Tips for Interviewing Product Managers

One of my friends is a newly minted Director of Product Management at a mid-stage startup in silicon valley. I met him for coffee yesterday and we were chatting about how his new job was going.

He has managed Engineering as well as Professional Services teams in the past, but this is his first time managing a Product Management team.

He told me he thought product manager interviews are easy to fake, and even unqualified candidates can easily fake a good performance during the interview. This got me thinking…

Majority of “Product Manager” Interviews I Went to Were Easy to Fake

During my career in product management, I’ve probably interviewed with about a dozen companies for the “Product Manager” position. Over the past 8 years, I’ve been hiring product managers as well.

Having been on both sides of the table, I have to agree with my friend. Almost every interview I had (as a candidate) for the product manager position were easy to fake. The questions were generic and were more the interviewer evaluating personality fit rather than testing for any specific skill-set or knowledge.

Tip I Borrowed from Engineering Interviews

On the other hand, most interviews for an engineer position are very specific and hard to fake. For example, when hiring a programmer, companies often give them a problem to solve and ask them to write code (or pseudo-code) during the interview.

Early in my career as the person hiring product managers, I adopted the same technique. I’ll give the Product Manager candidates a problem set and ask them to come up with short list of requirements, product positioning and UI wireframe – during the interview itself (approximately 90 minute interview).

It was surprising how many candidates with stellar resumes and excellent interview skills fell flat in this exercise. Equally surprising was how many candidates with average resumes and average interview skills shined during this exercise. I always hired the latter, not the former. The long-term results were quite good.

Tips for Interviewing Product Managers

Here then are my tips for your product manager interviews:

  • Test for specific skills – such as the ability to create requirements, UI wireframes, product positioning, pricing, etc. Make it hard for a candidate to fake his way through the interview.
  • While I’m a big believer in testing for specific skills, I’m not a big believer in “domain knowledge” or “industry specific” experience. I believe product managers with the right skill set can easily learn these in a short time.
  • Ask for and thoroughly review the candidate’s portfolio – such as MRDs/PRDs, etc. Ask deep questions against her portfolio to understand her thought process.

I believe these tips can help you improve your success rate in hiring good product managers.

Editor’s Note:
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Michael Shrivathsan

I'm your author, Michael Shrivathsan, an expert in product management with successful experience at several innovative companies in Silicon Valley, USA over the past two decades. I'm also a USPTO patent recipient. For my day job, I'm the VP of Product Management at Accompa, we make the popular requirements management software used by Product Management, Business Analysis, and related teams.

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