after you launched Project X?

  • What made this project a success?

  • What would you do differently next time?

  • What does this mean?

  • What role did you play on that team?

For each story, decide how strong your answer is and how relevant it is to your two to three sentences. If it’s a strong project, rehearse your response and discuss it proactively during interviews. If your answer is weak or not relevant, consider deleting the bullet.

Research your interviewer

Knowing your audience gives you a leg up. So ask politely when you’re scheduling the interview if you can have the name and role of the person interviewing you. If they decline, leave it there. But asking once is fine. If they give it you, use your research skills across the web to learn everything you can. You might pick up tidbits about what they look for, what they’ve done, what they’re working on, what hobbies they have, or where they went to school. You will not change any fundamentals, but you can tune your answers and conversation points so that you’re more likely to connect with the person.

Write down questions for them

The interview process is as much for you as it is for them. Picture yourself in this role. Would you be happy? Would you be successful? What factors about the company or the role would change the answers to those two questions? Turn those thoughts into detailed questions for the interviewer and write them down. It’s your life and your career, make sure you know what you’re getting into.

June 23, 2016

interview failure

You say:
I’m not feeling challenged in my role.
They hear:
My boss is giving the most important projects to other people and there is a reason for that.
I have gotten everything I can out of this role and am ready for something bigger. So I am exploring opportunities internally and externally and this role sounded really interesting.

You say:
No, I haven’t had a role like this before.
They hear:
I want to get hired, but there’s a large chance I can’t do the job.
I haven’t had this exact role before, but it looks like the key components are A, B, and C. A and B are exactly what I’ve been doing on Project Z, let me tell you about it. C is something I’ve been working on recently and am excited to learn.

You say:
No, I don’t know much about your products – an overview would be great.
They hear:
Choosing a job is one of the most important decisions in my life and I chose not to do my homework before this interview. If you hire me to run a project, I won’t do my homework then either.
I looked through your website, read your annual report (if the company is public), and saw some articles about Project X. But I can only tell so much from the outside so I would love to hear more.

You say:
I am really passionate about Education (insert appropriate market). No, I’m not interviewing at similar companies – just this one.
They hear:
If I truly had passion for Education, I would know a bunch of interesting companies and be exploring jobs at several. That means I’m either lying about my passion or lying about where else I’m interviewing. Neither option is good.
I’ve been excited about this space for awhile. I think companies X, Y, and Z are also doing interesting things so I’m looking at companies like them as well. But I’m particularly intrigued by this role for the following reasons.

You say:
Sorry I’m a few minutes late. The traffic/train/weather/etc. was terrible this morning.
They hear:
I am not reliable. This is one of the most important meetings I will have this year and I did not plan my day to make sure I’d be on time. When you have a critical deadline, it’s 50/50 that you can count on me.
Barring true emergencies (family situation, car accident, etc.) don’t be late! Seriously. If your trains and traffic are unreliable, get there an hour in advance and do work at a nearby coffee shop. If you are out of town and staying at a hotel, scope it out the night before so you know exactly where to go in the morning. Attention to detail matters. If you can’t arrive to an interview on time, why should they trust that you can deliver projects on time?

You say:
No, I don’t have any questions.
They hear:
If I was curious, I would ask a lot of questions. If I cared about the work environment, the team, and the product strategy, I would ask a lot of questions. But I have no intellectual curiosity and a low bar. So I have no questions. I just want a job.
Ask great questions! This is part of the interview. Identify the key things that matter to this business and drill in to learn more and see if you want to work there. You don’t need different questions for every single interviewer. It’s OK to repeat your questions and get multiple perspectives from different people. It’s not OK to have no questions.

June 6, 2016

zen stones in water

This is the first post in a series about How to Build Product Chops, which aims to help new and aspiring product managers understand the key components of product management.

Building a product customers love is about making it simple and compelling.  Here are 3 keys to getting it right.

