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Product Manager interview guide for Leaders

Product Management Interview Guide


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Rahul Malik

3 years ago | 15 min read

Hiring product managers is one of the most challenging and important tasks for product team leaders or any other leaders like CEO, CTO etc.

So how do you make sure you’re hiring the right person? It’s all about asking the right questions. Entering an interview unprepared is just as bad for the interviewer as the interviewee.

The goal of this interview guide is to provide you with a structured framework to help you hire product managers with confidence and speed. I recommend your interview process consists of four relevant areas to make sure everything is covered.

● Significant Accomplishments (Resume Review)

● Product Management and Design

● Analytical & Cognitive Skills

● Leadership & Communication Skills

1. Significant Accomplishments (Resume Review)

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency for the role by looking at:

▪ Examples of how a candidate previously achieved comparable results

▪ Examples of how a candidate has managed and executed comparable work

▪ A candidate’s motivation to do the required work

▪ Career growth trend

▪ Dependability and responsibility

The key sections of this interview are:

(i) Background & Resume Review

Start the interview by clarifying the role (using the actual job title) that the candidate is interviewing for. Spend 1–2 minutes describing in some detail your performance expectations for this position.

Examples :

■ Can you talk to me about how your background has prepared you for this position?

■ Can you talk to me about your most recent job?

■ What was your role? Responsibilities? Accomplishments?

■ Why did you take this job?

■ Why did you leave?

(ii) Candidate’s Perspective on Product Management

This section asks the candidate to speak unaided about product management in response to two open-ended questions.

These questions allow you to judge the candidate’s understanding of how products are built and how product management works.

Examples :

Can you talk to me about your approach to product management?

■ What makes a good product manager?

The following question allows you to further evaluate how well the candidate has internalized product process. It can also help you identify strengths and weaknesses.

How would you rank the responsibilities of a product manager from what you like most to what you like least?

Everyone makes mistakes. The answer to the following question can help you gauge how fast a candidate will learn and how open they are being with you.

■ What was your biggest product mistake?

(iii) Most Significant Product Accomplishment

Start off this section by describing a specific challenge of the position:

One of the big challenges in this role is “____________”.

Then ask for an example where the candidate has done something similar:

Can you tell me about a major project or accomplishment where you’ve done something similar?

Next, get more open-ended and ask about his or her most significant product accomplishment:

Can you talk to me about a major career accomplishment you believe represents your best product work?

What you are hoping for is energy and passion as a candidate talks to you about the problems a specific set of customers were having, how they identified the key use cases and how they got to a solution.

If it isn’t clear already, find out why they built this product:

Why did you build this product?

Then, start to dig into the process the candidate used:

How did you prioritize?

■ What was the most painful feature cut you made? Why?

Expand your focus from features and functions to the whole product and to the competition:

How did you validate the concept, size the market, and test with customers?

■ What was the unique value proposition?

■ How was this product different from the competition’s?

Also ask about business model, segmentation, distribution, pricing and support.

Everyone has experienced failure. Ask the candidate to talk about it:

Can you talk about a product you have managed that failed?

■ Why did it fail?

■ What did you learn from it?

■ How can you tell if a product is well designed?

Get an understanding of the completeness of the candidate’s product life cycle experience:

■ Can you give me an example of a product you owned from concept to launch?

■ Can you give me an example of a project that was particularly innovative?

■ What features differentiated the product? Why?

2. Product Management and Design

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency by looking at a candidate’s skill and depth in the following functional areas:

▪ Customer development

▪ Strategy and positioning

▪ Development lifecycle/process, prioritization and project management

▪ Product marketing

▪ Requirements synthesis, wireframing and minimum viable product

▪ Design thinking

▪ Technical skills, engineering design and quality/testing

Beyond these functional areas, what you’re looking for in a candidate is:

▪ Vision and creativity

▪ Focus

▪ Technical product skills

▪ Thought leadership

▪ How he or she thinks about and listens to customers

▪ Energy

▪ Ability to learn

Of all of these attributes, the way a candidate thinks about and listens to customers is by far the most important.

