Ask Women in Product: What are the Top 3 things you look for when hiring a PM?

Women in Product
Feb 26, 2018 · 8 min read

Inga Chen and Shilpi Roongta describe the fundamental core competencies that you’ll need for success in a product management role.

Image by @linashib via Twenty20

This week’s question: What are the top three things you look for when hiring a Product Manager, and how do you test them?

Answer from Inga Chen, Product Manager at Squarespace

Product management is an interdisciplinary role that requires many skills and qualities. There are, however, three fundamental core competencies that set someone up for success as a product manager.

To ship the right product, product managers must rally a team of designers and engineers who don’t report to them around a product vision and strategy, as well as manage the needs of internal and external stakeholders. To be effective, you need the ability to build rapport with people that are different from you and exert influence at all levels of an organization without direct authority.

Influencing without authority means that your team trusts your decision-making, and follows you willingly. They might not always agree with you, but they trust that you are championing the user and have the company’s best interests in mind. They trust that you’re not pushing a personal agenda or just appeasing a stakeholder.

This fundamental skill requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy, which are critical for being an effective leader and product manager. What makes you tick? What makes your team tick? What makes your customers tick? How do your team members and stakeholders view you? Can you read between the lines, past what someone is saying?

How I Evaluate

To test for this competency, I dig into past product experiences where the candidate faced conflict with engineers, designers, and stakeholders on the product direction or on key product decisions. How did they make the decision? What feature did they want to ship initially, what ended up getting shipped, and what were the results? Hypothetical cases are not as illuminating as digging deep into past experiences, as hypothetical answers typically project the candidate’s ideal self, rather than what would happen in practice.

2. Intellectual Curiosity

Another core competency critical for product managers is intellectual curiosity. Someone who is intrinsically driven by intellectual pursuits of many different disciplines will likely have strong problem-solving skills.

There’s a fading school of thought that the best product managers have engineering backgrounds, e.g., a Computer Science degree or engineering work experience. I don’t believe a successful PM needs to be a former engineer, but they do need to have some technical understanding. Technology stacks vary from company to company, so it’s not so much about what programming language a PM knows as it is about being able to speak a similar language with engineers. A good PM keeps building intuition about systems design, so they can make high-level engineering estimates without requiring much input from engineers. An intellectually-curious PM will likely have picked up much of this in the course of shipping product. For more junior PMs, I expect intellectual curiosity to have driven them to learn something about how the internet works or dabble in some programming side project.

How I Evaluate

When presented with a problem or subject you don’t know much about, how do you approach it? What questions do you ask? Do you jump at the ambiguous problem or are you intimidated? What has your intellectual curiosity driven you to do in the past? Skills can be taught, but intellectual curiosity is a mindset and harder to teach.

3. Product Sense

Product sense is, simply, knowing what makes a great product. It’s the most important core competency of a successful product manager, and also the most difficult to evaluate. PMs are responsible for shipping a winning product experience that solves real problems and turns users into evangelists. Product managers have to make so many decisions every day, from the big picture to the micro detail; exceptional product intuition (along with data) will maximize the chances that the right decisions are made and ultimately, a great product is shipped.

Great PMs don’t always have the best ideas (and don’t believe they do), but at the very least, their product instincts generally point them in the right direction. PMs usually think in creative ways and come up with approaches nobody else in the room has thought of, but which seem obvious after the fact. “Good taste” is subjective, but at the end of the day, can the product manager identify compelling user experiences that not only solve problems but also delight the user?

I believe product intuition can be built up over time. One way to strengthen this skill is to constantly try different products. Similar to how screenwriters watch movies for research, I try new products and services all the time, even ones I wouldn’t normally use as a consumer. More importantly, I do this for fun. I love seeing how other people have solved user problems or design problems and how they design elegant user experiences. Strong candidates usually lead me to compelling new products because they’re doing this too.

How I Evaluate

Can the candidate identify compelling product experiences? Can they explain what makes the experience compelling, from both the macro level to the pixel-detail? Strong candidates independently echo my concerns about our company’s product and bring up other areas for improvement I haven’t thought of. What novel approaches have they come up with to solve product design challenges? Can they articulate the product strategy of their own products and other products in the market? Where do they think our market, and the world at large, is going?

