We’ve put together a few of our favourite questions for potential tech product manager hires. Whilst not exhaustive, you can use this as a basis for getting a good conversation started with a candidate. This is aimed mainly at seasoned or experienced product managers, new entrants in to the field may need a bit of an easier time, though many of the questions are still relevant.
Part 1: The fundamentals of the job
Question: What is product management?
Context: You’re looking to see if you’re interviewing a project manager or a product manager. They often get mixed up. They are different roles.
What to look for: Product management is about understanding the problems that a user, typically a customer is trying to solve. A product manager is responsible for learning, exploring and defining the problem, so that engineers can find a solution to it. A big part of the role is about prioritising the problems, so the one with the most potential gets solved first.
Question: What’s the difference between product management and project management?
Context: A good product manager can compare and contrast their role to that of the project manager. It’s not that one is better than the other. They are just different.
What to look for: Project managers work within the ‘iron triangle’ of time, scope and budget and are directive in getting a solution delivered. Product managers are obsessed understanding their users, driven by discovery of what people want of and focussing on delivery value to the business.
Question: What do you think the difference is between leadership and management?
Context: Product is a leadership role, it is about getting the best out of people, negotiating through tricky political situations and making tough decisions.
What to look for: Leadership is about helping your team work together to meet a clear outcome. Management is about driving individuals to meet a target. Look out for examples where the product manager has put the customer first and their team before themselves.
Question: What are the best and worst things about our product?
Context: You should expect any potential product candidate to have bought one of your products or tried your service. If not are they taking the interview seriously?
What to look for: A critical assessment of the ability to search, find, buy and use the product. The candidate should feel free to be open and honest about their experience and you should encourage them to do so. Should the candidate not know much about your product or service then you need to question why they think it’s appropriate to interview for a leadership position on it.
Question: How do you know you’re doing the right thing?
Context: A great question, not a trick question. You may need to support candidates through this one. There is no answer.
What to look for: The closest thing to a good answer is ‘feedback’. Ultimately, you’re looking for a candidate to have the self-awareness that they’re not building a product or service for themselves, but for a user or customer to overcome some kind of problem. Remember, good product management isn’t about working in isolation, thinking you have the best idea and solution already to hand. It’s about working with a team of experts in the business and being as close to your users as possible, so that you have the confidence from others that you’re going in the right direction.
If the candidate mentions data: Some candidates think the answer is simply ‘data’. This is only a good answer when the context is “data and…”. Data is crucial, but only one piece of the puzzle. Not all data is relevant – sometimes there is simply too much of it, or you could be measuring the wrong thing, leading to bad decisions. Other factors like emotion or scarcity play a big part in the phycology of success. Also, there is data you collect yourself and data you can buy from others, known as 1st, 2nd and 3rd party data, the reliability of which can vary widely, so you need to make sure you’re not making decisions based on dodgy facts.
Part 2: The ability to lead
Question: How to break new ground in the market – not play catch up.
Context: If you only ever copy other people, you will never be a market leader.
What to look for: Product management is a leadership position. Tough decisions will need to be taken at times, as will calculated risks. Seek examples of when the candidate has broken the mould, done something new, been inventive or creative. Entrepreneurial skill is necessary in this role.
Question: When have you taken accountability for something that’s been a risk?
Context: Leading is about taking ownership of a situation, whatever the result maybe.
What to look for: You’re looking for someone with a backbone, someone who will tell the truth and stand up for what they believe in. A great example here is someone who is willing to tell a story of when they got something wrong, took responsibility for it and took what they learned and used it to their benefit afterwards.
Question: How have you shaped a product team to stop taking orders and start setting the agenda?
Context: This is about moving a project team to a product team, from followers to leaders.
What to look for: Good product managers lead the narrative on what the business can be, how it can develop and take new offerings to market, even if they are simply marginal gains. Expect the candidate to explain how they’ve previously influenced and persuaded business leaders to try new ways of working or break old conventions.
Question: Give me an example of when you’ve been innovative.
Context: A creative, learning mindset is a good thing
What to look for: Examples of lateral thinking, blending existing ideas together or taking an unusual approach to solving a problem.
Question: You inherit a team that’s knees deep in re-platforming – how do you get them out?
Context: This is quite common, so worth looking at if applicable.
What to look for: This is really about understanding the morale of a team a product manager might inherit. A re-platforming may mean no efforts are going into new features or creative thinking, so find out how your candidate would keep the product team engaged whilst they’re not working on exciting problems.
Part 3: Working with people
Question: How can a product manager best work with a business analyst?
Context: A business analyst gathers information so a product manager can make informed decisions. They also hold the product manager to account by challenging the decisions that get made.
What to look for: Many companies don’t have a business analyst, but that’s not the point. This is about the candidates ability to be challenged, reflect and decide. Expect the candidate to appreciate having to explain their decisions – it means they have thought them through.
Question: How can a product manager best work with an engineer?
Context: If the product manager’s job is to understand the problem, the engineers job is to take that understanding and bring it to life.
What to look for: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. Make sure the candidate realises their job isn’t to solutionise.
Question: How can the product discipline take leadership and be seen as a hub creativity?
Context: It’s too easy to get caught in the weeds of an organisation.
What to look for: The candidate should be able to talk extensively about idea creation, influencing and motivating, taking new ideas to market. Look out for examples of group exercises, like brainstorming, product canvas exercises, hackathons and so on.
Question: How would you develop a product team to drive experimentation?
Context: Steering the team away from inherited roadmaps.
What to look for: The candidate should express an ability to provide the space for a team to exercise its creativity.
Question: What do you do if you get consistently over-ruled?
Context: Many businesses don’t really know what a product manager is and use the term synonymously with project manager.
What to look for: Resilience, the ability to reshape the understanding of the role is crucial, but what if senior leaders don’t listen, or don’t care? Would this candidate give in? Quit? Are they going to become part of the problem? Look for someone who is confident of their skills, assured of their career and will, against all odds, do the right thing.
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