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Why I’d fail a Google interview and be glad I did

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So the Seattle interview coach‘s insights on the Google interview process is fairly interesting and made me think about how I might handle these alleged actual interview questions.  While I’m not sure these are real questions, it’s worth a little fun.

Google’s hiring process has been talked about online by many folks and the experience of being a member of Team Google is varied from a great freakin thing to just a bad experience.   While the interview below is fiction, I did have a strange call with Google HR myself in 2005 which I only remember as odd.

So in the spirit of trying to think how I might have actually done with some of the questions which could be thrown around during a product management interview at Google, this is my take on being interviewed by 3 folks at Google.

Interviewer 1: Why do you want to join Google?

Well, I’m not quite sure I do want to join Google, but you have to take the interview right?  I mean you have the most interesting data set which would be cool to analyze in context of a given product or market.  Y’all got everything on everything, B2B, B2C, B2G AND random life insights.  I just think it would be exciting to look at the nuances in your data and see what I could do with it.

Interviewer 2: What do you know about Google’s product and technology?

I suspect you would like a little more than it’s cool, right?  To that end, I guess I would want to put a little more of a boundary around it, since your product portfolio is so diverse.  As a user of search, gmail and one of the lucky people to get a Wave invite early, I guess I would say that your technology is more about changing the world than anything else.

Change the way people view search, change the way they manage thier email and change the way they collaborate. I guess if you put it that way, it’s a little creepy but I’m ok with hegemony – I mean someone has to do it.

Interviewer 1: If you are Product Manager for Google’s AdWords, how do you plan to market this?

I probably wouldn’t use AdWords, it would be just a little too cliche and dali-esque.  Really good question though, but I’m confident I wouldn’t want a recursive loop product management gig.  How about we talk Postini? Google Earth? Something I have an interest in.

Interviewer 3: How would you re-position Google’s offerings to counteract competitive threats from Microsoft?

ME: BING! I was wondering how long it would take until Microsoft came up.  Do you really think Microsoft is the biggest competitor? The Amazon cloud? Apple?

Well if you insist it is MSFT, then I would probably put it this way: While my parents like the pretty pictures on Bing and to search on their health conditions because they are more of a hypochondriac in their 70’s than most, I’m not convinced this is your target market.  Is it?  Do you want to own the geriatric segment? I mean patience is a virtue, we all get old some day.

Well, I guess then it is just pure brute force brand spend if you are concerned about Redmond that much.  I would also consider enhancing your MSFT related search terms with mainly negative marketing information and propaganda.  Or you could encourage each of the Google fanboy’s on the planet to purchase one share of MSFT stock so they could more actively participate in harassing Ballmer at Microsoft quarterly and annual shareholder meetings.

Interviewer 2: You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

I’d wait for a while and see what happens.  The funny thing about quantum physics/mechanics is it is all about the observer.  I really like the original density piece, it adds to the panic level of the interviewer and avoids the “F#$k it, I’m as dense as a diamond, bring it on blender!” option.

Interviewer 3: How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?

It depends is the easy answer, because ya need to know if it is a short bus, school bus, a metro, tourist bus or crazy Guatemalan chicken bus.  But to be definitive with a number, 176,400.  The beauty of Google Voice Search on the iPhone is that you can look up stupid trivia in milliseconds and do massive calculations on the fly.  Since you’ve already created the technology to handle these types of questions I am not sure I’d hire a product manager who was proud that he could work all of this out in his head.

Interviewer 1: So how would you explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year-old nephew?

Wow, what a coinkidink! I actually did this for my 4 year old just the other day when I was working at home doing some massive inner and outer joins on a some customer data I had.  I told Prescott “databases are just a way to manage large data sets and establish relationships.  It is important to know that even though a relationship exists it doesn’t really mean anything.  Kind of like when you tried to convince me the guy in the giant chicken suit at the fair was the brother of that killer chicken kebab we just ate.  Just remember this – correlation doesn’t mean causation and you should be able to avoid a bunch of pitfalls in life”

Interviewer 3:  How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?

What is the time line to completion? Is it a long term contract or a one time gig? What kind of sign off process is involved?  It’s hard to answer if you don’t know the service level expectations.  In theory, I could wait until the next rain and invoice everyone.

