If you’re seeking a job as a product manager, brace yourself. The interview questions used to assess a candidate for the role are rarely softballs, in part because the position is so fundamental to an organization’s success.
“A great product manager,” wrote Christina Riechers, product lead for payment products at San Francisco-headquartered Square, “can transform a team and create exceptional experiences for customers. The converse is also unfortunately true.”
According to Udi Milo, VP of product growth at the online dating app Tinder, the goal of the interview process is to allow the candidate and employer to get to know each other by “openly discuss[ing] the values that motivate them, their unique capabilities and knowledge, and their approach to working together as part of a team.”
“I want to see evidence of impact, of rolling up their sleeves, and of living their values even when it puts something they cared about at stake.”
That’s why Riechers, and other product leaders we contacted, spend time digging into the details of candidates’ past experiences, querying the outcomes of past products they’ve owned and asking applicants to reflect on challenges with underperforming releases and colleagues with dissimilar views.
“I want to see evidence of impact, of rolling up their sleeves, and of living their values even when it puts something they cared about at stake,” Riechers wrote.
We reached out to hiring managers, chief product officers, and product VPs to learn more about he process. Here are 14 commonly asked interview questions, and tips for candidates hoping to leave a strong impression in answering them.
14 Commonly Asked Product Manager Interview Questions
- “What is product management?”
- “What aspects of product management do you enjoy the most and least?”
- “You’ve got X years of core product experience. What might you suggest as your key strengths?”
- “Pick a product that you owned and are proud of. Who was the customer?”
- “For a product you owned, how did you prioritize what you worked on?”
- “Tell me about a disagreement that you had with your engineering partner.”
- “What do you believe makes a great leader and a great manager? Did you work with one? What did they do to make you think they are great?”
- “Tell me about a product you use often and how you might improve it”
- “How do you approach solving a complex problem that nobody solved before? Let’s discuss some examples and dive into details together.”
- “Pick a product that you owned and are proud of. Who was the customer?”
- “Tell me about a product feature that didn’t pan out. What would you do differently now?”
- “How do you handle situations where things are not going smoothly? Let’s dive into some examples and discuss.”
- “What do you need to know about X company to make a call on coming to work with us?”
- “What do you value in a great workplace?”
Be Ready to Explain What Product Management Is
Alex Haar is chief product officer and co-founder at the Denver-based Parsyl, a global supply chain firm with a hiring process heavily influenced by the years Haar spent on interview teams at Google as chief of staff for its former CIO, Douglass Merrill. He said no two interview sequences are exactly the same, but that the process typically begins with a phone screener. One of the questions he likes to open with is, “What is product management?”
Because a PM’s responsibilities vary widely depending on a company’s size, product portfolio, customer base and development phase, a candidate’s response is really a proxy for how well they will fit within a specific role. Are they more of a “zero-to-one” conceptual thinker, Haar wonders, or are they better equipped for solving problems later in the product life cycle when a company is determining product-market fit or preparing to scale its offerings?
Know What Type of Product Manager You Are
A common follow-up, “What aspects of product management do you enjoy the most and the least?” digs deeper into an applicant’s qualifications, Haar said, and shows how well they are aligned with the company’s organizational structure and mission. A good fit at his 30-person startup may not be a good fit a larger firm where product manager roles are more specialized.
“What are [they] uniquely going to add at Square to make not only [their] team but the entire organization better?”
“At a startup like ours, product managers wear a lot of hats,” Haar said. “That includes both high-level decisions from product managers who have been around talking to customers and [involved with] prioritization and strategy, but also making sure we’re actually shipping products and getting that value out to our customers. How do you balance those two? And the answers that I like to hear center around creating value for customers.”
Own Your Strengths
When a candidate performs well in phase one, Haar said, they proceed to a meeting with cross-functional teams to assess their working style and alignment with the company’s culture. This is generally followed by a third interview in which applicants are asked to perform exercises with engineers and designers on a whiteboard. What is their problem-solving approach? Can they draw and test assumptions?
During the process, candidates are likely to have an opportunity to share their strengths. At some companies, such as Square, this might be put as bluntly as, “You’ve got X years of core product experience. What might you suggest as your key strengths?”
In a candidate’s response, Riechers wants to see evidence of where they excel, but also “what are [they] uniquely going to add at Square to make not only [their] team but the entire organization better?”
Show How You Prioritize Decisions
Riechers is hardly alone in viewing workflow prioritization as a crucial skill set for PMs to demonstrate; it’s a point echoed by several sources who say backlogs can quickly become graveyards for good ideas.
There is no “right way” to answer Riecher’s standard question on the subject, which is this: “For a product you owned, how did you prioritize what you worked on?” Rather, a thoughtful response will show a candidate is aware of useful prioritization tools, such as the Three Feature Buckets framework, and applies a “data-driven mindset to produce results.”
Emphasize Your Ability to Work Collaboratively
Where things get a bit trickier is when fielding questions about experiences with former colleagues. One of Riecher’s most pointed questions asks candidates to “tell [her] about a disagreement that you had with your engineering partner.”
At Square, as at nearly all software companies, product managers work closely with engineering managers and designers, and entanglements over features and releases are likely to occur. It’s how a PM handles differences of opinion that matters, according to Riecher.
