What to Look for When Hiring Product Managers - Built In

Tammy Xu is a staff reporter covering software development trends and best practices. She is a former software developer for The Dow Chemical Company.
Tammy Xu is a staff reporter covering software development trends and best practices. She is a former software developer for The Dow Chemical Company.
Product managers can make or break projects, but hiring the right one can be difficult. The role requires unique skill sets — product managers are not people managers, although they often need to lead others. They are not developers, although they must be able to understand technical challenges and work closely with engineering teams.
The range of responsibilities makes it tough for hiring managers to identify candidates who can handle all aspects of the job.
Even before an interview takes place, the first step of the hiring process should be setting realistic expectations about the role with the internal hiring team.
Jason-Phillip Park, a lead product manager at insurance tech company Policygenius, said product management is different across companies and industries, so having internal consistency is important.
“I’ve been in places where sales thinks that PMs are supposed to build what they say, and on the other side, engineering believes that PMs should be partners with them,” Park said. “It’s important to get everyone aligned on what the job responsibilities are.”
Once internal teams agree on the PM’s responsibilities, they need to think about the interview process.
Hiring managers usually ask candidates about their past experiences and how they would handle hypothetical product management scenarios. This helps them determine if candidates have what it takes to excel in the role, like the ability to accurately identify pain points and plan out a project’s steps.
But what do interviewers look for, exactly, when trying to identify the best potential hires? To find out, we asked product managers to break down their processes.
 
Being able to pinpoint exactly what problem a project is trying to solve is one of the most basic skills product managers must have. That’s because “product management is really a problem-solving role,” Park said.
But how can recruiters test for something as amorphous as a candidate’s understanding of problems?
Eddie Dinel, a director of product management at cloud computing company VMware, said he likes to get a sense of a candidate’s ability to understand problems by asking them to talk about a previous project they have worked on. 
“Great [product managers] are comfortable in that ambiguity. They’re comfortable with taking big formless balls of clay and molding it into something that is a well-defined problem.”
Dinel looks for whether the product manager can explain how a product fits into the larger market and how the product differentiates itself from competitors, because product managers are responsible for relaying that information to the engineering team. Projects should spend more resources on strengthening product features that perform better than the competition, while not wasting resources on features that don’t.
“Those are things that are really important for your engineering teams to understand to be able to do a good job,” Dinel said.
Understanding the basic qualities about products is an essential skill for product managers. After all, they’re the ones at the helm of projects. A big part of the job is staying focused on the most important aspects of a project and not getting lost in the ambiguity of a large undertaking.
“As you get more tenured in your time as a [product manager], you find yourself getting into more and more ambiguous problems,” Park said. “Great [product managers] are comfortable in that ambiguity. They’re comfortable with taking big formless balls of clay and molding it into something that is a well-defined problem.”
Interviewers should be on the lookout for product managers who are skilled at big-picture strategic thinking, because individuals who are good at identifying project pain points are also good at cutting through ambiguity to focus on project objectives.
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Product managers need to be good at zooming in on the details, Kenny Johnston, senior director of product management at GitLab, said.
Although product managers should have a solid grasp of the bigger picture, they shouldn’t be someone who is “really great at strategy, but not great at execution,” Johnston added. 
After GitLab had some trouble getting that balance right early on, the company added another component to the interview process called “think big, think small.” Johnston said it helps them find candidates who have a “bias toward action.”
“Think big, think small” is a collaborative exercise, usually run by a fellow product manager, where the candidate chooses between a few hypothetical project scenarios and walks through how they would approach the project. While one step of the exercise — the “think big” step — focuses on how the candidate approaches strategic considerations like business impact, the other step is seeing if they are also able to “think small.”
“Halfway through the interview, we say, ‘Okay, we talked about all these big things and strategic points,’” Johnston said. “‘Now, I’m going to shift your brain and I want you to start thinking small. What could we ship that will get us down that path?’”
In this exercise, candidates are expected to come up with concrete product proposals. Candidates give examples of what features they would ask their development team to ship in three months, in one month or in as little as two weeks. 
Being able to quickly shift between big, strategic thinking and small, concrete steps allows teams to iterate effectively on projects. Teams regularly need to produce features, get feedback from customers and then build that feedback into the project again. So if product managers aren’t able to quickly decide on concrete steps to take, their teams won’t be able to take advantage of the benefits of iteration, increasing the risk of the project falling into what Johnston calls “analysis paralysis.”
“If [product managers] are not going to do it,” Johnston said, “nobody will.” 
 
