Last summer I was interviewing for product-manager jobs in New York City. My last job had left me feeling cornered into a specialist role at an enterprise marketing-software firm, and there wasn’t a path for me to grow into or room to move up. So I started putting out feelers. I spoke to startups, big companies, and a few in the middle. The two companies I was most excited to interview at were Google and Etsy.
I was so focused on giving the "right answer" that when I dialed into the actual phone screens with Google, I was no longer my relaxed, enthusiastic self. Instead, after every product question, I carefully asked for time to "jot down some thoughts." Then, with an interviewer waiting patiently at the end of the line, I quickly attempted to screen out any crazy ideas that came to mind and offered only reasonable ones—which sounded bland and tired the moment they escaped my lips.
Over two 45-minute phone interviews, I wasn't asked any questions that actually related to the technical information I'd studied. And worst of all, when I later asked my contact inside Google (who'd referred me for the role) why they'd passed on me, the feedback she said she'd heard was "lack of product insight and depth of answer." Ouch.
I was frustrated, but I knew I couldn’t give up. I realized that if Google needed a super-technical product manager, that was never going to be me, and trying so hard to fit into what I thought they wanted from me was foolish. As a result, I never even got to show my strong side, which is building rapport with people and coming up with ideas spontaneously.
So when I went on to interview at Etsy, I knew I had to wow them, but also be my authentic self. I’m a big reader, so I studied the company, read its S-1 filings prior to its IPO, and looked through press clippings from the past few years. Then created what I like to call a "10x application," building a website called PoweredBySellers.com that conveyed my excitement for Etsy, my analytical abilities, and my technical prowess.
At the actual onsite interview, I didn’t think too hard about my answers but just went with the flow. During a whiteboarding exercise where we analyzed a conversion funnel (something I'd never done before), I just grabbed the marker and started thinking out loud and having a conversation with my interviewer. While I may have thrown out some crazy ideas, I was also able to read cues from my interviewer and expand on the ideas he seemed most interested in.
I had a blast during the interview process at Etsy, and after I got an offer and accepted it, I found out that one of the biggest reasons why they picked me for the role was that I was clearly enthusiastic and would bring a lot of energy to the team. I’m so glad it worked out—it’s been really great working as a product manager here at Etsy.
All in all, this experience taught me a few things:
Play to your strengths. Your temperament, interests, skills, and knowledge make you uniquely qualified for certain roles and poorly qualified for others. Don’t fight this. Embrace it. Lead the things you’re good at, rather than spending all your time covering weaknesses.
Don't get too fixated on yourself. Leading with your strengths doesn’t mean you don’t carefully research the companies where you’re interviewing in order to really get inside their world. Spending time reviewing the industry, product area, geography, and culture of potential employers will go a long way to making them feel like you "get them."
Keep your chin up. Job hunting while holding down a full-time job is grueling work, but remember that it's temporary and that it's still your job to convey a positive attitude when you're actually interviewing—even if you had the worst day ever. If you simply can't project positivity, be honest with yourself about that. You can either change the time of the interview or suck it up go in with a smile anyway.
Just remember: Interviewing can often be a stressful, highly scripted experience no matter how you cut it. So being as authentic as possible isn't always easy, but it's key to standing out for the right reasons. I was fortunate enough to learn that the hard way—and still wind up happy with the outcome.
Jason Shen is a product manager at Etsy and a partner at Ship Your Side Project, a six-week online bootcamp for tech professionals. He tweets as @jasonshen and blogs at The Art of Ass-Kicking. (This article represents Jason's views and not his employer's.)