The Kitchen is Just Around the Corner

People are discussing around a table

On properly interviewing a product manager

It’s happening.

It is the time to expand your team.

You finally managed to convince your management and secure the budget for increasing your team with a new product manager. Yay!

Together with the HR – you post the job.

Fast forwarding a week or two into the process – among the huge pile of resumes received – you managed to narrow the list to 2-5 candidates that have made it to the full interview phase. 

Now starts the tough part 🙂

 

Interviewing a candidate is one of the major steps in the hiring process, and yet – it’s very easy to screw it up. In this post I’m gonna share with you some tips & tricks that will help you conduct such an interview in an efficient manner and will let you narrow the list of matching candidates even further.

But first things first – before focusing on the interview itself, we need to briefly discuss the overall hiring process, because the two are highly correlated.

 

The hiring process

The hiring process describes the funnel a candidate needs to pass successfully in order to be hired. The funnel is made of steps, and each step is designed in a way which ideally filters out more unfitting candidates.

What are we looking for?

Now, you can’t seriously design a hiring process without deciding first what you’re looking for and specifically – what makes a good product manager in your opinion.

To me, a good product manager is someone who has the following qualities:

  1. Great communication skills – since 90% of the job involves some sort of communication – you need someone who can communicate themselves well – both verbally and in writing.
  2. A ‘value-hunter’ – the ideal candidates know that the essence of product management is about delivering true value to their users/customers. This is why they are in a relentless search for the value. They also know that ‘why’ is the most important word in the product management universe – because it helps you find the pain, and the pain leads you to the value. The ideal candidate knows this, even if only subconsciously. 

 

Of course you can add tons of other qualities. The list is really endless, but in my opinion – those are the two essential ones. 

I also add one requirement and that’s a fluency in English, because this is something you can’t teach on the job.

 

At the end of the day – you’ll build a profile of the ideal candidate and that’s the first step in designing the hiring process.

 

The funnel & the interview

At the top of the funnel you might have hundreds of potential candidates, and towards the end of the funnel you should not have more than 3 (ideally).

The interview process is located relatively at the beginning of the process, and yet – if the process is designed properly – you should have no more than 5-6 candidates that you need to actually interview.

If the hiring process is not designed properly – then too many candidates may reach this stage, and you may risk investing too many hours in conducting interviews. You don’t want that.

Therefore, you should work with the HR to design the funnel in a way that it should filter quite aggressively the great majority of the unfitting candidates before reaching the interview phase.

Since the focus of this post is not about the hiring process, but rather about the interview itself – I won’t discuss how to properly design an hiring process. One thing, however, that cannot be evaded is discussing the home exercise as part of the process, since it relates and complements the interview itself. 

Let me explain.

 

The home exercise

There is a lot of debate on the web as for whether candidates should even receive a home exercise or not, and whether the exercise should be given before or after the interview.

People who argue against giving a home exercise are claiming that the home exercise may scare candidates and they may give up the whole process and get interviewed in some other places that don’t require them to do an exercise.

Even though I understand where this is coming from – I strongly advise against this approach. I am a strong believer of giving home exercise to candidates as part of the process, because this is your best tool to assess whether the candidate possesses some crucial qualities that are very hard to cover with a face-2-face interview.

That being said – the home exercise may indeed scare away candidates, and this is why it needs to be designed in such a way that it respects the candidate’s time (as they are given exercises by other companies as well) and timed properly in the process.

I don’t want to devote too much time to the home exercise (again, because it’s not the focus of this post), but I will say that it needs to be designed in a way that it shouldn’t take more than 4 hours for an experienced PM and up to 8-10 hours for a junior one.

I also recommend that the home exercise would be about writing a spec (PRD) for a small feature.

Personally, I like to find a feature that was recently released by a known company/app and ask the candidate to write this spec as if the feature wasn’t released yet and they are the PM in charge.

I’d also ask them to skip any UX/UI work or wireframes, unless your product involves heavy UX/UI and it’s truly a must.

Before or after the interview?

As for the timing of the home exercise – I recommend giving it only to candidates who have successfully passed the face-2-face interview. There are two reasons for that:

  1. Being respectful to the candidates’ time
  2. Avoid ‘scaring away’ candidates too soon. Meaning – if you give to them right after the initial screening, they still don’t know enough about you, the role or your company. They have no idea if it is worth it for them to put the effort on this exercise, and hence – there is a good chance, in this case – that they will bail out of the process.

 

Once the home exercise is submitted you need to review it. If it’s of high quality – then invite the candidate to another meeting with you and some engineering folks and ask them to present their exercise as if it was a ‘spec review’.

 

If you stick to my recommendations above – then the home exercise should provide you with valuable information about the candidate’s capabilities when it comes to expressing themselves in writing, their level of English and their ability to stand in front of a crowd. You will also get some important insights as for how they think about value, as it’s reflected from the spec they’ve worked on.

And now we can safely do a deep dive into the interview itself.

 

The Face-2-Face Interview

As its name implies – the full interview is a face-2-face one. I recommend doing it in the office, together with the candidate, and not through Zoom. However, sometimes, for various logistics reasons – the interview will be via Zoom and that’s acceptable.

Just make sure the video is on, because otherwise it’d be too detached.

By now we have a candidate who has passed the initial screening. Most likely the resume screening and a short phone interview (if you don’t do a short screening call yourself – then I strongly recommend you add it to the process right away. It will save you and the candidate tons of time).