While I like the last option, invoice for nothing in the spirit of governmental largess, I think $0 is what I should charge because we shouldn’t be washing windows at all.  I hearken back to the Google motto of “Do No Evil.”  Window washing is a waste of money, damages the environment, and exploits vulnerable workers.  666 window washers have fallen to their deaths in the past six years.  Google should be at the forefront of the window washer-less office movement.

Interviewer 3: You have to get from point A to point B. You don’t know if you can get there. What would you do?

Are you high?  Draw a straight line, duh.  First the golf ball question, now this theoretical spatial dilemma with no reference points other than the before-mentioned A and B.

Interviewer 2: Four people need to cross a rickety rope bridge to get back to their camp at night. Unfortunately, they only have one flashlight and it only has enough light left for seventeen minutes. The bridge is too dangerous to cross without a flashlight, and it’s only strong enough to support two people at any given time. Each of the campers walks at a different speed. One can cross the bridge in 1 minute, another in 2 minutes, the third in 5 minutes, and the slow poke takes 10 minutes to cross. How do the campers make it across in 17 minutes?

Can you repeat the first thing again? The Doritos the other guy was eating to stave off the munchies attack got in the way of me hearing the question.

Interviewer 1: There’s a latency problem in South Africa. Diagnose it.

Can you say business class to Cape Town, a command line, packet loss metrics and a bunch of trace route data?

Interviewer 2: What are three long term challenges facing Google?

Only 3?  I mean there are 3 in this room.

Thanks for sharing a little fun with the fictitious interview leveraging the questions available online of things which just might be asked in a Google interview, maybe.

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Marketing IS in the Middle: Steve Johnson

The last in the series is the first person who really taught me marketing from a product perspective.  Real world product marketing, not theoretical.  I took one class in Atlanta soon after getting my first PM job and I was like “Thanks for helping define what I do and how to express what I do to the business”.

Steve Johnson is an industry thought leader on Product Marketing and is quickly becoming the leader on how to integrate Agile with product management successfully.  Steve has held most every job in a technology business and shares his ideas and expertise as one of the first folks at Pragmatic Marketing and continues to learn the state of the market as he engages companies and speaks nationally.  Steve is not your average marketer – no tagline, no brand discussion – just problems, product and revenue.  Not enough about Steve? Here is the excerpt from his corporate bio which says it the best:

“A biting sense of humor”, “credible” and “feels my pain as a product manager” are just some of the words attendees use to describe the experience of being taught by Steve. He is able to convey his experiences of living the life of a product manager in a unique and entertaining way.

I’m definitely thankful for his time on the phone and his candor on marketing and product management.  Steve blogs frequently on Product Marketing and has distilled many of his ideas into a free eBook on “The Strategic Role of Product Management“.  Below is his take on the questions for the series….
What marketing roles have you had and in what markets?

I’ve had most every role in technology – programmer, sales engineer and full-on sales, While in sales I stumbled into product management.  I was a sales engineer and knew the product inside and out and began positioning it on my own and being successful in accounts.  I didn’t use the stuff marketing gave me, since that wasn’t how customers were really buying.  After a while of developing my own mode of operation, I was asked to train others in my group on how I was generating sales. All the sudden I’m training sales and the VP of Marketing was like “who is this guy and why is he doing the PM’s job?” Next thing you know, I’m in product management. That’s where I met Craig Stull who later founded Pragmatic Marketing.

I bounced around a few more companies in more senior roles and then I came on board at Pragmatic Marketing and have been there ever since learning what’s happening in the marketplace and sharing the Pragmatic Marketing practices and processes.

When you look at your career in marketing, what discipline/component have you found most interesting/challenging?

I guess it’s just the concept of being in marketing.  The word marketing means different things to different folks.  1/3 thinks it is advertising, 1/3 hear MARCOM and the remaining 1/3 think it is strategy and products.

The confusion of what marketing is challenging for a lot of people in marketing roles.  With the latest downturn I’m seeing more and more people who are being downsized.  The biggest driver for this for many is they didn’t explain their role and the value they bring.  Or perhaps they don’t really know their role. One company asked the product managers to focus on sales support and two years later, fired them because all they do is sales support. Sad really. PM’s do a very poor job of helping the rest of the business understand what they do; and those that don’t define and market what they do may not make it very far.

