Hiring the right product manager often comes down to the questions you ask in an interview. And just about every experienced product leader has their go-to questions for systemizing the process.
When you make a full-time product manager hire, you’re not just hiring for the short-term need, but you’re committing to the ability to deliver on your long-term product strategy. On top of this, hiring for product manager roles is particularly challenging because the role is amorphous and ambiguous, changing depending on the needs of the company and the specific projects the product manager is working on.
There is a finite amount of time you have with a candidate, and it will never be enough to evaluate all the important skills you are hoping to see in your new product manager.
This is where insightful product management interview questions come in — but just having the right questions is not enough. You also need to have the right interview structure and the knowledge to avoid making common, but avoidable, mistakes.
We asked seven product leaders who have run product teams at companies like Lyft, Slack, Thumbtack, and Netflix to help explain why hiring is so important, how to set up a structured product manager interview process, what their favorite product management interview questions are, and how to avoid some of the most common interview mistakes.
Meet The Contributors
As a Product and Growth Executive, Adam Fishman has built some of the fastest-growing B2C and B2B2C companies of the past decade like Patreon and Lyft. He is the author of the FishmanAF Newsletter and the creator and host of the Startup Dad Podcast. He lives in SF Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and retriever Baxter.Learn More
Fareed is the former Chief Development Officer at Reforge and was formerly a Director of Product at Slack, focused on growth in the freemium, self-service business. Previously, he led growth and product teams at Instacart, Zynga, and other startups. Fareed is one of Silicon Valley’s foremost experts on product-led growth in both consumer and bottoms-up SaaS companies.Learn More
Matt is the CTO at Reforge. He brings a unique cross-functional perspective on product, growth, and engineering after more than a decade leading engineering teams and shipping product in both B2B and B2C companies as VP of Engineering @ Credit Karma and CoSo Cloud.Learn More
Helen is the VP of Product at Reforge. Prior to that, she was a Product Lead at Airbnb leading a team of 75+ focused on growing, retaining, and improving the success of the host community. She also worked at Zynga.Learn More
Ben was the VP of Product & Growth at Thumbtack where he rebuilt the Product team and Thumbtack's Growth levers, re-architected the revenue model, and helped 3X Thumbtack's Growth within 3 years. Prior to Thumbtack, Ben was at Lyft for 6 years (employee #30 until IPO) where he primarily led the Supply side of Product to reach 1% of US workers driving for Lyft every month.Learn More
Tom is a former Executive in Residence at Reforge and was previously Opendoor’s Chief Product Officer. Prior to Opendoor, he was Chief Product Officer at Coursera, where he helped to scale the company from $1 million to $100 million in revenue. He also led product teams at Netflix as VP of Product.Learn More
Ravi is the Co-Founder and CEO of Outpace and an active angel/advisor in consumer tech companies. His focus includes social, gaming, travel, healthcare, and marketplaces. Previously, he was an EIR at Reforge, CPO @ Tinder, and a product leader @ Meta, Tripadvisor, and Xbox.Learn More
3 Steps to Creating a Structured Product Managers Interview Process
Even if you have the best interview guide in the world, it won’t matter if you haven’t structured the product manager interview process appropriately. While it might seem obvious to have a structure or a process, it does require a time investment. And most people miss a critical point: ensuring enough consistency so that the interviewers can actually calibrate and determine who the best product manager is.
“A group of individuals, in my experience, is never able to calibrate on candidates unless there is a strict structure.”
– Ben Lauzier, former VP of Product & Growth at Thumbtack
There are three steps to creating a structured product manager interview process:
- Determine what areas you are evaluating for the specific role
- Determine the number, goal, and sequence of the interviews
- Determine who is going to be interviewing the candidates
Step 1: Determine what areas you are evaluating for the specific role.
Standardizing evaluation areas allows you to consistently evaluate whether a product manager can fill your immediate needs and also add value in different ways. Instead of evaluating all possible skills or competencies a product manager could have, you need to focus on the short and long-term aspirations of the specific product manager role you are looking to fill.
“At most, you can evaluate 4-5 competencies during the whole product manager interview process.”
– Matt Greenberg, Chief Technology Officer at Reforge
When choosing from what areas to evaluate, you can look at both product-specific and company-specific skills, competencies, and values. If you don’t already have clear expectations for product managers, you can leverage the Product Competency Model to figure out what competencies you want to interview for. If your company-specific values or principles are also critical to product success, you should consider which ones you need to include as a standard evaluation area.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can move on to the mechanics of the interview process.
