We’ve all gone through it. One end or the other, we all have been involved in an interview as either the interviewer or the interviewee. When it comes to Product Managers however, its not always a black and white as to how qualified a candidate can be. Saying and doing are two different things and although it’s easier to separate the non-qualified from the potentially qualified. Finding the truly qualified from the potential can be a challenge and asking the right Product Manager interview questions can make a difference.
So how does one determine the best questions to ask a PM during the interview process? In my experience, the best questions are ones that target either problem-solving on the fly or providing specific, real-world examples of things that the candidate has done (unless this is more a junior PM role). Theory is just that, it’s easier said than done so below are some my favorite questions to ask, or answer during an interview process. I’ve also added some potential suggestions on how to answer them but that’s not to say there is only one right answer:
Name your top competitors (from a previous company) and explain how your product(s) differentiate?
This question is a pretty basic one that any PM should be able to answer. The thing to look for here is how well the response is verbalized. Does the answer roll off the tongue as if the question has been asked hundreds of times in the past? It should, as any experienced PM has been asked this question by Sales folks, Customers, Prospects, Analysts, etc…
Thinking as a PM, what is one product that you have found particularly interesting (besides Apple)?
I like this question because it shows where the candidate’s passions in Product Management exist. Are they impressed with the product because of the brand? Did the product re-define the market space? Was the product failing and they found a way to turn things around? Was it not even a success story but rather a failed product where lessons can be learned? This is not a right or wrong answer type of question as long as the candidate has a well thought out response and offers logic behind it. I specifically remove Apple from the equation as it seems too many people consider that their go-to product company and it’s too easy to provide a canned response. The idea here is to provide an answer that is unique.
Provide a specific example where you saw a release or product in trouble and explain how you adjusted?
This addresses how the candidate handles issues that always come up and by requesting specific examples, it allows for a level of credibility on the candidates experience. If he or she cannot come up with a specific example, that’s a concern because there’s never been a project without trouble. It’s like when someone asks what your weaknesses are and you state you have none…no one’s buying it. It also provides clarity into the candidate’s level of authority in previous roles. Was the adjustment large or small? If they fixed a feature that’s good. If they adjusted a product strategy that’s better. If they can provide quantifiable numbers on how they improved the situation that’s ideal.
There’s a subtle secondary reason for this question as well. The response takes the form of stating a problem and providing a solution. This is a great story-telling technique when selling…which is another skill that a PM needs to have. If the candidate can articulate the problem easily and then share the value they provided with their own experience then that’s a good indicator that they can also do the same when speaking about the value proposition of the product to a client.
Walk me through the logic you use to define what’s in a release?
In this question I am looking for something specific. I want to see how the candidate translates the strategic vision of the product into the tactical strategy of defining a release. It also is another indicator on the level of seniority that the candidate had in previous positions. I could have asked this question another way which would have been, “How do you define your roadmap?” but the reason I didn’t is because that question typically gets a theoretical answer and again, we are looking for tangible results. Did the candidate just go through their backlog and pick out the items that looked good? That’s certainly one way to do it. Did the candidate start by defining some higher level themes of the release? That’s a better way. Were those themes driven by market demand? That’s ideal.
The point here is to focus the answer around the heart of where successful Product Manager should live which is the line between strategy and execution and understand how well the candidate can move from one to the other. Strategy should drive the execution so I’m looking for a response that demonstrates this thought logic.
When you are in the middle of a release, how do you manage change requests such as newly identified time-sensitive needs?
The real question here is how do you manage change. Mike Tyson once said, when asked about how he would react to his upcoming opponent’s plan for the fight, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The same principle applies to software design (although slightly less violent). When planning a release, you start out with the defined scope, the resources and the timeline. Everyone should be on the same page with the plan. Then you start the work and somewhere along the way a production issue pops up that requires the same resources. Then a pending sale (it’s always a big one) just needs one more thing added to close the deal. Then a client calls up and says they are leaving unless you address this one need.
These “punches” can stop any good plan in its tracks. I’ve always thought that there are two processes required for any successful product release. There’s the original plan process and then there’s the change management process. The original plan gets everyone on the same page and sets the expectations around timing and scope and approach. Then the change management process is what people rely upon when new items emerge that affect the original plan. Its the process that keeps everyone on the same page when changes are accepted into the release and trade-off decisions are made. Changes are fine, as long as everyone understands that they are happening.
So for me, a good response here is to talk about the change management process and how it worked. I would like to see the candidate be able to articulate the process to show that they understand the importance of it and are familiar enough with it to describe how it ran where they previously worked. I also would like to see that the process incorporates the feedback from multiple areas within the company to understand the impact as well as I want to see some level of trade-off decisions being made. Either a decision to expand the release timing, add resources or cut original scope should be part of the process because nothing is free when you add to a release.
As a bonus question, if the candidate understands the above question well enough, I will follow up with asking for a specific example. Again, this steers the conversation out of the theory and into the experience of the candidate.
So those are my five questions to ask for a PM interview. Usually there’s enough time at the end to allow the candidate time to ask questions as well which is another huge tell on their level of interest in the position. Not asking question mean either they are not interested or not engaged with the opportunity. Even if you’ve talked with five people before speaking with me and have answered all your questions, still ask me something. Repeat a question if you have to because whether its true or not, not asking questions is a sign of not being curious. As Product Managers, if we aren’t curious, then we aren’t going to be successful.