1. Clarify your value prop

Your value prop should be crisp. Who are you serving and how do you make their lives better? I suggest summarizing your product in the following form: We provide solution X to user Y by doing Z. For example, Patagonia provides high quality active gear to people who love the outdoors using sustainable and ethical practices. They have a big organization with a lot of products. But you can summarize their value prop and purpose in one sentence. The cleaner your value prop, the more loyal your fans.

2. Define goals for specific user actions

These goals should be unique to your product. When Chamath Palihapitiya was put in charge of the growth team at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg gave him a mandate to grow the user base. But “Growth” was an impossibly broad topic. So they did research and identified a milestone of “7 friends in 10 days.” If a user joined Facebook and connected with 7 friends in the first 10 days, she was likely to become a daily user and invite her friends. If she joined Facebook but fell short of that milestone, she was more apt to churn. This gave the team something tangible to rally around: let’s build products and onboarding experiences that help people find their social network in the first week. Chamath joined Facebook when they had less than 10M users and left when they had close to a billion.

Focus on what you want your users to accomplish. Get this right and everything else falls into place.

3. Reduce cognitive load

Cognitive load is the energy required for a user to absorb information and make a decision. It takes customers more time to understand your product than you think. That’s why it is so important to get out and test your product in the real world. You are not a valid test. You think about your product every day and focus on every detail. If you run a social network, your customer might see your app while waiting in line at a coffee shop, talking to 2 friends, and pulling out her wallet. If you build software for doctors, the physician might see your screen while talking to a patient, ordering a prescription, and flagging down the nurse to check on lab results. People are busy and distracted, so design with the expectation that you will never have your customer’s full attention. Cognitive load is about more than just your product, it is about everything your customer faces.

Here are some places to look for cognitive load:

Navigation bars. People love to copy navigation bars from other companies. “They have X, Y, and Z so we need X, Y, and Z.” Don’t fall for it!  Did Google copy the Yahoo! homepage? Design simple flows that lead to the outcomes you want. Then delete everything else.

Calls to action (CTA). If you want users to add an item to their shopping cart, make the button bright and obvious. Then remove buttons that aren’t important. Don’t ask users to do three things. Ask them to do one.

Word count. Count the words on every page and tighten your copy. Tell the same story, but with fewer words.

Onboarding flows. Don’t ask your user for a ton of information up front. Get started easy and onboard them over time.

Simple product design in the wild

Facebook vs. MySpace: There was a time when MySpace was bigger than Facebook. But MySpace had a fatal flaw. Designing your MySpace page was a complex task involving add-ons and custom html. Setting up a MySpace profile came with huge cognitive load. Facebook, on the other hand, made every profile page the same. When you join, you only have to do 2 things: upload a photo and find your friends.

In ‘N Out menu: In ‘N Out Burger is famous for having exactly 4 food items on its menu: fries, hamburger, cheeseburger, double double. That’s all! Four items, plus milkshakes and sodas. Compare that to McDonald’s and see what you get.

Apple product line: According to Apple lore, there used to be a table in the Apple design studio and every product the company sold had to fit on that table. If the product line got too big, it was time to trim down and simplify. vs. Amazon: Amazon bought (aka Quidsi) for $550M because was giving Amazon a run for its money in baby supplies. One key reason was simplicity. gave parents a simple way to have diapers, wipes, and baby supplies delivered to their house every month. That’s it. Keep it easy. Keep it simple. Trust me, if anybody is under cognitive load it’s new parents! So this simplicity paid off. Even the URL was easy to remember.

Biggest loser competition: When I was on the product team at LinkedIn, our head of product ran a biggest loser competition. He challenged us to see which team could remove the most unnecessary stuff from their products. Everybody wants to add features and add products and add complexity. Yet the best products are great because they’re simple. It is extremely difficult to remove live functionality from a product. There is always somebody who will yell at you for taking away that feature. But having the discipline to prune your products helps create long-lasting franchises.

It is easy to create complexity. It is hard to create products that are simple and compelling. But it’s worth the effort.