Are you in the process of interviewing for a position in product management? The answers to these six questions will tell you whether or not there is an infrastructure in place for you to succeed at your job.
One of the most important questions I get from Product Managers looking for their next adventure is, “How can I tell if a company will be a good fit for me?” Many great Product Managers have ended up in jobs that have left them frustrated and uninspired due to company culture and inhibiting processes. When I found myself running into these hurdles at a few jobs, I started to create a framework of questions that assessed whether or not a company would allow me to thrive as a Product Manager. I still ask these questions whenever I start my consulting engagements. They help me figure out whether or not the company is ready for a Product Management transformation that focuses on building the right thing.
So when you reach the end of each of your interviews and you’re asked, “Any questions?”, hit them with these.
1. “Does the team come up with what to build, or is it directed from the top, down?”
If I ask this question to a Product Manager who I’m interviewing with, I hope that I see a look of confusion on his or her face. “What do you mean who came up with it? Well, our team did. Right? That’s how it works normally.” This kind of response is a sign of a healthy
product management organization, in which management sets the goals and the team is given room to figure out how to reach those goals. The Product Manager should be leading the charge to discover user problems and then solve them. This doesn’t mean that an important initiative or solution idea can’t come from management every once in awhile, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
In unhealthy product management cultures, Product Managers are seen more as Project Managers. They are handed a solution and focus on getting that solution out to market as quickly as possible. There is little pushback to management, either because it is not allowed, or because it is not presented as an option and therefore teams don’t even consider it.
It’s a huge red flag when a team not only can’t take ownership for what they are building, but they can’t even tell me why they are building it. This means that the originator of the idea never connected the why to the what.
Side note: If you are a manager, especially the CEO of a small company, please understand that if you suggest an idea, many times your employees will see the idea as an order. I’ve seen this in many organizations. At one company I worked at, when our CEO suggested something we’d drop everything to comply. He had to learn how to encourage people to question him and his suggestions so that not everything he casually threw into the ring was taken as a mandate. You should do the same.
2. “What was the last product you decided to kill?”
Another sign of an unhealthy PM culture is the inability to kill a product or idea that will not help a company reach its goals. When my interviewee responds to this question with, “We never really kill anything,” it’s usually the result of the following problems:
- The organization already committed to the idea. Many times just because marketing has already told clients a feature is coming based on the roadmap, the company feels committed to fully follow through with it. It doesn’t matter whether or not the client actually requested it, or if it results in any of the organization’s desired goals.
- Budgeting can’t budge. In some large organizations, when the budget is set at the beginning of the year, the team has to spend it entirely or else they will not receive an equally large budget the following year. This concept is baffling, but it happens. These companies’ teams rush to get as many features out the door as possible to burn through all the remaining cash, just to ensure they can get more cash the next year. So if they kill something, even if they know for a fact it won’t get used, it makes it harder to achieve this stupid goal.
- No pushback to management. Again, a lack of testing and questioning potential features signifies a lack of empowerment in a team. If a team doesn’t feel like it is safe to say to management, “Hey, that thing we tested? It doesn’t work. We don’t think it’s worth the money to build it,” then the chances of a successful set-up for Product Management is slim.
Bottom line: Healthy teams test ideas and then kill them if they do not reach the goal.
3. “When’s the last time you talked with your customers?”
What I dread hearing is, “Oh, well management doesn’t really let us talk to customers. They’re worried about us annoying them too much.”
Without a healthy dialogue between a company’s teams and customers, there is no way to truly learn about what they want or need. An organization set up for success not only allows Product Managers to talk to customers, it encourages them to do so and recognizes this process as a huge part of the job. They understand that customers respond well to a company that wants to learn and improve, and are not fearful of scaring them away. Your interviewee should be probing you for clues that you are comfortable talking to customers and are not going to spend all your time safely indoors writing user stories. If they are not concerned about your proficiency or comfort in this aspect of Product Management, it’s a red flag that customer communication isn’t high on their list of priorities.
