Whether you’re hiring or trying to be hired yourself, the interview process is always a challenge. Here we present the typical flow together with revealing questions to help both interviewers and aspiring product managers.
There are no hard and fast rules for what it means to be a product manager. Every company has their own vision of their product and work process.
So there’s no one-size-fits-all way to evaluate applicants for a product manager position.
But no matter what, the hiring process should be structured and carefully thought out.
In this article we will be detailing:
- Stages of the interview process (#)
- Topic areas and examples of interview questions (#)
- Pre-interview research for applicants (#)
This material is intended for teams needing to hire product managers as well as for applicants wanting to prepare for their own interviews.
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Stages of the interview process
The interview process consists of several stages. The specifics will vary at each company based on resources, needs, and other factors.
Larger companies, for example, will tend to hold on-site interviews lasting for the better part of a day. During that time, the applicant performs (and might discuss feedback on) a test task and undergoes a few rounds of interviews. Big companies go to this effort and expense in order to keep the hiring process humming along smoothly.
Many companies these days—especially startups—are fully virtual. For them, the entire hiring process happens 100% online, just like everything else at the company.
For those aiming at the top of the corporate ladder, remember that the higher the position, the more stages you will have to go through.
The main stages usually include:
- Phone screening with recruiter
- Call with hiring manager
- On-site interviews and final decision
Let’s go through each of these stages in detail.
The purpose of the phone screening is to see how well the applicant meets the requirements of the position. Questions will usually be at the level of the applicant’s resume and prior work experience. The recruiter might also try to get a feel for the applicant’s salary expectations, why they left their previous job, and whether they are currently interviewing at other companies.
- What makes this position interesting to you? Why do you want to work with us?
- Why do you want to leave your current job? (Why have you left it already?)
- What are your career plans?
- Tell me more about this item on your resume…
- What are your salary expectations?
The recruiter might throw in a few basic job-related questions to filter out applicants who are clearly underqualified.
Recruiters ask each of these questions for a reason, not just for the sake of a checklist. If a question seems vague or strange to you as an applicant, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification so you can give a thorough and relevant answer. The recruiter, accordingly, should be prepared to explain what they have in mind.
If the applicant is being actively hunted by the company, the recruiter will usually also try to sell them on what makes the company so great.
Call with hiring manager
Questions from the hiring manager will be more specific and examine how well the applicant’s experience fits the position.
The hiring manager wants to measure the strength of the applicant’s key skills as well as overall knowledge and understanding of the business. They might discuss a case study with the applicant to see how they would approach it.
While all this is going on, the hiring manager is also trying to gauge whether the applicant fits in terms of soft skills and corporate culture.
The applicant might be asked to perform a task or assignment at this stage. We won’t go into detail in this article, but you can read a guide for hiring managers on the topic here.
Sometimes this stage might be skipped entirely at large companies. When the company is not looking at a team-specific position, they can simply let a successful applicant work on several teams and pick one later. But applicants should always be ready for this stage just in case.
On-site interviews and final decision
Like we noted earlier, applicants won’t necessarily be invited into an office. Some companies perform the entire hiring process online. Either way, employers want to take a deeper, final look at the applicant.
Frequently, this is when the applicant performs a test task. If the task included a take-home assignment, the applicant might be asked to explain and defend their solution.
This stage will often also include one-on-one interviews with potential colleagues, who will be eyeing how well this person fits the team, as well as heads of other departments and business units.
Here’s one example:
A large company is making a fintech product and they need a senior product manager. So besides the recruiter and hiring manager, the company’s CFO will likely be sitting in. This is important because besides hard skills, the applicant also needs to know the business side—in this case, the financial industry.
→ In his interview with GoPractice, Dmitry Vasin as the Product Owner responsible for launching Revolut Trading discussed how to balance between technical skills and industry knowledge when it comes to product creation in heavily regulated industries like fintech.
After all these interviews and test tasks, the company makes a final decision on which applicant to make an offer to. Read this article for more on how employers can choose between strong candidates.
