What I Learned from Interviewing 85 Product Manager Candidates in 18 Months
The requirement was extreme: hire 15 Product Managers (and one Director of Product) in the next year and a half.
When I arrived at Q4 in October of 2021, we were entering a period of hyper-growth in Product Design, Engineering and Product Management. We had huge ambitions and needed to scale our team — fast. I had hired talent before and had conducted dozens of interviews in my career, but the task ahead of me was daunting. As a new hire myself, Q4 was a domain that was still fairly new to me. Plus, the company serves a specialized clientele and isn’t exactly a household name — and the job market is insanely competitive!
With the help of our CTO, my peers, our amazing talent acquisition team and under the guidance of our inspirational and very applicable company values (Grind, Hustle, Iterate, Compete, Care), we reached our goal. Here are some of the things that I learned as the hiring manager on this assignment.
Cross-optimize your Hiring Process for Speed and Fairness
Hiring is a flow, not a project. The point is to run candidates through a process and hire quality, diverse candidates in a fair and equal way as fast as possible — but no faster. Go in expecting that it will take time and unsexy work to do it well, but it will all pay off in the end.
Create a process: align on it, refine it, repeat
- Write a good job description for each role; ensure that all the interviewers know what’s in it. A good job description can help turn a mediocre interviewer into an amazing one.
- Write a good rubric (‘marking key’) for the interviews and take care to set it up properly in your applicant tracking system. Refine it between searches so that you’re constantly applying what you learn in a hiring round to make your process better.
- Learn from your mistakes! When you have a mis-hire — and we had a few — take another look at your questions, process, and rubric and improve on it for next time.
Optimize for speed:
- Have a well-defined interview process for each role, with backup interviewers on call to be added to an interview loop within a day’s notice to keep the process flowing.
- Use your application tracking system and hold up your end by entering feedback immediately after the interview. This allows your talent acquisition partner to move right into the next step with a candidate (setting up next interviews, generating offers, closing, etc.)
- Have a fast, scheduled window of time for interviewers to align on a candidate (if needed) and resolve any conflicting hiring decisions. For example, in the case where three interviewers rate a candidate “hire” and one rates the same candidate as “no hire,” use this window to quickly come to consensus.
- Make it easy for talent acquisition and candidates to book your calendar — Calendly, or Google Calendar Appointment Windows, are great tools to keep all necessary parties organized.
- Follow up with candidates quickly — especially when an offer goes out!
Optimize for fairness:
- Build a question bank! Over the years, I have tried to document every interview I’ve been in as a candidate. That includes writing down any really good questions that I was asked. Good artists copy, great artists steal.
- Have a consistent process, scoring rubric, skills criteria and question bank that all interviewers can draw on, so that each candidate has the same experience and opportunity.
- Write. Things. Down. I try to fully transcribe every interview I conduct so that if I need to go to bat for a candidate — or reject a candidate — I can go back to the specifics and have a fruitful conversation with the other interviewers based on facts, not memory or impression.
- Manage the flow of feedback between interviewers such that you don’t bias each other, but can still use subsequent rounds of interviews to fill gaps in understanding.
- Create a great applicant experience. Get back to people quickly!
Never stop recruiting
Always be thinking about where a good person could fit with your team in the future. Circumstances change often, and quickly, so don’t ever assume the team you have today is the one you’ll have tomorrow.
- Go back to the well: Past interviews, past applicants, and people who got an offer in the past but declined, are a good source of candidates for future hiring; mine your applicant tracking system for candidate “gold” you may have missed last time around.
- Do your own outreach: Like us, you may have a strong talent acquisition team, but you’re the one with the in-role expertise. Buy and expense a LinkedIn premium account and send InMail to people you think could be a fit in the near future.
- Do informational interviews: 15 minutes of your time is worth it if you can meet and nurture a potential future candidate. Team building is a marathon, not a sprint. The older I get, the more I enjoy, appreciate and learn from folks who are just starting out as PM. If a person is too junior today they may be a fit for a new role in six months, or a more senior role in 18. Build your rolodex: the value of this investment compounds over time.
- Know (and love) your external recruiters: I was brought into Q4 by a top-shelf recruiter who had carefully built a relationship with our CTO over years and has turned into a trusted resource and advisor to me, too. He touches base every four or five months, we catch up briefly, he gives me a read on the market and periodically brings me amazing candidates. Relationships like this propel careers.
- Focus on team composition, not “fit.” When hiring Product Managers, remember that you’re not just hiring individual contributors, you’re hiring a key peer leader for your product team. When I think of team composition, it’s not in terms of some arbitrary cultural fit but rather of the particular talents that needed to be added to bring the team to the next level.
For example, I think about the emotional energy the team needs. Is the team a “hair on fire” sort that panics easily and could benefit from a calming presence? Or is the team more in need of a high-energy product manager to get them excited? Is it a creative product role? An analytical one? A highly technical one? How much executive exposure will this PM have? What skills will they need to spike on to do well for themselves and the team?
You’re going to have interviews where the candidate is amazing but not for the specific role. When that happens, be up front with the candidate. Let them know they’re not going to get the offer for the position, and tell them why. Then, shop the person around internally and keep in touch for future opportunities.
Of the 16 people we hired, three have already been promoted from individual contributors to managers. I’ve also heard some really nice things from colleagues about our evolved team. Hearing this makes me proud. Hiring processes are a lot of work for everyone involved. We put a lot of thought and energy into our part of it, and it’s rewarding to see it come together well.