4. “What is your goal?”
This is the first question I ask any Product Manager when I meet them in an interview process. If they cannot articulate a clear goal, it’s a sign of poor product management at the organizational level. If they do have a goal but it is more output centric than outcome focused, this also signifies an unhealthy product team. An output centric team measures success in terms of meeting product shipment deadlines. They pay little attention to what these products are actually doing for their business.
The purpose of a Product Manager is to help the business achieve its goals by solving customer problems. If the Product Manager does not understand where the north star of the company is, how are they supposed to figure out how to get there? Goals should be outcome oriented, actionable, and clearly communicated throughout the organization.
5. “What are you currently working on?”
A truly successful Product Manager talks more passionately about the problems they are solving than the solutions they are shipping. This is one of the biggest signs of success for me, and it goes hand in hand with the goals. When I ask Product Managers this question, I want to hear about what big problems they are tackling for the user and the business. Of course they will talk about the solution as well, but more in the context of what it will do to help solve their problems. If this tenet is encouraged throughout the organization, you can hear it echoed at all levels.
Oscar Insurance promotes this brand of thinking very well. Once, when interviewing a Product Manager from Oscar, I asked her to describe her work there. She talked a lot about how she was helping the business achieve their goals of retaining users while also keeping users healthier which decreases premiums. She only started to talk about the solution they built halfway through the conversation. She then described how the solution, an app, helped them execute on that goal. This type of focus on the user, the problem, and the business goal was so well understood by her that it blew me away. It was one of the best interviews I have seen.
In unhealthy product organizations, this problem/solution focus is unbalanced. Product Managers will spend hours talking about the technical implications and roll out of their features, but barely gloss over the problem and the goals. There is no passion around what problem the software is solving, probably because that problem is not well understood. This tells me that there is a culture around shipping, not solving.
6. “What are your Product Managers like?”
As Product Managers, we want to work in an organization where the role is respected and well regarded. This is not an ego thing, but a must if we are going to succeed at our jobs.
I have seen many organizations where the Product Management function was not well respected. There were two causes: Product Managers were either seen as too strong or too weak.
In the first instance, Product Managers were seen as dictators who threw out requirements to the team rather than involving them in their decision making process. The teams grew resentful, and felt they were treated as “resources” rather than colleagues. A good Product Manager knows that getting buy in from the whole team is crucial. They are not the only person who should be coming up with the ideas, but instead should be harnessing their team’s full brain power. A sign of a healthy product team is hearing development and UX people say, “I love my Product Manager, they’re great. They have clear direction, communicate to us well, and help keep us focused on the goals and problems.”
In the second instance, Product Managers are seen as “weak” in the organization because they are beaten down by stakeholders and management. When Product Managers are seen as Project Managers, they hold no decision-making power. Stakeholders and management use them to just usher their own ideas through. PM’s don’t feel like they can say no because of the potential for strong backlash. This kind of structural pitfall is difficult to climb out of. Even if companies start shifting behavior by empowering PMs, they don’t focus on educating stakeholders about this shift. So the power struggle only gets worse, as PMs are berated for not succumbing to their every whim.
Healthy Product organizations educate their company about how to collaborate with Product Managers. They instruct Sales not to promise features before the product team has been involved. They tell Marketing that all press releases must be cleared with PMs first. They understand that the product process requires Product Managers to make sure the feature will be viable, useful, and necessary before it is promised. The dream organization for PM’s is one that sees Product Managers as leaders who help shape the direction of the company and the services they provide to their customers. They are respected as partners in steering that ship forward. Use these six questions to ensure that the company you join will support and encourage you to do everything you can to succeed.
Melissa Perri is the Founder and CEO of Product Institute, an online school and community created for Product Managers, by Product Managers. When she’s not teaching, Melissa travels around the world as a consultant, speaker, and coach. Keep an eye out for her upcoming book, Escaping the Build Trap, a guide for creating valuable products through effective Product Management.