Hiring Product Managers: Interviewing

I’m going to kick this off by debunking the the Behavioral Interview model in which interview questions start with, “Tell me about a time when you…”. Those questions are generally lame shortcuts for hiring managers who aren’t willing to actually assess whether Product Management candidates can do the job.

In your interview adventures, you’ll find plenty of charlatans who’ll take credit for other people’s brilliance or claim their past failures were actually successes. You also could end up saying “no” to someone with less experience to draw from but would have been awesome. So don’t focus on what they did accomplish before; focus instead on what they can accomplish now.

Here’s an interviewing technique that gets straight at the capabilities and fit of Product Management candidates…

Create a focused, complete, and integrated interview spanning across the phone screen, an assignment and, the in-person meetings. Remember the purpose of each portion of the process.

  1. Phone screen: eliminate the riff raff since the rest of the process is time consuming. Set the stage for the rest of the interview process.
  2. Assignment (often skipped): show them what they’ll be doing, assess the quality of their work, and provide the context for the in-person interview.
  3. In-person interview: make them win the job — with you and with your team trusted advisors (other interviewers).

Step 1: Phone screen

Phone screens are multi-purpose: to weed out clearly bad candidates who will just waste your time, to verify their interest in the company and the role, and to set up the interview process for success.

Don’t get ahead of yourself in the phone screen. No one should be able to win the job over the phone, anyway. Create a script that allows you to avoid bringing in someone who obviously isn’t a good fit. In my experience, at least 50% of candidates can be weeded out in just 30–45m over the horn. Here are some good questions for quickly weeding out mismatched candidates:

  • Give me the 10m color behind the the black and white that’s on your resume. What’s your “story”? (Hang up if their reason for switching jobs is because they are running away from something rather than running toward something.)
  • What were the shortcoming of your product you most wanted to address when you left? (Hang up if the answer is unclear, not bold enough, or just plain absent.)
  • What is the role of product management? (Hang up if they tell you it’s “a translator of sorts”.)
  • What are you trying to get out of your next role? (Hang up if the answer is effectively just to make ends meet.)
  • What questions have you been excited to ask me? (Hang up if they don’t have any.)

Decide on the spot if you want to continue. Waiting won’t help either of you.

If you do continue, give the candidate an overview of the interview process you’ll be crafting for them. Tell them you’ll give them an assignment which you will use to assess the quality of their work, but primarily to customize the interview process for them. The rest of the interview should be a working session based on the assignment.

If you’re concerned about assigning an exercise before someone has the job, don’t be. Two reasons:

  1. As long as the amount of work is small (and it should be), then good candidates are almost always are happy to do it, and in the end they think it was interesting and hopefully even fun.
  2. You don’t need to keep the details of your hiring process secret for fear of the candidate somehow gaming the system. If your interview can be “gamed”, then the root problem is the interview itself.

Step 2: Assignment

Here’s how it works:

  • Email a one-pager product design and planning exercise designed to test whether they can solve the kinds of problems they will face. Use a real, current or recent product problem from your business, ideally in the area he/she would be working in.
  • Limit the assignment to under 2 hours (honor system is fine) to complete something that should probably take 2+ weeks. The result will be an incomplete assignment. (That’s a good thing.) Give them a week to get it done, and let them ask clarifying questions.
  • Ask them to provide something broad, not deep. Save going into the weeds for the in-person interview.
  • Give them free reign to share their output back in the form of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Google doc, scribbles on a napkin, whatever. (It’s always interesting to see the tool they ultimately use.)
  • When reviewing their output, check if they do a good job prioritizing, summarizing, and communicating a reasonably comprehensive plan.

Hmm. Tough time constraints, little context, wide open problem set, unclear objectives… Sound familiar? That’s exactly the point!

Some of these will be garbage; they will miss huge pieces of the product like metrics tracking, content configuration tools, outbound customer communications, preferences settings, or all of the above. Some solutions will be great or demonstrate raw creativity. Most will be somewhere in between. But now you know exactly the flags to cover during the interview process before it even starts!

Step 3: In-person interview

Start by having the candidate review their homework assignment with you or even the broader team. This is the best way to assess presentation skills. Then, use your interview as a 40m+ whiteboard exercise to jointly improve the product design they started. Have them come up with brand new ideas. Challenge them, take them down good paths and bad. Ask them to trim scope and make tough prioritization decisions. Have them do the job — just accelerated.

You can literally assess candidates by how far the two of you get improving the product together. If you work well together, it’ll be obvious. Will you work well together or are you oil and water? Does the candidate lack innovation? Can she not get into the details? Does he roll over and not defend his ground when he should? Can he not admit mistakes? Does she have good design instinct? The answers to all these questions will become apparent almost immediately during the exercise.

Spend the rest of your interview time (15–20m) answering the candidate’s questions, and if you’re positive, selling him/her on the opportunity.

Have the other guys do the more boring stuff like review prior experience, check for flags, and cover the periphery of the role (working with other teams, understanding business cases, demonstrating your company values, etc.) Giver each of your interviewers specific areas to focus on so you end the interview with a borad perspective of the candidate’s fit. But, you as the hiring manager should focus on the core.

How to pull insights from your interviewer-advisors and ultimately make the right decision about the candidate is the topic of the next blog post.