When interviewing product managers, it is important to keep in mind the role you are hiring her for (see the previous section “The four types of product managers”), as well as the generic capabilities sought out in all product managers (see “Characteristics of Great Product Managers”) and all hires (culture fit, etc.).
Key areas to push product managers during interviews are:
1. Product insights. What products do you use daily? How would you change X product? How would you design X product for a specific set of users? What features would you add? What would you drop/discontinue? If you were starting a company from scratch, what product would you start with, and why? For example, how would you design a mobile phone for children?
2. Contributions to past successful products. When I worked at Google, I overlapped with some of the strongest product people I ever met. I also overlapped with a number of terrible product managers who happened to be at the right place at the right time. When interviewing a product manager from a successful product, it is important to dig into their specific contributions. For example: What role did you play in the product definition and launch? Who came up with which product features? Who drove the idea to price the product X way? Etc.
3. Prioritization. Focus your questions around prioritization on the frameworks the candidate uses for making trade-offs, rather than the trade-offs themselves. You can initiate these questions by providing a scenario or case study to work from. For example: What is a real world example where your company had multiple potential product paths to invest in but could not do all of them? How would the PM approach this decision-making choice? What factors would fold into it? What data could be used? What is an example of a product feature that the executive team requested that you pushed back on or had removed?
4. Communication and team conflicts. Was the PM able to sell a vision or product to their last company’s leadership team? What disagreements or conflicts did the PM have with engineering or design? How were these disagreements resolved? How does the PM actively build relationships with other parts of the organization? What communication approaches does the PM use? What is important to communicate, and when? What is an example where a miscommunication caused an issue for a product? How was this resolved and what changed from a process perspective after? In general there is a natural tension between product, design, and engineering. Conflicts may arise naturally in a fast-paced environment. The key is how to build relationships to surmount disagreements and how to resolve conflicts if they do occur.
5. Metrics and data. What metrics did the PM track for their last product? How did they choose these metrics? What bad behavior could these metrics have driven and how would you avoid this behavior? What metrics would the PM track for your company’s product? Why are those the right metrics? How often and in what context should metrics be reviewed? How do you evaluate if a product launch has been successful?
For all hires, reference-checking is incredibly important. For product managers, it’s even more important. With an engineering candidate, an interview can reveal if she is technically competent. For a product manager there is no easily testable metric of competence. Instead, past work is the strongest single indicator of whether someone may be successful again in the future. Informal backchannel, pursued appropriately, can be especially enlightening.
“For all hires, reference-checking is incredibly important. ”
– Elad Gil
The best product managers have a history of launching products or features that would otherwise have gotten stuck, successfully negotiating with engineering and design to make trade-offs that contributed to the success of the product, and creating a big strategic viewpoint that drives business success.