What I’m learning about hiring good product managers

I’ve recently started hiring product managers to join our product team at 7digital. I’ve been impressed with the number of job applications I’ve been receiving from a lot of clearly talented and experienced people. The question, though, remains: “how do you find the right product manager for your organisation and its specific challenges?” These are some of the things that I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Pre-interview, starting with a good job description – I’ve noticed that the role and responsibilities of a product manager can vary per organisation. I’ve learnt from Dave Ganly in particular the importance of having a clear internal definition of the product manager role in place. Product management can mean different things to different people and organisations. It’s therefore important to be clear to candidates what product management means for your organisation and the key skills you’re looking for.
  2. In the interview, I’m looking for: (a) Answers and solutions – how candidates go about answering  a question or addressing a specific problem or scenario. In Fig. 1 I’ve listed the key question areas that I’m particularly interested in when interviewing a candidate (b) Scenarios – Similar to my previous point, the value of running candidates through specific (real-life) scenarios is all about the way in which they deal with the scenario in question. Cindy Alvarez has listed some very useful scenarios, some of which are very similar to the ones I tend to ask candidates about (see Fig. 2  below). It’s uncanny how often some of these cases tend to occur in real-life, not only at some of the places that I’ve worked at but also when I compare notes with my peers. (c) Demos / tasks – How do product managers go about solving a specific task? What’s the thought process they go through? Exercises like demo-ing one of our products back to me or coming up with a ‘minimum viable product’ for a fictitious app on the spot can provide a real insight into how a candidate will go about his/her job as a product manager on a day-to-day basis.

Fig. 1 – These are the things I look out for in (a) Answers and solutions (above)

i. Drive

  • If you used to be a project manager/developer/UX (insert any previous role applicable) previous to going into product management, what drove you to make this move?
  • What do see you as the biggest advantage of having this background? What do you consider the biggest disadvantage?
  • Which aspect of product management were or are you most passionate about and why? Which aspect the least?
  • What do you consider to the biggest challenge as a product manager?
  • How do you deal with this challenge?
  • What’s your main lesson learned since entering product management?

Things I’m looking out for – I’m always curious to hear why people decided to move into product management. For instance, was it working closely with product managers or was it the excitement about a particular product, thinking that you could do a better job? I also like to find out what the role of product management means to a candidate. How hands-on do you tend to get as a product manager? How closely do you work with your stakeholders? Also, I like a bit of self-awareness: were there specific things you had to (un) learn when you stepped into a product related role? What was/is your biggest challenge?

ii. Sense of entrepreneurialism

  • Did you join an organisation where there was already a strong product culture in place? If so, how did you go about putting your personal stamp on how they do things?
  • If not, how did you go about building and instilling a product culture from the ground up? What did you learn in the process? How did you communicate the value of product management within your organisation?
  • Can you give me an example of when you came up with a idea for a new product or feature? Please describe the next steps after you’d come up with the product idea.
  • Did you ever create your own product or prototype? What did you learn from this experience? How did the product perform?

Things I’m looking out for – I’m not necessarily excited about hearing how a product manager ‘was involved’ in successfully launching a product where a lot of people were part of the development and launch process. In contrast, I’m much more intrigued to hear how YOU went about taking a product idea from concept to launch and then managed its product life cycle. I always end up feeling energised by people who can talk me through how they came up with a product idea, thought that idea through, created a ‘minimum viable product’, launched and then measured their original assumptions (and iterated the product accordingly). I guess I’m excited about people who constantly try things, who are looking to improve themselves or the way they do things and who will always try to come up with new ideas or approaches.

iii. Constant questioning

  • Can you give me an example of where you had to come back on one of your original (product related) assumptions?
  • How do you go about deciding on a particular product idea?
  • How do you go about prioritising a particular product feature or bug?
  • When or how do you know that your product is a success?
  • How do you address your own concerns about your product?
  • When do you decide to stop a product or remove a particular feature?

Things I’m looking out for – One of the things I’m constantly trying to improve is my ability to take a step back and to ask myself ‘why’. I believe that as a good product manager one should continuously question oneself as well as challenge others. I know from experience how easy it is to get swept into running with a particular problem or idea, meeting a specific deadline or objective. However, I feel it’s vital to always challenge a particular idea, request or problem: are we solving the right problem? Is there any value in this idea or product? ‘So what’? What’s the actual problem we’re looking to solve here?

