Interviewing Product Managers

Questions and tips for interviewing product managers

Brent Tworetzky
Apr 27, 2017 · 10 min read

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)

Summarizing the common critical elements of good interviewing:

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

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:

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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Brent Tworetzky

Written by

Chief Operating Officer at Parsley Health. Previously Product exec @ InVision, XO Group, Udacity

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