Interviewing your first product manager

Interview photo from LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

A friend recently asked my advice as they are interviewing their first product manager for their company. They wanted to understand what areas to probe, what to look for, and how to craft their interview loop.

Here’s what I shared:

For product roles — it’s a great question. This article is nearing 20 years old, but it was critical to me when I was early in my product career and in many ways I still haven’t found a better one: https://www.bringthedonuts.com/essays/productmanager.html

In general, my guidance for a small company is you want the first product person you hire to be someone who’s been around a team like you before, and in at least some part of the space you are in (b2b, consumer, fintech, etc) so that they aren’t coming in cold. You don’t want them to be so senior that they keep telling you they need a team, but it’s not a bad thing if they have managed a few PMs before. Then again, it’s not a bad thing if they haven’t, as long as they have managed projects with 20–30 people on them.

For questions, there are three areas I like to probe:

(1) Experience and ability to articulate the narrative.

Basically I like to ask them to explain their resume and why they are here now excited about this opportunity. Should take just a few minutes, but give you a good sense of how they think about themselves. Then… ask the to describe a project they are most proud of the impact it had on their customers, or the business. They should be able to trot out a cool thing they worked on, what impact it had, and the challenges they faced going through it. If it’s compelling, you can probe and really understand their role on the decisions (how much was dictated to them vs what they figured out or advocated). People who can’t do this… it’s wild how bad some of the answers are.

(2) Self-awareness.

My favorite question:

“Product managers need to be good at a lot of different things. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Of these areas, which are you best at, and which are you weakest at?
(1) vision and storytelling — being able to communicate what we’re doing / should be doing and why.
(2) working with design to craft great user experiences
(3) working with engineering to solve gnarly problems.
(4) execution and process — finding the milestones and keeping the team really organized to deliver.
(5) metrics and iteration — once something’s launched, evaluating feedback and coming up with new ideas.

What I look for here is people being rational about what they are best and weakest at. We all have them. If they try to say “I’m good at all, I just say “come on… we all have strengths and weaknesses”. When I answer this personally, I say I’m great at vision/storytelling and explain why, and then I say I’m also pretty strong at metrics and iteration and coming up with ideas as we learn things. I then say I’m weakest at process and organization — there are a lot of people far better and more organized than me, but I can still keep something operating and getting done.

(3) Curiosity and creativity.

A couple of directions here , but you really just want to see how the person thinks about product and brainstorms things. You want someone who you are excited to riff with if they join your company. You could ask “if you joined us, what is the first problem you think would be really important to tackle and how would you approach it”. Or you can ask something about another product like “if you could fix Uber Eats’ recommendation service to suggest better dishes for you, what would you try first”. Or “How would you build a referral program for Netflix? Referrals are so big for other services, and on Netflix they all just share passwords”. Or any idea of a product you think about!

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Josh Elman

Josh Elman

I love building products that people use. I‘ve helped build Twitter, Facebook Connect, LinkedIn, Robinhood. Investor in Medium, Tiktok/Musical.ly, Discord