Hiring a product manager

I’ve interviewed probably 100+ folks in my career so far and it’s probably the most rewarding, yet draining aspect of what I do. Building a team is super critical in any function but hiring good PMs is unbelievably hard, not only because a large chunk of the skills I’m looking for aren’t learnable but also because the cost of a bad hire is unusually high. Over the years, I’ve refined my process a fair bit and hence, writing this down in case someone finds useful. Also, I’m bored of these questions so want to ask newer stuff.

There are three big spikes I look for whenever I interview a PM candidate. Just noting down the interview questions I asked which helped me extract the nuggets that I wanted

  1. Influencing ability
  2. User empathy
  3. Raw smarts

Influencing ability

Being a missionary is incredibly important as a PM since it is a role with no direct reporting structures. It’s pretty much table stakes to play. My first typical question when I was in Bangalore was to ask where the candidate lived? Whatever the response, the follow-up was always, say it’s 11 PM in the night, you’ve just stepped out of the Forum mall and your phone battery has died. I’m the only auto driver that you can see and I ask for Rs. 500 to take you home. Convince me otherwise!

The objective here was to firmly establish that I’m lower than the candidate in social status and intellectual ability and yet, they have no ability to influence me. Only one person has ever blown me away in this setup since they just had a normal conversation and didn’t treat me like an alien.

A similar setup I’ve used often and now discarded is to get people to make a hard tradeoff for well-known products. For instance, let’s say you’re the PM for Homepods. The existing speakers have a few software bugs for which the engg team has developed a fix already and is ready to ship. However, the new version of these speakers is going out next week and the head of marketing fears that issuing a patch will get fewer people to upgrade. What do you do? BTW, anyone who’s ever suggested not doing the patch-fix has been promptly rejected leading into a nice segue to the second section.

User empathy

This is a pretty unlearnable skill. There are very few people who feel physical pain when someone else is inconvenienced. Detecting this skill is actually easiest since people with high empathy cannot hide a grimace when making hard feature trade-offs! However, the hard thing to decipher is how pragmatic they’re willing to be while making this trade-off.

I’ve had multiple variations of this question over the years. The most typical one is to re-design the UI of a household appliance, let’s say washing machine. Every machine has 4 key input variables:

1/ How soiled are the clothes?

2/ Do they need hot or cold water?

3/ What type of cloth is it: linen, denim, wool, etc.?

4/ Start with a delay or immediately?

My ideal state is to just throw the clothes in the machine and walk away without saying/doing anything else. How do I build the UI to get as close to this experience as possible? What are the tradeoffs we need to make and what situation can make a user unhappy?

Raw smarts

The idea here is to determine the %ile ability of a person to blow everyone’s mind in a room. Compared to the other two skills, the distribution of this skill has a higher standard deviation and hence, a bit easier to find. Questions of this domain are of two types

a/ open-ended biz questions e.g., a firm has been growing at 20% y-o-y for 5 years but this year, it grew 100%. What all could have happened? Is there a situation where this is undesirable? or

b/ standard math/stats/probability puzzles depending on how data-centric a role I’m hiring in. I generally make it lighter for folks who’ll manage backend services or new products where hustle matters more than optimization.

Hope you find this useful! Cheers


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