Interviewing product managers: tips for startup founders
Ideas for getting the startup product hiring right. Defining what to look for, planning the product interviews, and preparing to answer questions from candidates.
Hello there! The Career Product Manager is now The Product Thinker. Welcome :)
My name is Ev, and every week or so I publish a blog about technology and product, with a dash of strategy and a pinch of trends.
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Product Management is weird. At a single company, the role will differ depending on the product area and the stage of product lifecycle.
Reforge, the leading learning platform for experienced product managers, identifies four product specializations with eight sub-specializations in each. That’s thirty two permutations of how the job of a PM might look like. This stuff gets overwhelming real quick.
If you’re a startup founder building your core product team, what should you look for? The key is not to focus on specific traits and experiences of an ideal candidate, but to think deeply of the impact you want them to create.
Work backwards to define the role
Here’s the main mistake founders make: they start with a job description. Thinking about job requirements and skillsets may seem like an obvious thing to do, but in reality this is counter-productive. You don’t build a product by listing its features. Instead, you start with the problem the product solves, your vision for it, and the impact it will have on the customer and the business.
Similarly to creating a great product, building a great product team requires you to think of the problem that team will tackle in your company. Consider the future you want for your startup, then write a vision for the team. Here are some questions to inspire you:
What will the company and the team look like a year from now?
What impact will the team have created by then?
How will product managers work with engineers, designers, data scientists, operations, marketing, sales?
How will they work with you?
How will you know that the team is performing well?
Answers to those questions will help you map what you’re looking for in a product team. Once that’s done, a job description and an interview plan will come easy.
Planning your product interviews
You can evaluate engineers by looking at their code and designers by reviewing their portfolio, but you can’t do the same with PMs. Their work is intangible, and separating the great product manager from the average is hard.
On the most basic level, product management is an experiential craft. To see how good someone is, you need to know:
how they solved problems in the past
how well they could stretch their skills to help your company
You can do that with evidence-based questions and case studies.
Using evidence-based based questions to evaluate past performance
Evidence-based questions are contextual, and they aim to show how candidates solved problems in the past. Those are the questions that start with “Could you tell me about a time when … ”
As the name suggests, such questions are designed to find evidence of past performance and help candidates give situational examples of how they tackled product challenges in their career. The main idea here is that grounding a question in a candidate’s unique experience helps to reduce bias.
The problem with evidence-based questions, however, is that the contexts they unearth aren’t always relevant to your company. As I mentioned earlier, product roles are incredibly diverse, which means that deep experience of certain candidates may look irrelevant at first.
For instance, if you’re interviewing a product manager to join a B2B SaaS startup, but their past work was in B2C, you may find it hard to connect their experience with the reality of your organization and team. This doesn’t mean that such candidates can’t help your company. You just need to dig deeper. This is where case questions come handy.
Using case questions to measure future potential
Case questions give candidates a hypothetical problem that they must solve in a short amount of time. They typically look like this:
Define a strategy to launch product A in a new market B
Case questions are the hardest product questions, because they require candidates to demonstrate both breadth and depth of their craft in a 20 to 30 min conversation. Many candidates don’t like case questions for two reasons.
First, cracking them requires a massive amount of prep. The prevalence of case questions in Tier 1 tech companies gave rise to a cottage industry of interview prep companies like Exponent or Daily Product Prep. It’s not uncommon for product managers to spend tens of hours on preparing for product case studies, only to get rejected.
Second, case questions are impersonal. They often feel unfair when used in isolation, because they don’t allow candidates to show the full spectrum of their skillset. Therefore, it’s best to use case questions in tandem with evidence-based questions.
💡 Tips for using case questions:
Only use case questions in combination with evidence based questions.
Always ask more than one case question.
Never make case questions about your company or domain. As a founder, you have insider knowledge, and that will skew your evaluation.
Sample interview plan
Below is an example plan that aims to ask a series of evidence-based and case questions over the course of 60 min. (You can also see it in Google Docs at this link.) Use this example plan to create your own plan.
Prepare to answer their questions
Good product candidates will ask deep questions about your business, your team, and the way you think about organizational design. Here are a few non-negotiable questions that you as a founder must have answers to.
How do you define the role of a Product Manager?
Can you tell me about the last time you killed a product or invalidated a hypothesis? What did you learn?
What is your value proposition?
How do you differentiate?
What’s your vision for 1, 3, 5 years from now?
What does your 1 year roadmap look like?
Who will this role report to?
Can you tell me about the structure of the team? Who will I be collaborating with most closely?
Have the engineers on the team worked with a Product Manager before?
What does a career ladder for PMs look like at your company?
What is the one single metric that a PM in this role will own?
What is the onboarding plan for this role?
What is the 3 / 6 / 9 months plan for this role?
👉 Want to know what other questions candidates might have up their sleeve? Check my post about strategy questions you might get asked as a founder: Joining a startup? Ask them about strategy
Illustration by Anna Antipina from Ouch!