Interview questions: topic areas and examples
Now that we’ve summarized the main stages of the hiring process, it’s time to talk about the kinds of questions that would-be product managers tend to receive. It’s important to understand the purpose of these questions, which is why we’ve included a number of examples. These questions either come from real interviews at major tech companies or are heavily inspired by them.
The questions below might come on a call from the hiring manager or during an on-site interview with a potential colleague:
- If you’re the one interviewing, think about using these examples to create questions tailored to your specific company and product. Know what you are trying to elucidate with your question and how you intend to evaluate the answers.
- If you’re being interviewed, treat these as a way to prepare for the type and subject matter of questions that you might hear at a real interview. Have some interesting “answer templates” filed away in the back of your mind.
If you are curious about real questions from interviews at a specific company, check Glassdoor regarding the employer and position in question.
Product sense / product design
These questions show the applicant’s train of thought when they face the task of creating a new product or improving an existing one. The hiring manager observes how the applicant prioritizes, what they do in the absence of complete information, and how they would evaluate the outcome.
- Name three of your favorite products. Pick one and tell me how you would improve it.
- Name a couple of products you consider bad but which are successful anyway.
- Design an alarm clock for deaf people.
- How would you improve a microwave?
- Build a product for sports fans on Facebook.
- Design a food delivery app for kids.
- Design a product for learning a new skill.
- How would you improve restaurant discovery on Google Maps?
- Design an ATM for international terminals at your local airport.
- Build a new car dashboard from scratch.
Execution / analytics
These questions help to show how the applicant sets goals, tries to accomplish them, and evaluates the outcomes. The answers suggest how the potential product manager checks hypotheses and follows through to confirm causation and take appropriate action.
- You are the PM of Instagram stories. What goal would you set and how would you measure success?
- As a PM, what NSM would you choose for a food delivery app and why?
- How would you measure the success of a weather forecast app?
- How would you expand Duolingo into math education?
- The churn of a hyper-casual mobile game you’re working on more than doubled during the last week. Describe your steps for improving the situation.
- As the PM of Google’s front page, what goals would you set for your team for the next quarter?
- How would you go about designing the onboarding flow for an e-commerce app?
- You’re working as PM for a popular ride-hailing app. There’s a bug that affects 1% of your users. You can throw all your engineering resources at fixing the bug or roll out a new feature to meet the deadline. Which option would you choose and why?
- How would you define key metrics for a dating app, e.g., Tinder?
- As a PM at a social media platform, make a list of pros and cons for autoplay videos. What would make you abandon the idea?
Questions about product strategy will be similar, but with a greater focus on business and product monetization. This makes the product manager zoom out and look at the product’s wider context.
- Why did Facebook build Marketplace?
- You have an e-learning platform for aspiring and junior product managers. You want to expand to emerging markets where people (a) do not know about your product and (b) are not able to pay the price you’re asking. Describe your steps.
- There is a new AI-driven messenger app with automatic reply suggestions as a core feature. Explain why this app is not going to succeed.
- A bike sharing company is considering a freemium business model. Should they do it?
- In 2014, Facebook decided to spin off its Messenger app, and Foursquare made the same step. Explain why the first split was successful and the second one didn’t go so well.
- Should Google start its own ride-hailing service? Why?
- You are PM at WhatsApp with an unlimited budget. What would you do?
- What company should Amazon have bought five years ago and why?
- Why did Microsoft Teams overtake Slack in 2019 in terms of DAU?
- You’re an investor. Name several companies or markets you would invest in right now.
Behavioral / communication
How does the product manager act in different situations, including high stress? What about leadership and communication skills?
- Tell me about a time your project didn’t go as planned. What could you have done better?
- How do you resolve disagreements at work? Give an example from your experience.
- Tell me about a project you have done outside of work. How did you approach it and what did you learn?
- What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- Tell me about a time you received harsh feedback from your exec. How did you react?
- What’s the most interesting project you have done at work?
- Imagine you’re working on a product and, to meet a deadline, the management team decides to launch it before it’s ready. How would you convince them not to?
- Tell me about a time when you took a large risk at work. Did it pay off? What did you learn?