Fig. 2 – These are the things I look out for in (b) Scenarios (above)

i. Last minute ‘urgent’ request – Your development team are working heads down on a critical product feature, after you marked this as a top priority. Your CEO, however, comes to you saying that there’s a “much more critical feature” that needs to be implemented before the week is over. Your CEO is adamant that you and your development team drop everything else in favour of this feature. How do you respond?

Things I’m looking out for  Since I’ve come across this situation a number of times, I’m always curious to hear how others manage such circumstances. Do they feel comfortable standing up to others (irrespective of seniority)? How do they go about finding out whether the requested feature is really ‘critical’? Are they good at prioritising? Do they just say ‘no’?

ii. Conflicting interests – A recent round of usability testing has shown that users are dying for a feature that lets them filter the search results on your application by different categories to the ones you currently offer. You checked this requirement with your lead developer and he/she told you that this will mean a complete overhaul of the way you currently do filtering, with a lot of technical complexity involved. Meanwhile, your sales team are pressing you to look at filtering, but from a completely different angle. What do you do?

Things I’m looking out for – I believe that one of the key roles of a good product manager is to constantly intermediate between different business stakeholders (be it internal e.g. sales and technical or external e.g. customers and competitors) and their interests. As a good product manager you’re likely to have product ideas and requests of your own, but you’re also acting as a first port of call for lots of other people, all with their own requests and wishes. With the above scenario, I’m trying to get a sense of how the candidate goes about managing all these different interests and how he/she deals with any conflicts between these interests. How do you prioritise? What assumptions and data do you base your prioritisations or decisions on? How do you validate these assumptions or decisions? And, not unimportantly, how do you communicate your decisions to your stakeholders?

iii. Defining a ‘minimum viable product’ – Your first product as a new product manager is one for which an extensive product backlog already exists. There’s a lot of pressure on you to deliver a working product as soon as possible, since the competition is already way ahead and the business has identified this product as an important revenue source. However, you’ve got a small development team and a limited budget at your disposal. How do you go about creating a ‘minimum viable product’ that can be shipped within a reasonable period?

Things I’m looking out for  Defining a minimum viable product (‘MVP’) can be quite challenging in my experience, especially if you’re working for a mature startup or an established business. I’m always curious to find out from candidates how they go about creating and managing an MVP. Some people do this in a very structured way by creating a business case, doing market research, prototyping, starting with a small feature set, etc. whilst others just throw an idea out there to see how it performs. Whichever approach you go for, I’d to like hear more about your rationale for developing a product in a certain way and the factors that you tend to consider in this respect.

iv. Communicating product failure – The main objective of product X was to acquire 10,000 users and generate £100k in revenue within 6-12 months after launch. You’ve been monitoring the performance of the product closely, but unfortunately at 6 months post-launch, only 2,000 customers have signed up to use the product, generating £15k in revenue. How do you deal with this problem?

Things I’m looking out for – It’s sounds obvious but I’m mostly looking for honesty and transparency here. We all like to be known for our successes and for getting it right, but how do you act when things aren’t going according to plan? I’m keen to hear how people go through the trajectory from coming up with the initial assumptions or metrics to validating these and then to admit that the product isn’t performing as expected. How does the candidate go about about analysing what went wrong and whether there’s room to improve things? How does he/she communicate the underperformance and change of direction to internal and external stakeholders?

Main learning point: it has been really good to see that there are so many talented and creative product managers out there. Particularly given that product management is still considered a relatively new discipline within the UK. I’ve picked up some useful tips and tools to work out whether a candidate is the right fit for a specific organisation, its challenges and its culture. I believe that ultimately a lot comes down to the personality of the candidate, his/her communication skills and a well considered approach to product management.

Related links for further learning:








5 responses to “What I’m learning about hiring good product managers”

  1. One of the best view points and narration from the shoes of a product manager. Very well written Marc. I specifically like the real time scenarios being questioned which makes the candidate reflect on their understanding of product management role.

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