Of course a lot of marketers don’t want their role defined –  they say “it’s an art” and art can’t have reports built.  Define the role, instrument your activities and produce metrics on what worked and what didn’t and let the organization know…. The “Trust me, you can’t metric what I do” folks are just not going to survive.

What do you feel is the most important component of a successful marketing gig?

It’s how you approach the market.  The concept of the marketing mix is off, at least in technology, since the four P’s don’t account for Problems and problems are what drive revenue.  To that end, an intense focus on problems is required. Companies who focus mainly on innovation and not innovatively solving problems have a tough time succeeding.    Cool stuff, but not saleable doesn’t work.

There are other examples of problems which are solve in an innovative fashion that are out of tech.  Think about Zip cars from an innovation perspective – you can rent a car for a couple of hours. Doesn’t sound too innovative or to solve a problem for the most part. Until you live in a city. If you don’t live in a city, you can’t really understand the problem. That’s why there are no Zip cars in suburban DC. But if you live in a big city and only need a car a few hours a week, ZipCar is ideal.

So you need a problem.  Figure out the problem, understand the market opportunity and needs, build the right product and enable sales to go after real problems.

Another real problem that many of us don’t have in technology is the cell phone.  What we have today isn’t for everyone. Many people over 60 want big numbers and simple controls.  Enter the Jitterbug Phone.  The jitterbug has no camera, no email and no internet; it’s just a phone.  They brought 2 models to market – one has 10 numbers and a send key – works like an old school phone – dial tone and all.  The other has 3 buttons, Emergency, operator and “my daughter”…..  If you need another number a human operator connects you.  In this model, the operator manages your address book, you just tell them who you want to call by name and they connect you from your personal phone book in their systems.

Jitterbug solves a problem for a very small part of the market, sure, but they solve it completely. Other products focus on most of the features that everyone everywhere needs and they fail to satisfy.

So to be successful you have to solve problems.

Since you selected problems, how has that contributed to revenue?

Simple – no problem, no revenue. We’ve all seen products that the developers and executives were sure would be a hit and they just fizzled. Why? Because people ought to want them doesn’t mean that people actually will want them. Tecnhology and innovation without a focus on solving problems is usually a waste of time. There are some exceptions–accidental successes–but innovations without a problem focus typically fail.

What experiences brought you to this conclusion?

Talking to people, looking at successful product and seeing what does and doesn’t work.  I ask people in my classes and most everyone can come up with a forced example, like the pet rock.  That’s an accident or a fad – but it’s not sustainable. Enduring products solve problems.  Sure there are successful companies which manufacture all kinds of stuff, like Sony, but the see what happens model can’t be taken by most business. What new  business or product can absorb that risk? not that many.

If you could design the perfect corporate environment for a marketer to be successful what would that be?

Organizational changes seldom solve problems – organization changes in bad organizations often make problems worse.  Good organizations for marketers have support in the leadership for what they want to do and understand what they are supposed to do.

One of the best ways to know that the leadership is aligned with the market is that the VP of Product is an executive peer.  There are other configurations which may work at different stages of the companies lifecycle, but the team needs to allow Product to plan, prioritize and execute.  They also need to allow for development to make product based on market requirements. For that to work, product management in development is a tough configuration.  Very often when product management is in development, they become more tactical.  Rather than researching market needs, they support development with beta testing and project planning. The Agile role of product owner is an example of this.  The product owner isn’t necessarily the product manager, but often this is how it works out when product is in development.

The other fairly common organization is for product management to report into marketing. However, in this role, they are often relegated to sales support – more sales tools, more presentations, more sales calls.

In my perfect corporate environment, Product drives, development makes, marketing promotes and sales sells.  With that being what everyone does it is fairly straightforward.  One thing I think might help is a new title in technology companies – Instead of a VP of Marketing, maybe we should call it the VP of Promotion.  It seems to me that everyone claims to be a marketing expert but not very good a promotion.

Regardless, if you have a firm definition of what you do, then it can be tracked, improved and managed more effectively. So first you need an organization that empowers product to deliver to the market and defines everyone’s role based on what they do and what they own.

