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How to interview software product managers

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Software product managers are integral to building the right product. It’s easy to think that you can quickly find someone, but this is a highly specialized job that requires a very specific search.

Software product managers have many responsibilities. They need to be able create a vision for the product and socialize it with stakeholders. They must be able to manage teams and conduct competitor analysis, customer research and product discovery. Other responsibilities include creating a product roadmap, backlog, working closely alongside the engineering team during product development, getting stakeholders on board, collecting and analyzing data and measuring outcomes using detailed KPIs.

Good software product managers manage the many risks involved in product development. The core of product management and especially in discovery are four key risks: viability, value, usability and feasibility. The value risk concerns whether customers will buy or use the product. Usability risk is about whether users are able to use it. Fidelity risk examines whether engineering can build it realistically. Finally, there is business viability risk.

A thorough and strategic process is required to find the right software product manager. Once you have them in the interview room though, it is helpful to have a list of questions in case they aren’t quite ready. This may help you think of it in the following categories:

Questions to ask about Skillset

It is helpful to begin with a simple question: Tell me about yourself. Next, you can begin to learn about their background and skills. You will gain valuable insight into their thinking and approach to their job.

  • What is a great user story? This is a simple question but it’s not hard to answer. This allows them to see the real development process. You should have a good understanding of business value, collaboration, artifacts, such as story mapping, and the importance acceptance criteria.
  • Please describe your product discovery and delivery process. Zooming in, I would like to have a clear understanding of the product development process. Candidates must explain how product discovery determines the best product to build, and how product delivery helps us build it right. I am looking for continuous discovery and a description about customer research and product development.
  • How do you decide what products to build? I’m interested in learning how they prioritize product backlogs within the context of value, continuous discovery, and continuous improvement.
  • What should a roadmap include? Product roadmap and product backlog are two distinct artifacts. A good software product manager will be able to explain the differences and what makes a great roadmap.
  • What lessons have you learned about saying “no”? This question can be a surprise to some people. You might see them pause and start to move. Pay attention to what they say. It will reveal a lot about your maturation as a professional and as a person.
  • Please tell me about your worst mistakes. While most people know what their greatest weaknesses are, this question digs deeper. This forces them to give examples of their mistakes (which allows you to evaluate what weaknesses they may have and how they might have used any lessons learned. This allows you to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
  • Tell me about an instance when you had to convince a group of people to agree to a task. This is a sign of the candidate’s ability and willingness to mobilize others to a common goal.

Screening to Assess Technical Capabilities

Next, ask them a few questions about their technical abilities and views.

  • Are tech backgrounds an advantage? Why or why not? Software product managers can have a technical background, which can be a benefit or a disadvantage. I am looking for examples and self-awareness to show why.
  • Who will be responsible for future costs of change? Do they understand tech debt? How do they view it? When is it acceptable? How should the team handle it.
  • Who is responsible to ensure quality? This is another question that concerns mindset and ideology. People who insist on quality over others or in certain positions are to be avoided. Quality is a team effort that must be prioritized at all levels.

Questions about Culture

It is not enough to possess the technical skills to manage software products. It is also important to find someone who can seamlessly integrate with your team and fit into your culture. These are some questions you should ask:

  • Which engineer is your favorite and why? This question will provide some very interesting answers. This will show you which skills and traits the candidate considers most important.
  • How would your current manager describe your strengths/weaknesses? This question is slightly different to the traditional strengths/weaknesses. This can be used to show their EQ, but it doesn’t really allow them to answer the “My weakness is my strength” question. It also gives you useful information to call references and get their opinions. Do the previous managers’ assessments of the candidate match yours? Is there an absence of self-awareness?
  • Do you remember a time when your team was under your control? Every manager must take some responsibility from time to time. But I want to see examples of managers who really gave their all and helped the team. Let me know how they felt and what they learned.
  • Let me know what you have learned recently. Pay attention to what you have to say. I am looking for curious minds. You want to know the things they have learned. It’s also useful to consider where it was learned and how it was learned. Do they prefer to be immersed in multiple learning environments or do they stick to a single track?
  • Which types of people do your like/dislike to work with? This question is very interesting as it forces candidates to be truthful. They may not be familiar with the dynamics of your team at this stage. They won’t be able to tailor their answers to your needs.
  • Are you a lucky person or not? This is a question most people are not prepared to answer. How do they evaluate luck? Everyone has experienced some form of luck, good or bad. Are they assuming it’s random luck or a personal trait? Hard work is likely to be the cause of a personal trait. Try to be as persistent as possible and find out what hard work means.

Streamlining Interview Process

These are just some examples of questions that you might ask during interviews for software product manager candidates. However, it is up to you to create an intentional process. It’s a good idea for software product managers to interview multiple candidates, and for them to be interviewed in multiple rounds with all stakeholders. You will get better results if you are patient and thorough.

Stuart Cook published the article How to Interview Product Managers.