You are already familiar with their resume and why they have applied for the job, and they know something initial about your company and the specific role.

 

The interview goals

The general goal of the interview is clearly to assess whether the candidate is a potential match and should proceed to the next stage. However, in more specific detail, your goals are:

  1. To understand the candidate’s approach to product management
  2. To assess their communication skills and their ability to express themselves, since this is a major part of the PM role
  3. To know them better as a person and whether you’d like to work with them
  4. To market your company and the specific role

 

Recall that most likely fluency in English and the ability of people to express themselves verbally and in writing is not something that will be changed during the course of their role, no matter how much you mentor them. Even if there are some extreme cases where this may be possible  – you need to assume it won’t.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you test these skills during the hiring process.

When focusing on the interview itself – I’d definitely look into verifying their ability to express themselves verbally. As for the ability to express themselves in writing – as noted above – I’d leave it to the home exercise.

As for fluency in English – you might consider doing the interview in English, or just while presenting the exercise.

 

Preparing for the interview

  1. I strongly recommend inviting someone from the engineering team to join you for the interview. Someone who has good intuition for people.
  2. Set the interview for 1 hour. Divide the time so you will have about 60% of the time to ask the candidate your questions. Your partner from engineering should have around 20%-25% and the rest for the candidate to ask their questions.
  3. Plan your questions in advance. I’d recommend focusing on these 3 areas:
    1. Business orientation and KPIs
    2. The ‘why’ and the ‘what’ – a test case that verifies that the candidate knows how to approach features and priorities, and understand where the value lies.
    3. An analytical question that tests the candidate approach to data analysis.

 

These questions should be different whether you’re interviewing a junior PM or a senior one. I’ll provide some example questions below.

Questions to ask

First – an important note – ask the candidate to describe their thought process while answering questions during the interview. Many times – the thought process is more important than the actual outcomes.

Second – you should guide your partner from the engineering to focus their questions on the day-2-day interaction with the engineering (for example – asking about a conflict of priorities and how the candidate would resolve it). Their goal is to understand whether they want to work with this guy.

Last, before we ‘jump’ to the questions – I usually leave 5 minutes of my time to ask some personal questions. Something to learn more about the person.

 

Based on the above – those are the type of questions I’d ask: 

Business orientation and KPIs

What I like to do here is to describe a business (could be your company or another business) and ask the candidate to describe to you how they would design the dashboard for the CEO that tracks the ‘health’ of the business.

It forces the candidate to demonstrate their business orientation skills and their knowledge as for measuring performance and what matters.

At the end of the day – we’re looking to see how the candidate approaches the analysis of the business in terms of major KPIs.

For junior candidates – this question might be a bit tough, so they may need some guidance. Again, what’s important to you is their thought process, and whether there is a potential to grow from there.

The ‘Why’ and the ‘what’

Here you can pick up a product from the candidate’s past jobs and ask him about it. It needs to be a product they had full ownership on.

If they don’t have such on their resume, or if they are too junior – then come prepared with an imaginary product, which faces an important decision – the need to decide which of 3 requested features to promote. 

What you’re looking for here is to understand how the candidate evaluates each of the features, and how much they dig to find the actual ‘pains’ behind these features (who requested them and why? Could there be a better solution that caters to all the 3?).

An analytical question

Here I usually describe a very simple business (or you may also take a company everyone knows) and describe a bad anomaly that happened at some point in time with one of the main metrics (for example – a sudden drop in revenues in one day).

The candidate is required to look for the root cause. 

This is NOT an SQL session. This is an interactive session when they ask you to draw schematic graphs (for instance – show me the ‘clicks’ over time) and you draw whatever graphs they ask you to on the whiteboard (real one or on Zoom).

Needless to say that as part of preparing for this session – you need to decide in advance what’s the root cause of the problem, and which type of ‘data visualization’ will demonstrate the problem.

This session shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, and most candidates should find the root cause by 5 minutes.

Personal questions

First – start by emphasizing to the candidate that in this part there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. You just want to know them better.

I usually ask here questions that the candidate will most likely never be asked in other interviews. It helps me ‘break’ their automatic responses and see the person behind the mask.

Example questions:

  1. Are you a morning person or a night person? What hour do you wake up if you don’t set an alarming clock?
  2. What’s your favorite movie?
  3. If you could travel anywhere – where would you go?
  4. The best present you ever received?

You got the drift, right?

 

The interview over a timeline

Taking everything written above and putting it over a timeline – this how a one hour interview should look like:

 

First 5 minutes – getting acquainted. 

Tell a bit about yourself and ask the candidate to tell you about themselves in two minutes.

 

Minutes 5-15 – The first topic – discussing business KPIs

 

Minutes 15-25 – The second topic about the ‘why’ and the ‘what’

 

Minutes 25-35 – Your partner from engineering ask their questions

 

Minutes 35-45 – Third topic – analytical thinking

 

Minutes 45-50 – Personal questions

 

Minutes 50-60 – The candidate is asking you questions. This is your time to do some marketing for the role if you liked the candidate.

 

Summary

The interview is a major part of the hiring process. It helps you verify the ability of the candidate to express themselves and evaluate their approach to business and product. It also helps you understand whether this is someone you’d like to work with.

However, the interview can’t cover everything, and if you wish to be successful with the hiring you need to combine it with a proper home exercise and a presentation.

 

That’s it for today.

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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