The 10 most important hiring questions for Product Managers.

Dario D'Aprile
Sep 15, 2016 · 8 min read
Landscape, Dario D'Aprile

Arghhh, good Product Managers are hard to find in Europe (UK included)! A good PM can bring back customer focus and efficiency in the development process but I’ve a higher chance of hiring a bad one and my engineers may hate me forever.

I started my career as a product designer and advanced pretty quickly into product management. I’ve always loved the technical challenges of engineering but didn’t have the abstract mindset to be good at writing code in the text editor. I like mapping and solving problems, I have a strong sense of purpose and collaboration, I love to move from the strategy to the technical details, so I naturally gravitated into product management.
Applying the framework used to hire Designers for PMs has been working decently so far. It is not perfect but I’m constantly improving it from the lessons I’ve learnt from interviewing any PM.

Last week a good friend asked for some help in hiring a PM.

I cannot find any decent test to validate if a Product Manager is really good at his job. How can I be 100% sure I’m in front of a good candidate? How do I know this is the right one for my team?

The simple answer is that you cannot because there is no code repository or design portfolio to look at, and previous successes are not necessary a differentiator.

There is no infallible way to build hit products, just as there is no infallible way to check if the PM has the right skills to succeed in the mission.
In the long run a good PM makes the difference between a winning or losing product but in the short term ask yourself:

Why do I need a Product Manager?

The need for product management is difficult to perceive and common objections to it include the fact that you don’t want to relinquish control of your product until you are too busy making major corporate decisions.
A PM is expendable and anyone can somehow fill the gap, it is a job that companies can get along fine without.

  • I need engineers to build.
  • I need salespeople to sell.
  • I need visual designers to draw.
  • … I rarely feel the need for a PM.

Forget about PM weakness and start focusing on the strengths.

PM isn’t a domain-specific job and the candidate doesn’t always need experience in this sector.

  • Experience in the same industry rarely matters, in fact the correlation with past experience and future success is very rare.
  • The technology continues to change at a rapidly increasing rate and knowledge is less important than ability to learn fast.
  • The role is different at every company and is unique to each specific company. I’ve seen tons of definitions for what a PM is, what they do and who they report into.

Do I need a PM with previous developer background? Ultimately, Google requires it.

A PM doesn’t need to be a former developer. Technical knowledge definitely helps to initiate conversation and raise the respect of engineers but they don’t need to take the final technical decision. There is the risk of commoditising features if you are hiring a PM driven by technology.

“We’ll use technology to produce commodities and we’ll make experiences in order to avoid becoming a commodity ourselves.” The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly

Patterns and heuristics to look into when hiring a PM.

We start with the customer and we work backward Amazon mantra

I love to write lists: here’s the ultimate set of skills I’m looking for in a good PM.

  • Customer-driven mindset. Rationale: there is a product because customers use it.
  • Inquisitive, curious, resilient and highly adaptable. The context is always changing and the ultimate goal is to survive. In order to do this the PM must quickly change approach when data indicates the reality is contrary to a hypothesis.
  • Passionate and able to distill complex problems into distinct technical components. A good product comes from collaborative efforts.
  • Focuses on the process and constantly explores better ways to build products. There is not only one way to do things right.
  • Able to use research and data. Data has the power to make things tangible, it empowers teams to deliver success.

The PM in action. The 10 questions to see the PM solving real problems.

The default approach is to focus the interview on the PM’s ability to articulate what they have done in the past or what they would do differently if they could do it again.
This is the standard way to start a conversation, but what excites me more is to evaluate a PM’s skills by looking at the PM in action: articulating narratives across design, analytical and leadership subjects.

Product Design Skill

Because design is the main differentiator in a tech company, a good PM understands the principles of design and knows how to deliver a winning product in any category.

1st Question: How would you redesign the salt and pepper dispensers?