“Do they understand the technical side of the work enough to recognize trade-offs?”
“Does the candidate listen, and take the time to understand what is behind the concern?” she asked. “Do they acknowledge any frustration that is behind the disagreement? Do they understand the technical side of the work enough to recognize trade-offs? Do they take the time to work through the disagreement with their counterpart?”
Regardless of whose perspective prevails, Riechers points out, insistence on resolution is important: “Do they either agree, or ‘disagree and commit?’”
At Tinder, the conversation might be framed differently, but the takeaway is the same: When Milo asks applicants, “What do you believe makes a great leader and a great manager? Did you work with one? What did they do to make you think they are great?” he is looking for candidates who understand and can clearly express the value of interpersonal skills to an organization.
Show How You Solve Problems
A favorite interview prompt at Parsyl is “Tell me about a product you use often and how you might improve it.” It’s a useful query, Haar said, because it allows candidates to apply a diagnostic approach to products with which they are intimately familiar, whether that’s a parking app with a clunky payment system, or music streaming service with a minor bug.
Tinder makes a similar assessment of a candidate’s aptitude for problem solving, though in a more open-ended format: “How do you approach solving a complex problem that nobody solved before? Let’s discuss some examples and dive into details together.”
Another way this type of question might be couched is as a measure of a candidate’s responsiveness to a customer’s needs. “Pick a product that you owned and are proud of. Who was the customer?”
“This should be a ‘gimme’ question for a good PM,” Riechers wrote. “Who was the customer? What was their pain point? How were you going to address that pain point?”
The key, in all cases, is to be ready to illustrate your thinking with a clear methodology and concrete examples.
Explain Failures Without Blame
If you’re an ambitious product manager, it’s almost inevitable you will launch some duds. That’s why Riechers asks candidates to “tell [her] about a product feature that didn’t pan out. What would you do differently now?”
Here’s Tinder’s riff on the theme: “How do you handle situations where things are not going smoothly? Let’s dive into some examples and discuss.”
Self-awareness is at the heart of a good response. “We all make mistakes,” Riechers writes. “How did they deal with them? Did they take responsibility for poor outcomes? How do they treat their teams? Do they have a bias toward action? What did they learn that makes them a better PM now than before the failure?”
“It’s a good idea to have some strong opinions ready about the company’s current product so you can show you’ve considered what’s good (or not) about it.”
Haar, who has a similar question in his repertoire, said assigning blame is never the right approach. “A bad answer to that question is, ‘my work was great, but this other person screwed it up.’ I mean, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is a lack of self-awareness, that’s not really an acceptable answer. But more importantly, as a product manager, you’re often leading without authority, and that’s why those relationships are so important.”
Know the Company and Why You’re Interested in the Role
Nicholas Stanford, a product manager at the San Francisco-based digital writing company Grammarly, stresses the importance of understanding a company’s history before the interview. “It’s always a great sign that you’re a conscientious person who has been thoughtful about your interest in the role,” he wrote. “One aspect of this might be putting some effort into understanding the company’s vision — demonstrating that you ‘get’ what the company is trying to do. It’s also a good idea to have some strong opinions ready about the company’s current product so you can show you’ve considered what’s good (or not) about it and also where the product can go in the future.”
At Tinder, this learning process is a two-way street. Two of Milo’s standard questions are, “What do you need to know about Tinder to make a call on coming to work with us?” and “What do you value in a great workplace?”
But these questions also reveal whether the candidate did their homework. Do they understand enough about Tinder to be able to explain why they are interested in the role? Can they see themselves at the company for the long term? As Milo wrote by email, “Spending effort toward getting a job at a company that one doesn’t understand or has taken the time to learn about is not a great sign.”
Convey Your Willingness to Adapt to Remote Work
The shift to remote work triggered by COVD-19 has caused some adjustment in the interview process at Grammarly and Tinder, though it doesn’t really change the qualities these companies are seeking in product managers: flexibility and a willingness to adapt quickly to market changes remain coveted skills.
“A strong performer is perfectly fine in saying they don’t fully understand the task at hand. It is a sign of humbleness and curiosity more than anything else.”
“We are looking for people who have shown collaborative, high-impact work with agile thinking and an adaptive positive attitude,” Milo wrote. “Folks with these skills will be able to adjust quickly to these new work environments, and help the team innovate on new ways to be successful together.”
Be Honest: Don’t Tell interviewers What You Think They Want to Hear
Having a strong backbone never hurts as a product manager. As a rule of thumb, according to Milo, “candidates should avoid answering a question inauthentically, meaning telling the interviewer what they want to hear.” Instead they should “push back with questions and clarifying comments. A strong performer is perfectly fine in saying they don’t fully understand the task at hand. It is a sign of humbleness and curiosity more than anything else.”
Honesty and a comfort expressing strong opinions also plays well at Grammarly, Stanford explained.
“Candidates shouldn’t worry about pointing out what can be improved. It’s likely that the interviewer shares the same opinion and wants those same improvements. Lastly — but perhaps most important — we want to find candidates who are always putting themselves in the shoes of the user and asking themselves important questions about a user’s perspective.”