Step 2: Determine the number, sequence, and goal of interviews.
All candidates should have the same flow through the interview process. At each stage of the process, you might be looking for something different.
A relatively standard product manager interview process includes four touch-points:
- Initial review
- First-round interview
- Second-round interview
At each touch-point, you want to be clear on the goal of the interview and make sure the interviewer is well aware of that goal.
“I have each person on the interview panel take a different attribute to evaluate.”
– Tom Willerer, former Chief Product Officer at Coursera
Not all product manager interviews have to be 1:1 or even within the product organization. The goal of the interview will help you determine if a stage is going to use case studies, a presentation, a team project, or if there should be multiple interviewers participating.
Step 3: Determine who is going to interview the product manager candidates.
This step is what makes the difference between having just any interview process to having one that enables to effective calibration of many product manager candidates.
In an ideal world, you want to select the people who are going to be a part of the interviewing process before starting to recruit for the new role. The real key for reducing variability and inconsistency of outcomes is making sure those same people are a part of the entire product manager interview process.
“If different people see different candidates or different presentations, the integrity of the process breaks down.”
– Ravi Mehta, former Chief Product Officer at Tinder
Within a structured interview process, the questions you choose to ask in the interviews can make it easier (or impossible) for you to truly evaluate your candidates. You want to be thoughtful about what questions you ask candidates at what stage in the process to ensure you’re getting the information you need about whether or not they should advance to the next stage.
7 Product Manager Interview Questions from Product Experts
There are hundreds of potential product manager interview questions you could ask candidates out in the ether. Oftentimes, it’s repetition and learning from others that help you narrow down what interview questions drive the responses that enable a true candidate evaluation.
To give you a stronger starting point, we are sharing top product manager interview questions from Reforge’s product experts. There are two categories of interview questions we find are most popular with our Reforge experts:
- Scenario-based or case-study inspired
- Based on a candidate’s past experience
Case-study and scenario-based interview questions
Product Manager Interview Question #1
- Contributor: Adam Fishman, Interim Chief Product and Technology Officer at ResortPass
- Question: Provide a hypothetical backlog and go through a prioritization exercise with them
- Why: This interview question and resulting exercise lets you understand how the candidate makes decisions as a product manager and if they can articulate their assumptions. A good answer starts with the candidate asking questions about your product strategy, product goals, and discovery done to date.
Product Manager Interview Question #2
- Contributor: Ben Lauzier, former VP of Product and Growth at Thumbtack
- Question: Design a personal finance application.
- Why: You’re looking for the candidate's ability to outline the problem, make reasonable assumptions, ideate, and come up with viable solutions. This interview question requires the interviewer to be quite involved to push the candidate on their thinking.
Product Manager Interview Question #3
- From: Fareed Mosavat, Chief Development Officer at Reforge
- Question: You’ve just been hired as the first product manager at [well-known feature, such as Instagram search]. There are no metrics of any kind yet. What sort of data would help you determine the health of this feature?
- Why: This interview question helps evaluate if a product manager candidate is able to convert strategy into metrics, which is critical for the role. A great answer involves the candidate really anchoring around the goal of the feature and striving to understand the company goals, so they can operate within that context. Great answers to this question also end with a narrow set of metrics, highlighting the candidate’s ability to focus on what is the most important rather than everything possible.
Interview questions based on previous experiences and decisions
Product Manager Interview Question #4
- Contributor: Tom Willerer, former Chief Product Officer at Coursera
- Question: Tell me about a time you advocated for something that others didn’t believe in. How did you develop conviction even when others didn’t have it? How did you get enough organizational buy-in to allow you to move forward with this initiative?
- Why: This type of question helps you find product managers that are able to think for themselves and build their own intuition, instead of just executing on others’ product vision.
Product Manager Interview Question #5
- Contributor: Helen Smith, VP of Product at Reforge
- Question: Why did you choose to work at [previous company]? Why did you choose to leave?
- Why: This helps hiring managers understand how candidates make decisions. A good answer shows self-reflection and honesty. It is usually clear when someone takes accountability and can describe their thought process. A bad answer is when they just read through their resume or focus on what other people did wrong.