The key sections of this interview are:

(i) Design of Everyday Things

Great product managers understand the basic principles of design and know how to deliver a winning product in any category (not just one vertical). Start by asking a candidate to walk you through how they would design an everyday product or service. Here are some case ideas (ask only one):

■ How would you design sunglasses for kids?

■ How would you redesign wheelchair for a physically challenged person?

After the candidate’s initial answer, begin adding constraints one at a time. What you want to hear from the candidate is how to identify and verify actual customer problems and potential solutions. The candidate will ideally utilize design thinking in their approach (especially prototyping) and should consider feedback.

(ii) Product Analysis — Existing Products

The interview questions in this section focus on the candidate’s ability to analyze the strategy, positioning and features of existing products. Ask the candidate a series of questions about a product they like and use often:

Tell me about a product you like and use frequently. Why do you like it?

■ What don’t you like about it? How would you improve it?

■ Are there features you would remove? Why?

■ If you were the product manager, what would be the top 5 features for the next release?

Expand the conversation to target market, competition, marketing and pricing:

Who is the target customer? Why?

■ What future competitive threats might this product face?

■ How is the product marketed? Is the company doing a good job?

■ Would you change the pricing? Why?

End the section by testing a candidate’s divergent thinking and awareness of what it takes to deliver a successful product:

How will you grow the number of users and revenue for this product?

What will be the success criteria for this product?

(iii) Product Practical — Creating a New Product

In this section, the candidate should use a whiteboard to create an application on-the-fly. Start by finding something the candidate is passionate about. The candidate should be focused on identifying and validating the problem set and how he or she would engage with customers about the problem and proposed solution. Once the candidate has identified the product he or she would like to build, ask them to develop requirements for a minimum viable product and talk about their process for getting it built:

Imagine you are the sole owner of this product. You are responsible for getting it launched and successful as soon as possible. Can you document the requirements and talk about your overall process?

■ What metrics would you track? Why?

The candidate should provide a basic process framework. If the candidate doesn’t mention prioritizing specifically, ask them how they would decide what not to build.

How did you decide what not to build?

■ Knowing what not to build is critical. A good candidate does this implicitly by focusing on the minimum viable product.

Ask about how the candidate would interact with engineering and how he or she would ensure quality:

■ How would you assess the technical design proposed by engineering?

■ What would your process be for ensuring product quality?

Ask the candidate about business model:

What business model would you propose for this product?

■ How would you position it?

Finally, ask them to walk you through a go-to-market strategy:

What would be your go-to-market strategy?

■ How would you generate interest/demand?

3. Analytical & Cognitive Skills

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate problem solving and critical thinking skills. A product manager needs to be extremely smart, and this interview gives you the framework to effectively evaluate raw intelligence, creativity and analytical abilities.

Your goal should be to evaluate the candidate’s intellectual horsepower not in the context of esoteric puzzles and brainteasers, but in the context of common and relevant business problems.

The key sections of this interview are:

(i) Market Sizing & Problem Solving

Product managers need to be able to quickly make assumptions and generate back-of-the-envelope estimates. Hypothetical market sizing is one of the most common ways of assessing this skill. Good answers require a candidate to communicate key assumptions and keep everything straight while quickly doing the math in his or her head.

Interview questions you could ask include (you should only ask one):

What is the total annual revenue of all petrol pumps/gas stations in India?

■ What is the average weekly revenue of a typical movie theater in Bangalore?

■ How many people travel from Delhi to New York every day by airline?

(ii) Business Model Exploration

Winning in business is just as much about great business models as it is about features, technologies and value propositions. Unfortunately, not all product manager interviews focus as much on the former as they do on the latter.

There is a lot more to a great product than just it’s value propositions and features. In this section, you will evaluate the frameworks and processes a candidate uses to analyze a potential business.

