As part of my consulting practice, I often help companies recruit product managers and interaction designers. As a result, I do a lot of interviewing. I’ve talked with a lot of folks who are interested in moving into product management from a variety of areas. This isn’t surprising. There isn’t one clear path to product management. I started as an interaction designer / front-end web developer. I know others who started in sales or marketing. And of course there are those who go the MBA route.
Regardless of your background, my screening process always starts with these four questions.
Tell me about your current role.
If the candidate isn’t working, I modify this to “tell me about your last role.” If the candidate has never worked in product management and is looking to making a career change, I ask, “Tell me about your ideal role.”
The point of this question is to surface their mental model about product management. Product managers come in many breeds. I want to know are you a data-driven optimizer, are you a visionary strategic thinker, are you an Agile product owner, are you a backlog manager? There is no right or wrong answer. In fact, what I’m looking for is always dependent on the type of role I’m trying to fill. But if there’s a mismatch, there’s no need to continue. So this is where I start.
This question also often conjures up complaints about their current role. Most candidates end up sharing what they don’t like about their current role, what they wish was different, and where they’ve encountered roadblocks. This is really enlightening as it gives me an idea of what gets under their skin, what they value, and how effective they are at overcoming these obstacles.
It also gives me insight into how well they understand the business context in which they are working. When describing their role do they talk about competitors, constraints unique to their industry, interactions with other people in the company? Do they show a passion for the problem they are working on or for the customer or user they are serving?
It seems like such a simple question. But it’s a pretty powerful one.
Tell me about your role on your team, who else you work with, and how you work with them.
Usually, the first question elicits a broad, far-ranging response that nobody could accomplish all on their own. So I follow up with this question. I want to know how well you play with others. How well do you interact with engineers? You said you ran a usability study, did you recruit the participants, did you conduct the study, did you tabulate the results, or did you work with a user researcher to do these things? Do you work with sales and marketing to get in front of the customer? Do you work with senior management? And so on.
Again, there are no right or wrong answers here. It all depends on the role I’m trying to fill. But again, who you work with most, how you work with them, what challenges you encounter, who you forget to mention, these all tell me what you value, where your strengths are, and whether or not you are the right person for the role.
How do you decide what to build?
This to me is the heart of product management. You may have said a lot of great things, but if you don’t have a great answer to this question, we are done. There are lots of good answers. But I’m looking for a mix of things. First and foremost, have you put thought into this. If you just ramble off an unrelated list of things, we are done. Second, I want to understand how you balance all the competing inputs: user feedback, business needs, the CEO’s pet feature, engineering favorites, time to build, cost, market needs, and so on.
This is a great question for gauging how well someone understands the business context in which they work and the market in which their product sits. It’s also a good measure of critical thinking. If you want to move on to an in-person interview, you better nail this one.
Tell me about how you interact with customers / users?
If we’ve gotten this far and you haven’t talked about being the voice of the customer, getting out and talking to users, doing any type of user research, I’m already concerned. This is your last chance to convince me you can be the voice of the customer.
If throughout the call, you’ve been talking about this all along, then we are in good shape. Now I want to dive into the details. Do you know how to find users or does someone do that for you? Do you know how to ask questions that aren’t leading? Do you share the research with the rest of your team? Are you able to turn your learnings into actionable next steps?
I know that not all companies take advantage of user research, not everyone has the luxury of usability testing studios, or time to do in-depth user interviews. I get it. I’m not expecting a perfect process. But I do want to see that customer / user interaction is something that you value.
I once interviewed someone who worked at a company that thought user research was a waste of time. She had zero budget and worked in an Agile environment. She struggled to get requirements out ahead of her engineers. And yet, when I asked her this question she told me all of these constraints. But she didn’t stop there. She was working on a shopping mobile app and she told me about how during her lunch break she went to her local mall and asked people to try it out. It didn’t cost anything. It didn’t take very much time. It wasn’t perfect. But it was much better than nothing. Be that person. Find a way.
So now what?
If you are looking for a product manager role, I’d recommend knowing how to answer all these questions. It will make you stand out. I have found that very few candidates have thought about how they do their craft. And remember, even if you nail all these questions, you still might not be the right fit. It doesn’t mean you aren’t any good. There are all types of product managers, it might just mean you weren’t a good fit for that particular role.
For those of you who have hired product folks before, how does this resonate? Do you have other key go-to questions that you ask to screen candidates? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.