Interviewing Product Managers
As the leader of a 50+ person Product organization, one of my biggest responsibilities is attracting, hiring, coaching, motivating, and retaining great Product professionals, primarily Product Managers and Designers. And given the central, facilitating roles of Product Management, PMs bring extra leverage to speed up or bust up the digital creation part of your organization. Hiring the right PMs is critical for the company and a big part of my job. Hiring well requires asking the right Product Manager interview questions. Below are some of my Product Manager interview questions, as well as thoughts from other product leaders and hiring experts. Interviews are one part of a broader hiring process that also includes sourcing, skill testing, referencing, selling, and onboarding, although interviews tend to be an area Product Leaders often get wrong but think they get right.
A Google search turns up many list of Product Manager interview questions, even interview simulations, often written directly for Product Managers. This article addresses some of the most useful ways for Product Leaders to approach interview questions, and how Product Managers can think about the most important messages to share when interviewing.
Best Practice Interviewing For Any Position
In Yale Professor Jason Dana’s recent New York Times article The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews, Professor Dana recaps research showing that loosely run interviews are often useless, if not misdirecting, for evaluating a candidate. His best advice for conducting useful interviews:
What can be done? One option is to structure interviews so that all candidates receive the same questions, a procedure that has been shown to make interviews more reliable and modestly more predictive of job success. Alternatively, you can use interviews to test job-related skills, rather than idly chatting or asking personal questions.
Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s well-regarded book Who: The A Method for Hiring, based on extensive hiring research, outlines a structured interviewing approach as well: (as part of a broader hiring approach)
- Create a job blueprint covering mission, outcomes, and competencies that the hiring process and interview questions align around
- Perform rigorous short screening interviews evaluating fit against the blueprint — using the same questions for all candidates
- Conduct detailed in person interviews by the hiring manager with a walk through of a candidate’s past and future evaluating fit against the blueprint — using the same questions for all candidates
- Conduct focused interviews with other stakeholders to evaluate specific competencies from the job blueprint — using the same questions for all candidates
- (Bonus) This approach discusses tips for effective references using, you guessed it, a consistent set of questions for all candidate
Summarizing the common critical elements of good interviewing:
- Use a common set of questions every time (the book suggests specific questions)
- Continuously evaluate responses against the job mission/outcomes/competencies blueprint
This approach, and the thoughtful research needed to use this approach, provide an excellent starting point for hiring any role, product managers or otherwise.
What To Interview Product Managers For?
In Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street offer an approach that starts by articulating a position’s mission, outcomes, and competencies. I’ve articulated XO Group’s key Product Manager competencies in this article defining the modern strategic Product Manager. For each Product Manager level at XO Group, we evaluate
- Strategic Thinking, including macro and micro level design making and problem structuring
- Technicals, including engineering and design collaboration tools
- Collaboration, including EQ and conflict management
- Communication, including the ability to inspire others
- Detail Orientation, including QA
- User Science & Empathy, including qualitative and quantitative user research
I asked several other Product Leaders for their top interview questions and key competencies. In addition to the six skill areas above, several also called out:
- Grit: Wyatt Jenkins (SVP Product, Hired), Kavin Stewart (VP Product, Reddit)
- Degree of self awareness: Xiaodi Zhang (CPO, 1stDibs), Matt Smith (CPO, Workframe)
- Conflict management as a critical explicit skill: Catherine Ulrich (CPO, Shutterstock), Anthony Schrauth (CPO, Betterment), Xiaodi (1stDibs)
In addition to competencies, I also evaluate if the candidate would be motivated by the position’s mission, users, team, structure, and growth opportunity. Not just *can* the candidate do the job, but *will* the candidate be excited waking up every day to do the job? These two separate notions are also known as will and skill.
Will: does the person have the will to do the job, i.e. is the person motivated and excited? Does this position feed the person’s soul?
Skill: does the person have the skill to do the job, i.e. does the person possess the key competencies to fulfill the position’s responsibilities?
In hiring, I look for candidates with both will and skill. (Note that there’s been much HR discussion about optimizing for one vs. the other, though that discussion isn’t in this article.) Pertinent to Professor Dana’s and the You book’s recommendations, I use the same questions in every interview, questions aligned to the role’s key needs.
Evaluating Will: Top Product Manager Interview Question
“Tell me what the job is you’re applying for, and why it’s a great fit for your career.”
I learned this question from Mike Osier, COO at Chegg and former VP Ops at Netflix. You can discover so much from this question, such as
- Does the candidate understand the role? Has she done the research to take the application seriously? Have they synthesized what they’ve learned from other discussions into this response?
- How does the candidate frame the role? Does the role feel important and ambitious?
- Does the candidate remember to answer the second part of the question? Many don’t, even though the second half is more important!
- What are the candidate’s career ambitions? Is this the type of person you want on your team now and in the future? Is this role and the organization a good fit for the candidate, and vice versa?
- Is this candidate interested in product management because she’s a user-centered builder, or because she wants to add Product Manager to her resume?
- How well does the candidate see the broader opportunity? Does the candidate’s framing show excitement, motivation, and understanding of impact, fit, and growth? Can you see how and why the candidate will want to thrive in this role?
I love this question as it accomplishes several goals while letting the candidate tell her story. To pass this question, the user needs to answer both sections and sell me on how this role positions her to take over the world. If the candidate fails to motivate me with passion, or simply forgets to answer the second part of the question, I’m likely going to pass on the candidate.