There are other bad organizational configurations out there that don’t work, probably the worst are those poor souls who are VP of Marketing and Sales – a no win job.  In this role, you need to hit your numbers this year AND plan for next year. I’m not sure how that works when you are 30% off of quota.   I’m pretty sure you’re just out selling to keep your job and you will figure out next year when you get there, if you do.

By the way, I’ve also always been annoyed with Finance groups who just manage the cost numbers;  after all, they aren’t accountants, they are Finance and so, need to be strategic.  Shouldn’t they be tracking meaningful metrics beyond revenue and costs? They need to let everyone know the REAL metrics and help drive awareness on performance.  In the accounting style of finance, product managers must cobble together information from multiple systems and create their own view of the world.  The only real way to manage is against the financials and you can’t do that if you aren’t managing from the real numbers and trends which drive executive decisions.   Companies which leverage finance strategically can solve problems in a product or business together, rather than debating whose numbers are right or why one set of numbers aren’t right.

How far is this from reality?

Not far in some, but I definitely think there is a business in helping make this reality.  Helping organizations to let CFO’s to be leaders and not scorekeepers and training CFO’s on how to be strategic, if they aren’t already.

What’s next?

2009 will be a difficult year for many companies–certainly most US companies. The first reaction will be to cut costs across the board but another strategy is to focus on development of products, promotion, and people. Many companies have excess resources for the first time. Rather than fire them and lose their domain knowledge, we can focus them on creating new revenue opportunities for 2010. The economy will recover. Now is the time to set up interviews and customer surveys that we never had time for before. Now is the time to get everybody trained on best practices in product management, agile approaches to development, and new ways of promoting products such as video brochures, blogging, social media, and user-generated content. Now is the time to ensure that the buying process is well-understood and documented. Now is the time to set up systems to measure product success.

It’s so common to hear people say “if I only had time.” Now you do! Let’s not waste it by purging excess people but let’s take this rare opportunity to grow the business internally to prepare for a resurgence of business in years to come.

Marketing IS in the Middle: Mukund Mohan

With a technologist, operations expert, a development leader and an MBA out of the way in the series, the next participant is Mukund Mohan.  Mukund is the CEO of BuzzGain proves and continues to look for the next big thing as an entrepreneur.  Many thanks to him for participating and providing his take on why marketing is in the middle.

What marketing roles have you had and in what markets?

A bunch – Product Management, Product Marketing, VP Marketing and CMO.  Mostly in software (high technology) and now I’m working on my own thing, which is marketing+other stuff+fun+a bunch of work.

When you look at your career in marketing, what discipline/component have you found most interesting/challenging?

Actually interesting and challenging both require an answer: Most interesting: Market research and competitive analysis Most challenging: Lead generation and sales enablement for a large sales force

What do you feel the most important component of a successful marketing gig?  (Product, Brand, Positioning)

Great products make marketing easier than trying to market a so-so product.  Good products create loyal users and positive word of move.  If you have great positioning then a great product irresistible.

Since you selected Product, how have you see that contributed to revenue?

Great products appeal to the customer in a uniquely satisfying way, making marketing’s job to only create awareness.  Satisfied customer’s allow for faster product adoption and provides quicker time to revenue.

What experiences brought you to this conclusion?

At Mercury (HP) we had a product called Application Discovery and Mapping, which solved a very unique problem in automatically discovering components of your IT infrastructure in a quick, simple way, eliminating tedious manual processes.  Typically this was the writing and drawing maps of your infrastructure over and over again – not fun.

This was a breakthrough product in several ways – it appealed to the IT infrastructure owner because it worked, was quick and also solved a big pain point.  Marketing it was simply a matter of identifying the key infrastructure head and showing them a demo.  Real problems and real products mean easy marketing.

If you could design the perfect corporate environment for a marketer to be successful what would that be?
The right organization.  An engineering team that’s willing and happy to listen to customers and make rapid changes to product to facilitate adoption.  Sales team that’s providing custom pitches to prospects instead of cookie cutter product demonstrations. Marketing teams that are more agile and nimble to adopt new means of lead generation.

How far is this from reality?

