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How to Run a Product Manager Interview

June 15, 2022

6 minute read

Running a product manager interview and hiring a product manager often depends less on what they’ve done and more on how they think. In a traditional interview process, and using traditional evaluation methods like reading a CV, it can be really hard to suss out who has a great product mind versus, well, not.

This article is a follow-up to the previous Product Manager Interview Preparation For The Win

Here’s my advice on how to design an effective interview process for a prospective PM: how to structure an interview, who to involve, what to ask, and how to test their skills.

In short, it all comes down to three interview tactics:

  1. Focusing on soft skills
  2. Testing those skills
  3. Exploring team compatibility

Looking at job history doesn’t cut it

Someone’s work experience, as listed on a CV, doesn’t actually tell much about their experience as a product manager, much less their ability.

Spot a big brand name? That seems promising. But a product manager from a well-known product company can be disguised by the fact that they worked for a well-funded company with a great team around them.

On the other end of the spectrum, some companies can’t do their PMs justice. Some great product minds might have been starved due to bad culture, poor management, or strapped resources. Their CV doesn’t shine, but they’re actually a bright product manager.

If you want to find the best fit for your team, it’s important you look beyond the piece of paper and ask potential PMs the right questions.

Dots on a product manager interview

Focus on the soft skills of product management

In the interview portion, ask for stories and situations to understand their behaviors. Ditch the common PM questions like, “Why is a manhole cover round?” or about how many piano tuners there are in Chicago! Instead, direct your questions to something more real and personal.

Product manager interview tactic 1

Start with the prompt “Tell me about a time when…” and follow it up with tricky situations that a PM might run into:

  • “…you had an experiment or project fail. What did you do about it?” 
  • “…you had to fulfill some requirements and you didn’t have enough information.”

This gives them the opportunity to walk you through it, and gives you the opportunity to see how they navigate problems.

Why this is a good interview tactic

A PM is a collection of the experiences that they’ve had. They draw on those experiences to make better and better decisions moving forward. They should have a handful of good stories about things that went right – and wrong! – and know the lessons they’ve learned from those experiences.

If they don’t have these stories, that’s an indicator they might not have enough experience yet or could flounder in the role.

Of course, someone who has less experience but is well-suited for product management can still walk you through hypotheticals of how they’d handle these situations. Maybe you’re open to a person who’s never worked in Product per se but has the right thinking and problem-solving skills.

Test the PM’s skills

In addition to asking questions and talking it out, create a space for the prospective PM to simulate real product management work that they might do in the role. 

Product manager interview tactic 2

Assign a product problem and ask them to work through it. This portion of the hiring process is often called a “case study.” Here are some tips for setting up a useful (and ethical!) case study assignment:

  • Choose a case study that’s actually relevant to the work they’d do.
  • Make it something they can use in their portfolio, even if you don’t hire them. 
  • Don’t push them into solutioneering. 
  • Ideally pay them if your assignment takes up a lot of time. At ProdPad, applicants can take the payment or donate it to a charity. After all, they’re giving up time to show us their chops. And we might learn a thing or two.

Why this is a good interview tactic

Case studies are pretty self-explanatory. It’s practice work, a chance to observe and review them before signing a contract. Case studies are a great way to verify the experience and skills promised on a CV or during the interview – and an opportunity for greener applicants to show you what they’re made of.

The culture question

Every team wants to make sure new hires are the right culture fit. And that makes sense! But I need to get something off my chest: I don’t like the phrase “culture fit.” It sounds like you want them to assimilate into the culture you already have. I like “culture add,” because a new hire can contribute and augment and improve. Our cultures should be iterative, too!

So one question here is: What will they bring to help you expand and improve as a team?

And the other question: Is there chemistry? You want to see some sparks fly between your team and the prospective PM. 

Product manager interview tactic 3

Set up several conversations and give the interviewee a chance to meet lots of people. These can be colleagues on the product team but also developers, designers, Sales, Marketing – a mix of people they’d work with directly and indirectly.

This sounds intense (and maybe it is), but you can create a pleasant atmosphere around it!

Why this is a good interview tactic

You get a well-rounded view of the applicant. Development will ask different questions than Sales, though it doesn’t hurt to ask the same question twice by two different people. Can they reassure multiple groups that they’re the right person for the job? Are multiple groups excited at the prospect of working with them?

If they seem uncomfortable talking to various people, then they might not succeed when they’re told on day one that they need to be in five different meetings with five different groups.

Also, this gives the interviewee a more holistic understanding of what they might do in the role, and helps other parts of the team understand how this new product role might impact their work.

How to identify a great product manager

My last tip for evaluating a potential PM? They should be asking questions. That is the most crucial part of any product manager’s job, and it applies to the interview process, too. Are they curious about you, your team, the work, the company, the customers? This is how they can demonstrate not just their communication skills, but also their ability to explore and desire to understand.

If there’s an interviewee who’s peppering you with questions, you might have a strong PM on your hands!

This article is a follow-up to the previous Product Manager Interview Preparation For The Win

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