My first time interviewing product managers

I’ve been in an interview many times. I am familiar with that state of nervous anticipation, the process of talking about yourself and the desire to “crush the interview” that all come while being in an interview. This time however was different. For the first time, I was on the other side of the table. Having recently been promoted, I became eligible as an interviewer for the Associate Product Manager (APM) role and for UX designers at APT (the company I work at). With many candidates coming for on-site interviews this past week, I got my first opportunity to interview candidates for the APM role.

As I started preparing for the interviews, I asked myself: What makes a good PM interview? What makes a good PM interview question? PM interview questions can generally span broad areas: product design, business cases, coding, resume/behavioral questions, reactions to situations and in general anything can be fair game. At my company, PM interviews particularly focus on either a product design question or a business case in addition to general questions on the resume etc. as those two specific types of interviews give a direct indication of on-the-job performance. The business case is even more important than in other product roles as we build software that our clients and consultants use to solve real world business cases.

To come up with good questions, I initially found myself relying on the same set of resources that I used when I was looking to interview: Ken Norton’s excellent essay on hiring product managers, Gayle Laakmann McDowell’s Cracking the PM interview (mostly the appendix this time) and the Rather than preparing for the interview, I used these resources to get inspiration on the type of questions to ask. Eventually, I just shut myself in a room for a couple of hours and brainstormed different ideas I had for startups and ended up picking one of those for my product design question. For the business case, I picked a real life case that we had worked through for a client. This easily met the requirements of case that I was familiar with, was interesting and was unique.

Overall, interviewing for the first time was a very exciting experience and I got a lot to take away both about the interviewees and about myself, even though it was a fairly limited sample size. I tried to list a few points that I took away from my first interviews ever:

Past / internship experience in a PM role helps. But it is not necessary.

Going into my interviews, I had a mental note of not wanting to bias against candidates who didn’t have prior PM experience. While it seemed like candidates with past PM experience knew the right starting steps and the overall process, it did not necessarily mean that they ended up addressing the question as a whole in a much better way. On the other hand, candidates without prior experience who were able to pick hints/ suggestions were able to outperform in many ways. Retrospectively, I was reminded of the first point that Ken Norton makes in his essay of smarter candidates trumping experienced ones.

The more a candidate makes it seem like collaborative problem solving, the better his/her chances are.

One of my better candidates not only took the lead in formulating and approaching a problem with a well-defined structure, but also involved me in his product design. It was exciting to actually try and solve a tricky design question with the candidate taking the lead. Again, this mirrors my real world experience, in which you are not trying to build a product feature all by yourself, but it is more collaborative and team oriented effort.

25 minutes is still a lot of time to chug through a product question.

While one would never design a real product to be shipped in 25 minutes, in an interview scenario, you can still get to a lot if the candidate is good and takes the right approach. Contrary to those who said to me earlier that the time is just not enough to come up with a good answer to a design question, I felt pleasantly surprised when candidates could make it much further down a question than I anticipated going in.

Communication as a skill can never be underemphasized.

In a couple of scenarios, I felt my interviewee had interesting ideas but he/she was just not able to get the ideas out the right way and spent a lot of time beating around the bush instead of coming to the right point. Being a good PM is not just about having good ideas and being execute well on those ideas, but it is also about being able to communicate those ideas to your team and its importance became clearer in my interviews.

The question “What makes a great interviewee?” is often brought up and there are millions of articles/books out there addressing that question. The flip question of “What makes a great interviewer?” however, is asked much less often. I can think of many answers here, but one of the key points that stood out for me seemed to be making the candidate perform at their best by making the interview a conversation rather than a one-sided Q&A. Improving interviewing skills is also not easy given that there is rarely any opportunity for feedback. Over time however, I hope to answer this question better and become a better judge of good PM candidates.