Product Manager Interview Question #6
- Contributor: Fareed Mosavat, Chief Development Officer at Reforge
- Question: What’s a time when you were certain about a feature/product and you turned out to be completely wrong?
- Why: This type of question can highlight a product manager’s sense of ownership, impact, and ability to influence people. A good answer looks like a reasoned and reflective explanation of why they didn’t succeed, a clear description of their agency in the situation, and a demonstration of accountability. A bad answer looks like blaming peers and not taking responsibility.
Product Manager Interview Question #7
- Contributor: Matt Greenberg, Chief Technology Officer at Reforge
- Question: Tell me about a project you worked on in the last two years that you are most proud of; give me the context, actions you took, and results and learnings.
- Why: The key to this product manager interview question is in the follow-ups from the interviewer. This question can be used for almost all types of open roles, but it’s important the interviewer knows what to listen for. Once the candidate can set the stage with a scenario they are familiar with, you can ask follow-up questions based on the specific product competencies you are looking for or behaviors you want them to explain.
5 Product Manager Interview Mistakes Most Hiring Managers Make
The best product manager interviews enable the hiring team to really understand what the product manager has done and is capable of doing in the future. There are a few mistakes the interviewing team commonly makes — but if you can avoid them, you’re more likely to have a focused and impactful hiring process.
Interview Mistake #1: Letting candidates get away with saying “we.”
Because there are so many confounding parts to the product manager role, it is quite critical to use follow-up questions to understand the person’s specific role on the product team or in the project.
“Unless you understand someone’s role in a situation, you don’t really know who you are hiring. It would be like a basketball player saying their team scored 120 points without knowing which position they played.”
– Helen Smith, VP of Product at Reforge
Interview Mistake #2: Not asking follow-up questions to dig into specifics.
A lot of interviewers don’t get into the details, for a variety of reasons: the high-level story is interesting, they are focused on getting through all of their interview questions, or they are trying to check the boxes too quickly. Focusing on specifics helps verify the story the candidate is telling you.
“If someone really did something in real life, they have the nitty-gritty details of what happened and can happily wade into the muck to walk you through it.”
– Matt Greenberg, Chief Technology Officer at Reforge
Mistake #3: Not parsing out the environment or other confounding factors with actual performance.
A candidate needs to take accountability for mistakes and failures, but a product manager’s impact is often influenced by many other factors in the company. As the interviewer, it’s your job to try and separate the situation from the person’s capabilities. The goal is for you to understand the candidate’s way of thinking and behaviors to see if those would be successful in your own company’s environment.
“Within each behavior, I’m trying to understand and separate the environment from the person, to see how it would apply here.”
– Matt Greenberg, Chief Technology Officer at Reforge
Mistake #4: Using a scenario you’re more familiar with than the candidate.
It is really common to use scenario-based questions in product manager interviews. These questions are supposed to test how a candidate thinks, and it's often easiest for the interviewer to design a scenario about their company or industry.
If you do this, then you are going into the interview with much more data and context than the candidate and you might end up evaluating the candidate’s familiarity (or luck) with your product or industry rather than their actual thought process.
Instead, design a scenario that the candidate is familiar with, for example, by picking a very popular product or by outlining a scenario where the candidate chooses what product they want to use.
Mistake #5: Asking questions where you’ve decided the right answer.
While you want to understand what a bad, good, and great answer looks like, if you have a “right” answer to your question, you run into two problems. First, you can only use the question in very specific situations rather than have a dynamic question that you can reuse for different scenarios. Second, you end up only listening for the right answer rather than listening for the qualities and skills you’re trying to identify.
Invest In The Product Manager Interview Process
We can’t emphasize enough that hiring a product manager is a critical decision. Having the right product managers on your team is what allows you to meet company goals, spend your own time thinking strategically, and adapt to future unforeseen challenges.
Set yourself up for success by investing in a structured product manager interview process and standardizing the competencies you’re evaluating for. Be thoughtful about the interview questions you choose to ask and don’t underestimate your role when interviewing.
The objective of this investment is to set yourself up to be able to adequately calibrate among candidates and to truly determine if you’ve interviewed the product manager who is right for your team. It’ll be hard to find a better payoff than a good hire!
For more insights on how to conduct a debrief, identify the skill gaps on your team, and onboard new product managers effectively, sign up now to join the Product Leadership program.