- The C-suite asks you to prioritize a certain feature you deem unnecessary. What would you do?
- Tell me about a time you proposed a novel idea for the product you worked on.
While of secondary importance for the PM role, technical questions can reveal how well product managers interface with developers. Oftentimes this means asking how different services work under the hood. The precise technical details matter less than the PM’s ability to articulate their logic. These questions can vary widely, so we will give just a few examples.
- What has happened since the 1990s that allowed the internet to become faster?
- What happens when you type a URL in your browser?
- What is the most complex system you have designed or contributed to?
- How would you improve Google Maps to work with poor connectivity?
- Describe how GPS works.
Pre-interview research for applicants
Applicants shouldn’t forget that the questions they ask are just as important. Product managers need to be able to perform in-depth user interviews for their job, after all.
The applicant should start by researching the company and taking notes. Interviewers should be prepared to have the tables turned a bit.
Applicants should try to look at a company like a would-be investor: “Am I prepared to put my time and effort into this company? Do I believe it has a future? Does the company’s product have product/market fit? Can the product be scaled?”
Here are a few starting points for getting a better understanding of a potential employer:
Company website and social media
Start with the basics. When was the company founded? Who owns it? What industry is it in? How big is it?
See what the company’s declared values are and what mission it proclaims.
Take a look at the company’s social media and YouTube channel, if any.
Social networks are a way for companies to broadcast their values, share news, and notify of big updates.
This information will provide grist for your own questions—and in any case, the employer should appreciate your interest and initiative in finding out.
Take a look at recent mentions of the company on Google News. How frequently does it hit the headlines? What important events have happened? Maybe it’s a startup that has recently gotten serious investments in order to prepare for serious expansion. Or maybe it’s a big company with stagnant metrics.
Simply checking the news can be an excellent way to find the information that companies are reluctant to publish themselves, especially when it comes to setbacks or problems.
Public filings and reports
If a company is publicly traded, by law it must file reporting for investors. These reports consist mainly of financial information but also indicate the company’s near-term intentions and plans.
Such documents can make for heavy reading. However, they offer a great deal of insight into the true state of affairs because of the strict legal requirements that publicly traded companies must follow.
You can learn about the company’s outlook and risks, as well as get inspiration for questions about big-picture plans. For example, how important is the product you plan to work on for the company’s long-term future?
↓ Take this one for example:
Does the company make a B2C product? Be sure to try it out. If the product is inaccessible for whatever reason, ask friends about their experience.
Also, if you can, try to learn about the development history of the product. And then repeat this for products from the company’s main competitors.
Market / competitor research
Now comes the logical continuation of the product study you’ve just done: instead of looking just at products, learn about the market and main competitors.
What are the trends on this market? Is the market growing or stagnating? What role does the potential employer play? Has that role been increasing? Has the company been involved in any acquisitions?
Once you have done this for the potential employer, repeat this for competitors as well.
↓ You may want to read this:
Reviews from former and current employees may mention salary bands for different positions, the company’s corporate culture (and perhaps how it differs from what’s claimed publicly), and growth opportunities that may exist.
You can find this information on sites like Glassdoor.
Bring your own questions
After making notes at each stage, create a list of questions to ask at the interview. Your goal should be to understand how well the potential employer fits your needs and what opportunities you stand to gain from a specific position.
Don’t forget to add questions about product work at the employer-to-be. For example:
- How is the performance of the product manager and the product team measured at your company?
- Who can influence the product strategy within the company?
- How is the relationship between the product team and other teams structured? Particularly with regard to engineering, marketing, UX, and sales.
- What does the product development process look like?
- What metrics are being tracked at different stages?
Hiring a product manager the right way requires a lot of work from both sides. It’s easy for important points to get overlooked. By referring to these stages and questions, employers and candidates can be better informed about each other.
Don’t forget that interviews cut both ways. Besides the employer making sure about candidate fit, candidates should equally be sure that the employer is right for them.
If you can think of other key steps or questions that belong here, we look forward to incorporating them here so that employers and candidates can make the best decisions. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.