This article should really be titled, “How to interview a product manager (if you aren’t a product person) “
Because customer success, marketing, sales, support, and other operational roles are key stakeholders in a SaaS organization they are often called into the interview process for product managers. Especially for a company’s first product hire when there is no formal product function and a company is adding a product manager for the first time.
Many companies have founder-led product organizations, which makes the first outside hire all the more crucial for fit, stage, temperament and experience.
Product manager candidates often have to go through a long series of interviews with many departments in the organization. Certainly engineering. But it should be much broader than that because product is a function that touches every aspect of the company.
In a startup, the product function, when designed properly, becomes the central hub of communication and workflow between engineering and every other department. It solves problems of silos, communication breakdowns, missed expectations, poor prioritization, and scope control.
So if you aren’t a product person and you get called into a product manager interview to evaluate a candidate, what should you ask and what should you be looking for?
Here is an outline of how I approach it.
- Look for a culture add. Will this person be able to thrive in today’s environment and where the company will be in 12-18 months? The worst thing that you can do is hire a PM for your start-up who has only worked in large product organizations, or vice versa. You need someone who can build, not just manage, the product function, and who has characteristics and experience that show they will thrive in a startup environment.
- Look for someone you can learn from. Do we have something we can learn from them? Will they be able to contribute to the creation of the product function? Will they be able to quickly build credibility in the company?
- Look for someone with exceptional people skills. The best product people I know make fast friends with a variety of roles and personalities. They know how to work up, down, and sideways across an organization to get things done. They are skilled communicators. They know how to diffuse conflict. They know how to navigate and jump around internal politics. They know how to gain alignment in a room full of competing priorities and opinions. Simply put they have an incredibly high EQ. In product interviews, I ask a lot of situational questions to try to gain an understanding of how adept they are at this aspect of the role.
- Look for agility, flexibility, ability to solve problems independently and positively. I look for this in any startup employee. Their answers and their questions will reveal this. If you aren’t sure, then they probably aren’t. Probe with questions and conversation until you are sure.
- Look for someone who can complement the founder. If the product function has been led by a founder up until this point, look for someone who has chemistry with the founder, who can earn their respect, and who can improve what’s already been built without causing carnage.
Product manager interview questions
The above characteristics and traits are what I look for, here are some of the specific questions I ask. You will notice that some of the questions hit the same theme repetitively. That’s intentional—they are so important that it’s important to probe several ways to really feel confident that you understand their experience or opinions. Asking the same question a few different ways helps you do that.
- In your own words, what is the role and responsibility of a product manager?
- Tell me about a typical day for a product manager, in as much detail as you can.
- Let’s say you come into an organization that has no product management function, what would you do to identify your key stakeholders and build relationships with them?
- What are the biggest challenges of product management in a startup environment?
- What is the difference between a product owner and a product manager, in your view? How does the scale of the company impact these two roles?
- Tell me about a time you sensed a problem on the horizon. What was it? What happened? How did you surface or address it?
- How do you like to gather input on features & functionality?
- How do you approach feature prioritization? Provide examples.
- How do you approach scope management? Provide examples.
- Tell me about a time when something went really off the rails—scope, timing, expectations, communication….anything. What did you learn from that experience?
- Tell me about a time you were working with a variety of stakeholders who had competing priorities or divergent opinions. How did you gain consensus?
- Tell me about the most stressful release you’ve experienced.
- Tell me about the worst release you’ve experienced.
- How would you prioritize resources when you have two critical things to do but can’t do them both?
- Describe a scenario that required you to say no to an idea or a stakeholder.
- Describe a scenario that required you to say no to someone you reported to, or who was higher than you in the organization.
- What makes a product great?
- How do you balance scope & feature control?
- When is it OK to cut corners or ship a minimally viable feature? When is it not?
- How do you create and work in cross-functional groups?
- How do you work with engineering? Marketing? Customer-facing teams? Executives? Finance?
- How do you gather customer feedback?
- Should product management be customer-facing in your opinion? Why or why not?
- How do you build credibility with engineering?
- How should product and engineering interact?
- One stakeholder says that Feature A is more important and another says Feature B is more important. What do you do? Tell me about a specific time you were faced with this.
- What role should data play in making product decisions? How do you use data? When should data not come into play?
- How do you build consensus? What do you do if consensus can’t be reached?
- What kind of people do you have a hard time working with?
The most important thing to remember for product manager hire #1
Find someone who fits the stage of your startup, who can build the product function if that’s what needs to be done, or take the reins of a founder-led product function and make it better. Fit stage is the most important aspect of hiring your first product manager.