Smart candidates know they need to prepare thoroughly for their product management interviews. However, most candidates focus their prep exclusively on answering questions and completely overlook the importance of preparing questions to ask their interviewers. In this post, I look at the value of asking great questions, cover a few strong sample questions and suggest some exercises to help you generate your own insightful questions.
The Cardinal sin: no Questions for Your Interviewers
Do not go into a product management interview without preparing questions for your interviewer. Just because your interviewer asks if you have any questions for them doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook. Winging it or asking generic questions here can kill your chances at landing a product management job. But asking great questions can boost your chances of landing a role.
Product managers value candidates who ask great questions because:
- It demonstrates that you have enough interest to think about the product and/or company in advance. If you can’t be bothered to do that, interviewers will be skeptical that you’ll put the required effort in on the job.
- A primary driver of success as a product manager is knowing which questions to ask: whether it’s probing for insights from your customer base or evaluating the risks of a certain product decision with your engineering lead. Showing that you’re asking the right questions of your interviewer is a strong signal that you’ll have a knack for this on the job.
- Product managers often index highly on intellectual curiosity and therefore screen for this in interviews. Asking thoughtful, well-prepared questions during an interview is an easy way to demonstrate your unique curiosity in the role and the company.
A Starter List of Solid Questions to Consider
This is not a “one size fits all” exercise. The list below is simply a starting point. You should riff off of it, expand upon it, and craft questions tailored to the specific role you’re interviewing for and your unique perspective.
Questions on the Product Management Organization and Company
How would you define the organization’s product philosophy?
Each product organization has its own values and operating styles. Some companies are extremely quantitative and do detailed analysis and experimentation before launching anything (social gaming companies like Zynga for example), while others rely on product intuition and belief in what users want (Apple is famously intuition driven). There is no right answer but an infinite supply of different philosophies.
What’s the most important skill for product managers in your organization?
Expectations of product managers at different companies (and even within companies) can vary tremendously. Some companies strongly prefer to hire product managers with a strong technical background (like Google), while others, like Amazon, put significantly more emphasis on core business skills (as a result, it recruits heavily from MBA schools).
What does the lifecycle of a regular feature look like?
Every company conceives, develops, and releases features differently. Understanding a representative example can be helpful to highlight what tactical responsibilities a product manager might take on. Picking a particular feature from the product you like and asking “can you tell me about the process to launch X?” can be very helpful.
How often do you ship?
At the end of the day, a product manager’s job is to ship products. Cadence will vary depending on company, specific product, and the product’s lifecycle. For example, products might need multi-year product cycles to ship (for hardware like Fitbit or Apple Watch) versus consumer apps which might ship weekly or even daily (like Facebook, Twitter, or Netflix). The day-to-day life of a product manager on those products will be vastly different.
Questions About the Product, Roadmap, and Industry
What are the improvements the product needs in the next five years?
The goal here is to learn about the product vision. While it’s a simple question, it can help illuminate how set (or open) the high-level roadmap is, give insight into a company’s unique take, and illuminate the clarity of thought (or lack thereof) in a product strategy.
What is the most contentious feature the product team currently debates building? What are the arguments for and against it?
This type of question can be useful to understand what key trade-offs the team wrestles with, and the nature of important features they’re considering in the future. It’s likely to yield an animated response from the interviewer (because they’ll likely want to advocate their position on the feature).
If your product disappeared tomorrow, what would your customers use to fill the gap?
A question like this illuminates how the team thinks about their industry, the product’s space within it, and their competitive set. Often, startups like to say “there is no competition”, but it is rarely true in practice – customers almost always have a credible alternative (even if it’s “do nothing”).
<What’s the biggest risk to this product succeeding? What’s being done to mitigate that?
This question tests if a company is self-aware about risks and has considered how to mitigate them.
Why is now the right time to be building this product in this industry?
It’s not uncommon for tech companies to have the right idea but get the timing wrong. For a large tech company, this can be a waste of resources (think Google Wave), but for a startup, this can be fatal (Webvan). Understanding why the timing is right for product success is important.
Generating Additional Questions
The sample questions should have got you thinking. Below, I’ll outline three different tactics which can help you create a robust, insightful list of questions to ask your interviewers.
Tactic #1: “Bang” on the Product and Take notes
Be a student of the product. Without doubt, this is the best way to generate a solid list of questions. Using the product heavily is a great forcing function for teasing out natural questions – because they’re the same questions that customers will have. If you can’t use the product yourself (maybe it’s a specific enterprise solution), your next best option is to find potential or current users and interview them to learn more.
Regardless of how you study the product, you want to conduct a deep dive (there’s more detail on how to do this here). The byproduct of that exercise will be a greater understanding and open questions – which is exactly what you want!
Tactic #2: Model the Business and User Engagement
Build a model to explain how the product makes money and how users engage with the product.
This process forces you to do two key things: 1) understand the key levers in the product and business and 2) make assumptions about pieces of info you don’t know. For more on the process, here is a sample model our CEO put together in 2014 for a role at delivery company Postmates.
Inevitably, building a model will reveal gaps in your understanding: those gaps are great question material!
Tactic #3: Put on Your Investor “hat”
Product management is a high accountability role and requires a mindset of an owner: you need to be always thinking about what’s broken, what could be better. The following exercise then is helpful: imagine the company you’re interviewing for approached you and asked if you’d be interested in investing 100% of your life savings in them.
What questions would you need to ask them and understand the answers to before you said yes? Again, that list of questions you generate will be gold.
Competition for product management roles is intense. Asking great questions is an overlooked, but extremely effective, tool to set yourself apart in the interview process. Better still, it’s a win-win process: the exercise of generating great questions builds your own knowledge and helps you prepare for the whole interview too.