What you are looking for is familiarity with a wide variety of business models, a good framework for analysis, and creativity and divergent thinking in coming up with solutions.

Use a whiteboard to analyze and iterate on business model prototypes together. Consider the analysis of either existing businesses or potential new businesses, depending on the stage of your company and what the product manager’s role will be.

Have the candidate walk you through his or her process for analyzing issues and making decisions. Provide a more open ended scenario like:

Based on what you know, how would you identify and validate the best business model for us to pursue for one of our products?

Another good option for a startup specific interview question is:

Imagine you just received a $5 million Series A investment. Describe your process to validate the proposed business model and to get the company to product/market fit.

This scenario not only allows you to test a candidate’s business model exploration and prototyping skills, but also tests for big picture thinking and comfort level with uncertainty.

As the candidate walks you through a business model design and prototyping process, the key areas you want to get clarification on are:

■ Revenue model

■ Gross margin model

■ Operating model

■ Working capital model

■ Investment model

(iii) Metrics / Data Analysis & Problem Solving

Smart product managers use data effectively to make better decisions. Ask about data analysis using an open ended question like:

■ Tell me about how you use data to make decisions.

What you’re hoping to hear is the candidate talk about dashboards and how to use actionable metrics instead of vanity metrics in the analysis and measurement of success. If the candidate does not get here alone, prompt him or her more directly:

Can you take one of our products and talk about how you would build a dashboard for it?

What metrics would you track? Why?

If you’re an early stage startup and haven’t released a product yet, pick a product the candidate is familiar with. You want to hear a candidate talk about lifetime value, per-customer metrics, events, funnel analysis and cohort metrics. Ask the candidate to step you through a funnel analysis on the whiteboard:

Can you walk me through how you might do a funnel analysis for one of our products?

Rapidly and clearly doing this exercise will tell you a lot about the candidate’s ability to think on-the-fly and how smart he or she is about data analysis.

4. Leadership & Communication Skills

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency by looking at:

▪ Ability to influence and motivate

▪ Advocacy for customers and key stakeholders

▪ Confidence and assertiveness

▪ Attitude and pace

▪ Sociability and team skills

▪ Honesty and integrity

The key sections of this interview are:

(i) Customer Leadership & Communication Skills

Start the conversation with an open-ended question about how the candidate has interacted with customers in the past:

Can you talk to me about how you interacted with customers in your most recent product role?

Imagine you get this job and I am a prospective customer for the product you are now responsible for. I know nothing about your product or your company.

Let’s role play how you would interview me about my “must have” problems and whether or not your product solves them for me.

Ask about the candidate’s skills in balancing customer issues and company priorities:

Imagine you have a customer feedback tool where your users submit feature ideas and then vote on them. One of the features is very popular among your users, but doesn’t align with your company’s long term strategy. How do you respond to your users?

Make sure the candidate can say no to a customer when necessary:

Can you talk to me about a time when you had to say no to a customer?

■ Why did you have to say no?

■ How did you handle it?

Imagine you’re taking over a mature product and you find out that customer issues are being dealt with reactively and much of the team that built the product is no longer with the company. What would you do to be more proactive about prioritizing fixes and enhancements?

Test the candidate’s customer communication skills under pressure:

Imagine that you have recently deployed a major release of an enterprise software-as-a-service product. Unfortunately, you have found a bug that was missed in testing. Your QA group tells you that it is an edge case that will impact less than 1% of users, but for those it does impact, the user experience will be very bad. What do you do?

(ii) Team (Engineering and Design) Leadership Skills

A critical factor in the success of any product is a product manager’s relationship with the engineering team. Find out how the candidate would interact with engineering in different situations:

Imagine you give your engineering team requirements for 8 features for a product release. Engineering tells you 2 of your requirements are not possible, but they can implement the other 6. They also say they would like to add two additional requirements of their own. How do you respond?

You are looking for the candidate to embrace collaborating with engineering and to understand the balance in the relationship.