While product managers use many more skills and competencies, these three — product sense, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to influence without authority — are fundamental to rallying a team to build compelling products that solve real problems and positively impact the business.

Answer from Shilpi Roongta, Product Manager at The Knot

Product Managers wear many hats and therefore need many skills to be successful in our roles. These skills include critical and analytical thinking, technical understanding, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, organization, time management, leadership, data analysis, humility, curiosity, design thinking, facilitation, and more. Organizations look for the skills that they value, and the specific combination will vary from company to company. Several skills, however, are universally critical for product management success. These are the three competencies that I always look for.

1. Empathy

The term ‘Empathy’ has gained traction as a way to describe a necessary skill for product managers. At its core, empathy is about the ability to recognize and understand what someone else experiences or feels. You’ll build better products for others if you can identify with users rather than approaching things from only your point of view. Empathy enables you to truly grasp your users’ pain points and represent them when identifying opportunities, weighing options, and prioritizing requirements. Ultimately, when product managers fail to understand and advocate for the user, the organization runs the risk of going after the wrong opportunities.

Empathy is also critical in other aspects of the role where we engage with our engineering and design counterparts, stakeholders, and other departments that have different, and often competing priorities. If you can understand where your colleagues are coming from and what drives them, you can better navigate the waters to get the best possible results.

How I Evaluate

I often assess empathy during the interview process through indirect methods. I look for signs of empathy during case/homework presentations. It is not uncommon for PM candidates to have to present a hypothetical situation and walk the interviewers through their process. Sometimes the case may require the PM to solve a problem. Other times, the PM will need to describe the process they would follow to get to a solution. Regardless of the scenario, such cases give the candidate a way to show their ability to get to the core of the problem rather than jumping into product solutions. Empathy may be seen in the questions they ask or in the methodology they use to get to the right problem. Defining the right problem is a crucial responsibility of Product Managers and empathy is an essential factor in getting there.

Another way to evaluate empathy is to simply ask the candidate to describe a time when they had discovered an unmet need or a user pain point. Ask them what they did about it and what the result was.

If I’m interviewing for a junior role, I’d ask the candidate to describe how they would go about developing a product for which they are not an obvious user. For example, how would you develop an alarm clock for the blind?

2. Product Intuition

“Good” product intuition may be subjective, but it’s an important skill when it comes to driving impactful and successful product experiences. Just because someone uses technology in their everyday life does not mean they are equipped to build it. I want my candidates to be curious, to show initiative in exploring product experiences across all types of technology, and to have formed opinions about what makes a product successful. The level of product sense that is required varies across companies and depends on the types of technology the candidate will be working with, but again, this is a skill that can separate effective PMs from the others.

How I Evaluate

Product intuition is often evaluated by asking the candidate to assess a product, feature, or user flow. I often ask the candidate what they like about it, what they dislike, what they would change, and why. It’s at this part of the interview where I get a sense of a candidate’s passion for products and whether they can think about product strategy in addition to features. Although I don’t believe PMs are the ones dictating solutions, I do think that, as the representative of the user, it is vital for PMs to have product intuition that can guide the team.

3. Listening and Communication Skills

Product Managers are the hub to many spokes. We regularly interact with engineers, designers, users, sales, marketing, business stakeholders… the list goes on. You often hear how PMs should be good communicators, but I believe they should also be good listeners. It is critical that a PM listens and communicates well to manage expectations, collaborate, gather the right inputs, understand the needs and wants of others, advocate for solving the right problems, and explain decisions. There are so many facets of the job that require PMs to listen intently and communicate clearly.

How I Evaluate

From the first day of interviews, I keep an eye on the PM’s communication skills. Do they explain their ideas clearly? Do they communicate in a structured way? Are they able to read the room and adjust accordingly? Do they listen to what’s being said both explicitly and implicitly? These skills may also be assessed using behavioral questions about how the candidate would lead in certain situations — especially ones where there may be different opinions.

Finally, since candidates meet with a range of people from engineering to design to other PMs, their listening and communication skills are continuously evaluated throughout all parts of the interview process, with each interviewer having their own perspective on the candidate’s proficiency in this area. Together, the interview panel should give you a comprehensive assessment of the candidate’s skills.

Women in Product

Written by

A global community of women working in Product Management.