Other ways Product Leaders ask this question:
- Tomer Cohen, VP Product at LinkedIn asks “why product?” and “why LinkedIn?” as part of his key few questions to get a similar beat on the candidate’s career ambitions and perceived interest in the role and company.
- Xiaodi, 1stDibs asks the candidate to describe her ideal environment to thrive in and what she needs to succeed to evaluate the candidates introspectiveness and to match the candidate’s ideal environment against 1stDibs’s.
Evaluating Skill: Top Product Manager Interview Question
“Walk me through a successful major project you were heavily involved in, and tell me about your role throughout the project.”
Followed up by
“If you were to change anything about the project, what would you have done differently and why?”
With this question the interviewer gets to hear about the candidate’s past experience in a chosen high quality example — it better be a good example! This skill evaluation question lets the interviewer deep dive into the example about the candidate’s displayed competencies, e.g. collaboration, communication, detail orientation, user science, etc. By selecting an example in the candidate’s history instead of a forward-looking imaginary test case, the candidate shows what she actually did instead of what she could hypothetically do in an interview question — and what points she chooses to bring up.
This historical example has limitations — especially the company’s and product organization’s setup and the candidate’s earlier career maturity. That’s why the follow up question is important — can she imagine a different way of solving the problem? Is the candidate aware of best practices of collaborating, getting details right, performing tests, understanding users, etc. and reflective about opportunities for growth and improvement?
I love this question because I get a quick snapshot of the candidate’s skills and her self awareness of those skills. I can generally also guide the conversation to cover all of the role’s competencies. Note you can ask a variant of this question in the negative as another way of probing skills and self-awareness — “Tell me about a product you worked on that failed, and what you learned.”
Other ways product leaders ask this question:
- Sean Murphy, VP Product at Target.com, asks about what people believe are their greatest professional accomplishments and then uses those examples to dig deeper into the candidate’s ways of working, judgment and product principles.
- Matt from Workframe asks “Walk me through a time where you figured out what to build. How did you get to the decision to move forward? What was that process? What was the outcome?”
- Kavin from Reddit asks about a project the candidate led and covers prioritization, resourcing, stakeholder management, conflict management, major challenges and solutions, communication, measurement, and outcome.
Product Manager Interview Case Study/Example
I recently interviewed a candidate for a Senior Product Manager role that needs a lot of user discovery for a whitespace product. In answering this historical example/skill question, the candidate’s example project involved quickly building and launching an offering that was the CEO’s idea and mandate. The candidate wanted to (and did) demonstrate strong execution, but missed the strategic thinking and user-research elements of modern product management. On my follow up about what he wished he could have done differently, he was able to articulate how he would’ve changed the strategy (great!) but never once mentioned bringing users into the product discovery, development, and release process. Given the importance of user research in our open role, we had to pass on the candidate.
I generally start with these two will and skill questions, then walk through other standardized questions that cover key role competencies that we haven’t covered yet. I generally prefer examples to hypotheticals, but I will often ask a candidate to brainstorm a problem related to the role.
The Third Big Product Manager Interview Question: Conflict
Reviewing responses from other senior product leaders about their top Product Manager interview questions, most questions fell into three buckets:
- “Why are you interested in the job/company/industry” to understand a candidate’s interests and ambitions.
- “Walk me through your accomplishment” to understand a candidate’s displayed competencies (already covered).
- “The conflict example” — either a hypothetical or historical example of encountering and managing conflict, with senior, peer, and junior stakeholders. Evaluators especially look for collaboration skills and use of user data and insights to work through conflicts.
Perhaps I should ask this question more directly given its importance to other product leaders! Managing conflict productively is near and dear to my heart, and I recommend the book Difficult Conversations to anyone interested in the topic. Here are different ways the conflict question is asked:
- “Tell me an example when you had to deal with conflict, and how you handled it” — Catherine, Shutterstock
- “Give me an example when you had to influence others who disagreed with you” — Tomer, LinkedIn
- “How do you make decisions when disagreeing with exec team members or key stakeholders? How do you manage conflict in these situations?” — Xiaodi, 1stDibs
- “How did you handle disagreements with key stakeholders, whether engineers, cross-team dependencies, or executives?” — Kavin, Reddit
- “I pose a scenario where the team believes in a feature but the CEO wants it done in a different way that the teams believes is ill-conceived. I then have the PM explain what they would do in that scenario. As a follow up I then ask for a real world example where they disagreed with an executive or manager and really drill into what the PM did and why.” — Anthony Schrauth, Betterment
These three questions aren’t all the questions to ask, they’re just the most important ones according to this set of product leaders. Other interesting questions that came up include:
- “If I spoke to your colleagues, what misperceptions about you would I hear?” — Catherine, Shutterstock
- “Give me an example of a product you love or hate, and why” — Tomer, LinkedIn
- “How do you articulate a future, and how do inspire your team to build that future?” — Wyatt, Hired
I didn’t cover questions about cultural fit explicitly in this article. Cultural fit is critical to a successful hire, though I find interviewers can assess cultural fit quickly, and assessing cultural fit varies by what’s important to a specific culture.
Getting the Product Manager interview right matters, it’s a critical part of the broader hiring process (including references, exercises, etc.) that many of us get wrong without even knowing it. Many of us are so confident in an ultimately bad hire when we use a weak interviewing process. By following best practices of consistent, skills-based questions around career fit, historical skills examples, and conflict handling, you’ll set yourself up to bring the right people aboard your product team. That’s a good thing for your team, the candidate, your organization, and ultimately your user.