Is the candidate open to ideas from engineering, especially if they are good ideas and would make the product much better? How does the candidate deal with requirements engineering says are not possible?

Ask the candidate to give an example of when he or she had to influence engineering to build a specific feature:

Can you talk to me about a time when you had to influence engineering to build a particular feature?

You are looking for evidence that the candidate can influence engineering and earn their respect:

How do you earn respect from the engineering team?

■ How do you get a team to commit to a schedule?

Get a sense for the candidate’s breadth of experience in working with engineering teams:

Can you talk to me about some of the challenges of working with product development teams?

Finally, calibrate the candidate’s view on what it means to be a great engineer:

In your experience, how much more productive is a rock star engineer than an average engineer?

The candidate’s answer should be in the neighborhood of 10 times better. If the answer is 2 times or less, the candidate has never worked with any really great engineers. A product manager’s relationship with the design team is also important. Ask the candidate how he or she would handle the following situation:

Imagine you have provided your design team with a set of initial requirements, and they have turned around a first set of mocks. Unfortunately, the mocks are not what you had been hoping for. In addition, the design team added a bunch of features that were not in your requirements. How do you respond?

You want to see how the candidate’s skills in leading designers. Does the candidate dictate to them? Or does the candidate listen to suggestions with an open mind? Does the candidate get results by raising concerns and asking questions about issues that the current mocks don’t address?

With both engineering and design, it is usually more effective for the product manager to define the problems and let the respective team come up with a proposed solution.

(iii) Cross-Functional Leadership and Management Skills

It’s very common to say that “product managers have all the responsibility and none of the authority.” Aside from the leadership role that a product manager must play with customers and the product development team, a good product manager must provide leadership, advocacy and support to the executive team, sales, business development and any other stakeholders that your company might have.

To succeed, product managers need great interpersonal skills and must earn the leadership of key company stakeholders.

Talk to me about a time when the team was not working well together. Why did this happen? What did you learn?

■ Can you give an example of you coaching others on your team?

■ Is consensus always a good thing?

■ What kind of people do you like working with?

■ What kind of people have you had difficulty working with in the past?

Some things you should be looking for:

A solid understanding of how to achieve results by working with and through others. How much process the candidate expects (and if this is a good match for your company)? Good negotiation skills. Now spend some time on a scenario where the candidate disagrees with a boss or senior executive:

Imagine you and the design team have come up with the interaction design of a new feature. Unfortunately, your boss doesn’t agree and believes it should work differently. You and the design team are confident in your opinion and think the suggestion from your boss will be inferior. What do you do?

Follow this up with the scenario of when a senior stakeholder or boss demands more in a given time frame than the candidate can possibly deliver:

Can you talk to me about a time when a senior stakeholder or boss demanded more of you than you could possibly deliver?

■ How did you handle the situation?

Finally, get a better understanding of how the candidate might interact with the sales team.

Can you talk to me about the sales model of a product you have managed?

■ How did you find prospects for the product?

■ What did you do that made it easier for the sales team to sell the product?

■ Can you talk about a situation where you were instrumental in closing a sale? What did you do?

Similarly, a product manager has to be very cautious about over-promising:

Imagine the VP Sales has been pestering you to send her an updated product roadmap before she talks to a very desirable prospect. You have a draft, but haven’t prioritized it or built internal consensus around it yet. How do you help your VP Sales?

When a company is cash-strapped and a sales team is under extreme pressure to deliver revenue, it can be easy to become sales-driven and non-strategic.

This is a sign of a serious problem in the company, and usually happens when a company is scaling prematurely and has hired senior sales and business development people too early.

An important role of the product manager is to help the sales team not sign the company up for things that can’t be delivered, shouldn’t be delivered, or that are not strategic.

While no two interviews are identical, using consistent questionnaire with every candidate helps in two ways.

First, it makes sure all interview areas are covered with every candidate.

Second, it provides a standard comparison between candidates. If every interview is different, it’s hard to judge the candidates against each other and the process can easily get biased towards some candidates.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

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