Recently a good friend of mine who works in the Greek startup community asked to pick my brain for some questions on interviewing Product Managers. Instead of privately sharing them with him I thought of creating an online resource that can be constantly updated.
These are questions that I’m asking candidates when interviewing them at my daily job at Contentful but they are also combined with observations I’ve been making based on how other companies seem to work as well as with what I’ve picked up by some product thought leaders on Twitter — so if you happen to apply to work with us in the future, don’t necessarily expect to be asked these questions.
A quick framework
I’m grouping these questions based on the type of Product Manager you’re looking to hire: Product Leader, Product Manager, Product Owner. Even though this is not an official separation of roles and there are many variations to the meanings that people attach to these terms, I’m going to make an informal split of these three roles as such:
- Product Leader: Someone who builds and empowers teams of Product Managers and doesn’t work directly with customers and delivery teams. This might overlap with roles such as VP/Head of Product, Group Product Manager, Product Director, Chief Product Officer — in general roles that are more about “people” than the “product”.
- Product Manager: Maybe the role you already have in mind. The person that falls right in the middle of Marty Cagan’s definition of a Product manager: a person who discovers a valuable, usable and feasible product. She works equally closely with a delivery team and the users. Communication with stakeholders is as, if not more, important than delivery skills and she keeps a close eye to the market.
- Product Owner: At the end of this unofficial spectrum you find the role that people refer to as “the hat that a Product Manager wears in a Scrum team” which in many companies is limited to just the activity of backlog management. There is no heavy discovery work done by them, they are usually more tech-savvy and they are working very closely with the delivery team. I’m not judging if this is a right thing or not (many will debate around that: 1, 2, 3) but it is a reality. Just look at the job descriptions of many Product Owner roles in LinkedIn and you will find postings that focus heavier on these last skills than the above.
While a linear and successive career path seems to emerge from these descriptions, I like to think of them as layers where each senior role encompasses the previous one and its skills:
This means that a question that is listed under the Product Owner section will also be relevant to a Product Manager, but not the opposite.
Questions for a Product Owner
Aim to learn more about their experience working closely with delivery teams. Lean methods, user story mapping and specifically slicing product increments, user testing, experience with metrics and experiments are some of the areas that you want to tap into.
What did the team that you were working with look like?
What to look for: Check if they were working with a cross-functional team and then follow up with questions to see how well they were collaborating with each discipline (tech, UX, QA). “Well” here means “I clearly stated my requests and trusted them to do their job” instead of “I did their job for them”. Bonus points if these requests were defined or came from the team itself.
Tell me about a release you made in the past.
What to look for: Ask how long it took from A to Z but don’t get hung up on the answer (delivery times are different in each industry), rather use it as a starting point to uncover what they could have made different to either go faster or smarter. “Faster” here means “smaller scope” and “smarter” means “faster learnings”.
Tell me about a time when you changed your plans.
What to look for: Did they ever receive any feedback from user tests, customers, market that prompted them to change course during a project? Again, don’t get hung up on the answer, it could be possible that either the feedback loop was not fast enough or that their assumptions got always validated but look for how well they were trying to “listen”. Did they conduct regular user testing sessions? Did they set up metrics and monitor a release’s performance? Did they jump straight to code or did they try to prototype their way to learnings first?
How do you define quality?
My favorite and one of the questions that I like to bubble up to other roles as well. Especially for POs, being close to the delivery path, a good definition of quality is very important, so try to find out how they defined it and how well they managed to adhere to it. There is no right answer as every industry and company has a different baseline but I like to give extra points if someone goes beyond non-functional requirements or number of defects, and mentions something in the lines of Jeff Sussna’s definition of post-industrial service quality.
Questions for a Product Manager
Here you want to move a bit further away from the “how” and see how comfortable the candidate is with not knowing the “why” and more importantly, how they arrive at its discovery.
How do you do Discovery work?
Some organizations use Opportunity or Business Canvases, others use Epics or User Stories, in order to describe an upcoming project. The work that precedes this artifact is the most important part of a Product Manager’s work and this question is the starting point for your own discovery of:
- How close were they to the users of their product?
- How well did they combine qualitative with quantitative insights?
- How close did they keep an eye on their competitors’ features?
- How was the business outcome defined?
- How comfortable are they with letting go of control of what the solution will be?
How did you deliver a project?
That’s actually different to the release question to the PO above. The kind of “delivery” I’m talking about here has to do with the post-release actions that spread outside of teams, departments and the company. Look for experience in activities such as pricing discussions, marketing releases, customer outreach, cross-department training sessions. The point here is that you need a person that feels as comfortable communicating within the team as they do communicating outwards of it, which leads me to the next question:
Tell me about a time you convinced a colleague about a project.
This question should uncover how well the candidate possesses the quintessential Product Management skills of negotiating and selling. Most of the time a PM’s work is about communicating the importance of their team’s work across the organization and many times this needs to turn into convincing in order to align needed resources outside of their team towards a common cause. Look for things such as 1–1 negotiations, all-hand presentations, resource negotiations.
Questions for a Product Leader
I have to admit that I don’t have direct experience with the below but having, I believe, a good understanding of the role’s needs, I can suggest some questions to ask.
How did you build your team?
It goes without saying that the candidate needs to have experience in putting together a team of Product Managers. This is an activity that depends on people skills such as hiring, onboarding, mentoring, defining career paths. If you ran interviews for other Director roles of engineering, design, marketing, business you can reuse the same people management questions here. I find that it always helps to focus the discussion in one of their reports that they can use as an example of how they hired them, trained them and helped them advance their career.
How successful was your Product?
Every Product Manager should be judged by how well their Product area performs, but even more so a Product Leader. Plain and simple, what were their Product metrics and how well did they connect to the business objectives? It’s very interesting and insightful to ask about how they came to these metrics and ask how did they respond when or if these metrics failed to provide any noticeable business impact.
What was your Product Vision?
Facilitating the creation of a Product Vision, evolving it and evangelizing it within and outside of the Organization is the Product Leader’s job. Ask what this was in their previous company and also see if you become personally bought in by their answer–if not they might not be selling this well to you. Learn how they arrived at it, how much they involved stakeholders in its inception and then also discuss how this trickled down into tactical project work.
I am not the first person to write about this topic but I tried to create a list based, as much as possible, on personal experience rather than online research. If you wish to delve deeper in the topic, you can have a look at the following resources which are just some of my favorite and then keep digging from there.
Thank you for reading so far.