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Mistakes to avoid when interviewing a product manager

I’ve been in 50+ PM interviews and I’ve conducted 300+ interviews throughout my 9 years of career. I’ve made these mistakes in my early days. Do yourself a favour and don’t lose great candidates because of the same mistakes.

Mistake 1: Not getting past the ‘halo effect’

This tops my list because the halo effect is one of the most common cognitive biases. It’s also the easiest mistake to fall into, especially if you’re a hiring manager / senior leader who don’t interview that many people. This is how the halo effect takes shape:

  • A candidate showed up. They were good looking. Human naturally likes beauty, so you formed a positive impression of this person.
  • They greeted you with ease. They exuded confidence. Their English was flawless. You added a positive point to this person, even subconsciously.
  • You both introduced yourself and you’ve got a few things in common. From then on, it’s easy to let yourself be convinced that this must be a good candidate.

“But isn’t it important to be likeable / to be able to form rapport quickly like this candidate? Doesn’t it mean that this person is also more likely to work smoothly with my existing team, or to build relationships with the stakeholders?” You might ask.

Yes, to some extent. The thing is, if you let yourself be swayed by this bias, you might lose out on great candidates who might perform better in the job, but are not as good looking, from different races or ethnicity, or didn’t come from the same socio-economic background as you.

Stereotypes or biases is our lazy brain’s way to save energy. It happens naturally, so you have to consciously fight against it.

It might be hard to admit that you’re that shallow to allow yourself to fall into this bias, but again, it’s the most common bias that has been perpetuating for ages. You have to consciously fight against it.

Mistake 2: Confusing ‘good at interviewing’ with ‘good at doing the actual job’

Interviewing is a skill. It’s a skill that can get rusty if somebody hasn’t been in the job market for a while. It takes practice to frame your past projects and achievements into a clear, succinct summary. The best candidates are often not looking for a job — which means they haven’t practised this for a while — and you shouldn’t let it turn you off.

Some Product Manager interview process is also designed ‘exclusively’ to assess how smart the candidate is. It’s adopted from the consulting-style live case studies (“How would you build Instagram features for small businesses?”) or the infamous brain-teasers questions from Google (“How many tennis balls can you fit in an aeroplane?”).

Candidates who do well in case studies are good at case studies. It doesn’t mean they’re good at the job.

Google has moved away from these types of questions as they are ‘terrible tools to identify standout potential employees’ but smaller, Google-wannabes tech companies didn’t get the memo.

Candidates who do well in live case studies are good at case studies. Candidates who can perform calculations in their head are good at Maths. Neither means that they can do their job as a PM well. It doesn’t say anything about their ability to manage difficult stakeholders, rally the team around a new company goal, make decisions about tech debt vs building new features… You need behavioural assessment for that, which leads us to the next one.

Mistake 3: Using behavioural questions incorrectly

Behavioural interviews are based on one principle: past behaviours predict future behaviours. By asking questions about their past experience, you get to make a judgment whether this person will do well in your company.

It usually starts with “Tell me about a time when…” e.g. Tell me about a time when you have to manage difficult stakeholders.

Now, behavioural questions are great because it lets the candidate chooses the best example that showcases the particular skill you’re looking for.

However, you might lose out on this benefit if you ask a time-based or project-based question rather than a skill-based one. Let me explain.

A candidate has worked at three different companies, A, B, C.

You asked, “Tell me about your proudest achievement at Company C.”

That question is still fine. And you can make an assessment of whether their achievement in Company C is impressive enough for you. What you shouldn’t do is gauging the candidate’s stakeholder management experience solely based on this question.

No one project is perfect in every single angle.

It might be that Company C is a small startup with fewer stakeholders to manage. Or that it’s a huge corporation with exceptionally difficult stakeholders. They might have better examples of stakeholder management in Company B. You’ll lose out if you make assumptions about one’s skills based on just one project.

Remember: No one project is perfect in every single angle. If you find a less-than-perfect answer about one skill in one project, treat it only as a yellow light. Dig deeper and ask for more specific examples, in other projects or other companies, about that particular thing.

Mistake 4: Failing to recognise transferable skills

PM is a unique role. Even though it’s an IC (individual contributor) role, it requires considerable experience to manage a team of smart and often stubborn engineers, make decisions about priorities and trade-offs, and lead big projects and changes.

For that reason, most people start their career not as a PM. Some starts in consulting, marketing, data analytics, engineering, project management, etc before making their transition to the PM world.

As an interviewer, it’s important to recognise the transferable skills the candidates have acquired in their previous roles. You’re missing out on great candidates if you refuse to hire somebody because they only have a couple of years of pure PM experience. Because guess what? PM skills are not that exclusive, and there’s no point being snobbish about it.

This applies not only to the non-PM past experience. PM skills are hugely transferable across industries and platforms. I often rolled my eyes when I saw this on a job ad:

Minimum 5 years of experience as a product manager in {fintech, ed-tech, ad-tech, travel, etc}.

or, the worst of all:

Experience using Jira and Confluence.

Instead of obsessing over those superficial credentials, start thinking about the qualities that actually matter. Can they take an ambiguous situation and translate it into a clear, actionable set of options? Can they inspire and lead their team to build the best experience for the users? Can they move business metrics?

Mistake 5: Assuming that you are the only one with the power

If your PM interview process is more than 3–4 stages and takes more than a couple of weeks, well, congrats, you just secure yourself a mediocre candidate pool. If you don’t spend at least 10 minutes in the interview to sell the opportunity to the candidates and to answer their questions, be ready to lose them in the process.

The candidate is choosing you as much as you’re choosing them.

Great candidates don’t bother to jump through endless hoops and stick around for weeks. They’ll get snatched up by good companies who recognise their value. The process that you designed to find the perfect candidate will only leave you with disappointment when you hear that, again, that nice bloke you interviewed last week has pulled out from the process because they’ve signed an offer somewhere else.

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Debbie Widjaja

Debbie Widjaja

Product leader, ex startup co-founder, ex Facebook. Currently a Group Product Manager at Bulb. Find me at debbiewidjaja.com