Who is this for?
Last year* I gave a talk to the Harvard Business School tech club, titled “Prepping for PM Interviews, or 16n hours of your life, where n=number of companies you interview with.” This is a variation on that talk. I’ve started thinking about it more again as we consider how we’ll grow our product team at Lola in the future.
I hope sharing this framework is helpful from both sides of the table:
1. If you are interviewing potential PMs. If you don’t have a framework for PM interviews yet, this hopefully will give you one to build on. When I started interviewing for PM, I got “don’t get sued” lessons, but not “here’s what to look for” lessons. This is how I think about it. Here’s another list from Pivotal about 29 things they look for.
2. If you’re interviewing for PM roles, this is one way to think about sharing your skills. You might also want to look at my previous piece on ways to screw up your interviews. Also, lots of people have written about this before from the candidate side. I also recommend thepminterview website and Cracking the PM Interview.
What’s the point of a PM interview?
”Product Management isn’t a role or function, it’s a set of skills.” – Satya Patel.
Product Management isn’t taught formally, so the skills of each candidate tend to differ. I look for three things:
- A basic understanding of each key PM area (business, design, technology) and desire to learn more about each.
- A significant depth of knowledge in at least one of the three.
- Someone who brings at least one “superpower” to the team that no one else has.
Since Product Managers interface with lots of pieces of the company, it’s also important to get a good feel for work style and behavior. To evaluate all of these areas, the PM interview often includes some or all of these steps: resume/intro/cover letter/etc, recruiter or HR screen, phone screen(s), “homework,” in person interviews, and references. (Here’s what I went through with Kickstarter).
General PM Questions
Since Product has become “trendy” as a career, it’s important to understand why the candidate wants to get into Product. I screen people out based on answers that show they don’t understand the role of discipline. The wrong attitude about Product can be devastating on a PM team.
- Why do you want to get into Product Management?
- What did you learn in your PM internship?
For candidates who are already experienced in Product, I tend to ask them the past tense versions.
- Why’d you decide to get into Product?
- What’s your favorite/least favorite part of working in Product?
I also like to pull these into general Product sense or tie into the company:
- What’s your favorite product?
- What product is popular, but you don’t like?
- What do you like/dislike about <our product>?
- How’d you find out about <company>?
- Why do you want to work at <company>?
- (Important!) Tell me about a project you’ve done.
Business Skills & Awareness Questions
Historically, this has been one of my weaker areas both as an interviewer and interviewee. I’ve been focusing on it more recently. This is a way to assess the candidate’s quantitative skill, and get at things like 10% vs 10x products.
- How many people use our product?
- What do you think of <company’s> business model?
- If we needed to grow <any business> by x% from a new feature, how would you figure out what to add? (Or what would you add?)
- How would you estimate the LTV of a new customer who just started using <company>
- What’s the value of adding a host vs a customer to airbnb? (or any marketplace).
Estimation is another popular area that I don’t typically ask about:
- How many piano tuners are there in NYC?
- What would you have projected the market size for DVD players to be in 2008?
Design Skills Questions
This is the area I rely on most. I’m looking to get a feel about how thoughtful the candidate is in their work, and how they think about building new products vs. improving old products. I’ll often add twists into these to see how candidates deal with changing constraints.
- Tell me about something you’ve built.
- What would you do differently if you were building it again?
- Design a New Alarm Clock
- Design a Parking Meter system to optimize revenue
- What are 10 ways we could improve <X>?
- how would you change <our product>
- You mentioned earlier you were into <hobby> what product do you wish existed in that space?
This is the area I rely on least. I’m most likely to use it when interviewing a PM who does have an engineering background. I’m mostly interested in if people are technically curious. I’m also giving the least example questions here because they’re the ones people are most likely to memorize.
- What’s a real life example of iteration and recursion? (Since I already shared that here).
- When you go to a URL in your browser, how does the data get back to you?
- Logic Puzzles (can’t share these without ruining them).
- Pseudo code questions
Asking Good Questions
Almost every interview leaves time at the end for questions. A huge part of the PM role is asking good questions, so this is really just another interview question. I like when the candidate asks me something I haven’t thought about before. I’m not going to give away the good ones, but here are some pitfalls:
- Close-ended questions like: Do you like it here?
- Questions that are better for HR, or don’t relate to PM: What are the hours like? How flexible is the vacation, really?
A final note for those who are interviewing: PM interviews often end in rejection without clear feedback. Part of the reason for this is that the PM team depends so heavily on balance between team members. If you’re an awesome PM from the business side, but the company already has two of those and needs someone technical, you could be rejected. It’s not your fault, you just haven’t found the right place yet. If you’re being rejected repeatedly, it’s more likely worth re-evaluating and figuring out which skills you need to develop further.
* A note: part of why I didn’t publish this a year ago was that I was worried about sharing the questions so broadly. I decided that the questions are just starting points. I’m trying to use them to get interesting stories from the candidate that showcase their skills. If someone were to memorize all of these answers without commensurate experience, they wouldn’t perform well in an interview. I also thought it was unfair that I was willing to give questions to HBS people, but not to others.