Not very far for certain types of teams, but for the traditional corporations, this is more of a dream than a reality.

Lessons Learned: Bigg Night In Chicago

With just enough of learning to misquote. – George Gordon Noel Byron, Lord Byron (1788–1824)

It’s always a little difficult to open a post with a quote, but sometimes you have to try. A kernel of knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing and a fact many, myself included, forget all too often. So with that fundamental baseline, I’m in Chicago to learn and meet good folks. Every day represents a new opportunity to drive change, improve your understanding of stuff and develop relationships – day 1 was of SOBCon has provided all 3 for me at least.

The first thing I have learned is we all want to meet others like ourselves and be part of a community. A quick/ad hoc survey of the attendees last night easily represented all four corners of the US and around the world. The diversity in geography is only matched by the diversity in expertise and passions which are distributed amongst the attendees I’ve spoken to so far.

While it seems that the blogosphere is littered with marketing folk and productivity leaders, this meeting represents participants who have diverse editorial agendas – parenting/homeschooling, education/international culture…. While I met a good deal of folks (ok Emily did – she was my introduction wing chick), we spent the majority of the evening engage in just a few coversational circles. It’s not the quantity, but quality and I was able to find some quality insights without a doubt from everyone I spoke to.

One of those more interesting and rewarding conversations was with Mary-Lynn and George, from Bigg Success. So today, I thought I would post the 3 things I learned from Mary-Lynn and George:

  • Cards are good
  • Get ahead of the game
  • Play into your strengths

Cards are Good

Yup I love pinochle, but this reference is about a different type of cards – business cards. Ok – nearly everyone I met reinforced this lesson along the way. Apparently everyone makes their own cards – CRAZY creative cards which convey their focus.

Style, substance and brand are just part of having your own cards, but they also serve the very tactical purpose, follow up. You will invariably meet so many smart, cool and interesting folks throughout an event you can’t possibly remember everyone, even though you try. Essentially it appears that your cards are an extension of your brand.

Lesson learned – get cards – CHECK!

Get ahead of the Game

Last night I spent the better part of the evening honing my introduction pitch. The pitch organically meandered into an overly verbose apology for the lack of business cards while rolling into explaining that I’ve been traveling for three weeks and that my recent content shouldn’t be seen as characteristic of what I’m trying to do at I’m actually not sure what I am trying to do here which is another reason I am here at SOBCon08.

While I did reasonably hone this intro, my sheepish/apologetic intro pitch to George and Mary-Lynn teed up an immediately valuable retort on the importance of staying ahead of the game. George made it pretty straight forward: plan, write, edit and post. Seems simple enough – stay 1-2 weeks ahead. Initially I thought this was uniquely related to audio, since Bigg Success focuses on high quality audio production, but no it’s all things content since all content requires planning and execution. George confirmed this by providing an overview of their hybrid approach leveraging text, audio and newsletters for their readers.

So the key thing to remember for me was to stay ahead of the curve on content production. If I can practice this seemingly straight forward concept, I just might be able to avoid the horrible content holes which continuously creeps up by accident or by conflict here. So hopefully, the conflicts of my life, travel and the absence creativity can be avoided by staying ahead of the game with my content.

Play into your Strengths

So while I have multiple ways to look at this, Mary-Lynn and George put it simple: “We plan, we produce and leverage core skills which makes a better product in our opinion”, or something like that. So I took a little time to think about this. My conclusion – it’s as much about as skills as it is about reputation. The talented folks I have met here already have a common thread/quality – they are leveraging their past experiences to drive credibility and authority.

Bigg Success’ Mary Lynn is an example of this with proven/verifiable career in radio, as is George who brings to bear a life of lesson’s learned in business and an academic approach to sharing the information they provide on their shows. These folks are an example of how we should use our knowledge, skills and integrity to deliver value to our readers/listeners in a medium that best suits a person’s abilities. This is just what they have done.

While video may be killing the radio star, that doesn’t appear to be the case with Bigg Success, they are hopefully at the start of their online hockey stick, but for them it is more than stats.

George crisply summarized what “Bigg Success” would be for he and Mary-Lynn: “If we can help a single person with each program then we have accomplished a big part of why we are doing this”.