Designing an everyday object is the way to understand how the PM identifies and verifies customer problems and potential solutions. A good PM uses design thinking: prototyping, mapping models, evaluating affordances and feedback.

2nd Question: Tell me about a product you like and use frequently (e.g. gmail). Why do you like it?

A good PM analyses the product in detail, using lateral thinking to highlight possible problems. They don’t jump to conclusions because they are aware of what it takes to deliver a successful product.

3rd Question: Choose something you are passionate about. Can you create an application in real time on the whiteboard?

A good PM starts by representing the problem and making assumptions; defining a general solution and then entering into the prioritisation process, highlighting the solutions that make the bigger impact.

Analytical & Cognitive Skills

A good PM has critical thinking skills and needs to apply their intellectual horsepower in the context of common business problems.

4th Question: What is the total annual revenue of the London underground?

The good PM is able to quickly make assumptions and generate back-of-envelope estimates. Hypothetical market sizing is one of the most common ways of assessing this skill.

5th Question: Choose a product (e.g. Medium). Can you talk about the business model behind it and the metrics its company would track?

The good PM is able to reverse-engineer a product into the business model canvas. They capture the market and value proposition, they state the product pillars with richness of detail and validate the product-market fit.

Leadership Skills

Lead great engineers, make tough calls, handle conflicts… to succeed, the PM needs great interpersonal skills and strong discipline.

Dario D'Aprile

6th Question: Can you tell me about a time when you had to say no to a stakeholder: customer, engineer, designer or sales person?

A good PM can influence stakeholders and earn their respect and trust. The good PM embraces collaboration, they know good ideas can come from anyone but at the same time they have clear goals and communicate clearly and explicitly when an idea is not inline with the goal. Do they stand by their opinion or do they quickly back down?

7th Question: How much more productive is a great engineer versus average engineer?

A good PM highly values and respects engineers; they have worked with great teams and thinks of engineering bandwidth as the most valuable resource on the planet. A great engineer is 10 times more productive than an average one.

A good PM refines the product development process so that the engineering team has everything they need to build the product as efficiently as possible. This means that required documentation is done in advance, concepts are validated with prototypes or other low-impact tests prior to investing time in full builds, the real data and assets needed are prepared prior to the development team needing them. You won’t always achieve this level of preparedness, especially if working in an agile process, but the bar should remain high.

8th Question: What did you do that made it easier for the sales team to sell the product?

A good PM understands what it takes to sell products and can work effectively with the sales team. Good PMs are loved by the salesforce. A good PM will be known personally or by reputation by at least half the salesforce. Good PMs know that salespeople have a choice of products to sell and, at a higher level, companies to work for, and selling a particular product is optional. Good PMs know that if the sales force doesn’t like the product, they will fail. Good PMs understand that salespeople are under a lot of pressure to meet their monthly target and that’s about it.

9th Question: Based on your company org-chart, who do you want to work with?

“No matter how smart you are, to be successful you need a team of great people”. Steve Jobs

People need recognition. The good PM empowers others to maintain strong ownership. A good PM pushes engineers and designers to show off their work, has feedback systems in place to receive feature suggestions and ideas from anyone.

It is very common that PMs have tonnes of responsibilities and no authority.

A good PM must provide leadership, advocacy and support to the executive team and any other stakeholders in the company. The good PM leverages the entire organisation and uses whatever intensity is required to close conflicts and critical issues.

10th Question: Can you recommend any good product managers to me?

A good PM is always trying to learn and improve because they assume that the answers lie outside their own brain, and are open to criticism of their ideas. The good PM has mentors and a list of inspiring people, they demonstrate humility and recognise value in other people. It is an absolute no when a PM suffers the syndrome of Dunning–Kruger and is unable to recognise value in others.

Most importantly, try to find some time to read the best guide ever: Good Product Manager Bad Product Manager by Ben Horowitz and David Weiden

Follow my product-oriented Twitter feed here: @dariodaprile

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Human and Machine

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