Sometimes well-meaning product managers can actually do too much on a project. That happens when they make unilateral decisions about technical aspects of the product and get in the way of their development team’s process of building out a solution.
While it may seem strange to consider relinquishing control a skill, the ability to consider other stakeholders’ points of view is a big part of a product manager’s job. Project stakeholders, including customers and executives, often have their own opinions about what the solution should look like.
“​​That’s where the product management magic happens … When you can actually get to the core problem that customers need to solve and articulate it, and engineering thinks of a way to solve it that is different from what the customer would have come up with, which meets their needs.”
Good product managers are able to remain focused on the big picture while also taking these stakeholder needs and concerns into account. They also give the engineering team the space to create a solution that works best for everyone — and often, that will look different than the solution championed by any one stakeholder.
Dinel tests for this skill by giving candidates a hypothetical product management situation and observing how the candidate tackles the problem. For example, if candidates are asked to improve the experience of rush hour traffic, how do they work to break down the problem into its components? Do candidates take time to identify all the pain points and stakeholders involved in rush hour traffic, or do they dive straight into pushing their own solutions?
“​​That’s where the product management magic happens,” Dinel said. “When you can actually get to the core problem that customers need to solve and articulate it, and engineering thinks of a way to solve it that is different from what the customer would have come up with, which meets their needs.”
 
Because product managers are ultimately responsible for projects, it’s important that they have a strong sense of ownership. Johnston characterizes this sense of ownership as the ability to overcome challenges in pursuit of the project’s vision.
He tests for this quality in candidates by asking about “murky” situations — past experiences when it wasn’t clear what should be done or how to move forward after encountering a substantial challenge.
“Being growth-oriented, figuring out how to work around that obstacle, accepting it as a challenge that I’m here to overcome — that’s usually a clear indicator of ownership,” Johnston said.
Understanding a candidate’s sense of ownership is important for Park’s interview process as well. He usually asks candidates about previous experiences with setbacks and how they dealt with them.
“When I hear things like, ‘My manager just made a decision, and that was it’ — that feels like you as a product person are abdicating responsibility for the situation,” Park said.
Hiring managers should look for candidates who are able to remain committed to their vision of the project and overcome obstacles by finding creative solutions and pushing for collaboration to overcome challenges.
 
One of the most important tools in a product manager’s toolbox is their communication skills. Product managers have to communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders, from highly technical engineers to customers and executives.
Dinel listens for communication skills when asking about a candidate’s past experiences. He checks to see if they can explain complex technical issues in a way that allows lay audiences to understand.
“If you’re not able to really go deep on how people feel and how people think, that just shows a shallowness in terms of your desire to understand and empathize with those people.”
“If I was interviewing a [product manager] who knew a lot more about storage than I do, then I would want them to explain the details of how their storage solution works,” Dinel said. “Why does it work that way?”
Sometimes product managers have to convince stakeholders to accept a solution, which can be tricky when stakeholders have strong opinions about how the product should be built. Product managers have to be skilled at relying on data and metrics and explaining how those align with the direction of the project, Park said. They should also explain how they took the stakeholders’ different opinions, needs and concerns into account.
“If you’re not able to really go deep on how people feel and how people think, that just shows a shallowness in terms of your desire to understand and empathize with those people,” Park added.
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To run an effective interview, interviewers can’t simply ask a question, sit back and expect to learn everything they need to know about the candidate from their responses. 
Interviews should be collaborative processes, and it’s important for the interviewer to ask good follow-up questions to get insights into a candidate’s approach to product management.
Dinel lets his curiosity guide him when interviewing candidates. He’s not afraid to ask questions to see if candidates truly understand their projects and businesses.
“In order to product manage successfully, you have to be genuinely curious about the stuff that’s going on in the world around your product,” Dinel said.
A company’s best bet for hiring great product managers is having a fellow product manager lead the process, someone who values curiosity, can consider the details — as well as the big picture — and can empathize with others and understand their points of view.
In other words, it takes a good product manager to hire a good product manager.

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