How to interview product managers
Interview structure, skills to test, questions to ask, project examples, and more
👋 Hey, I’m Lenny and welcome to a 🔒 subscriber-only edition 🔒 of my weekly newsletter. Each week I tackle reader questions about product, growth, working with humans, and anything else that’s stressing you out about work. Send me your questions and in return I’ll humbly offer actionable real-talk advice. Now, on to this week’s post…
Q: How should I structure my PM interview process?
I can understand why so many people are befuddled by interviewing product managers—the role is so endlessly undefined, how can non-PMs possibly know what to interview for? As Gergely Orosz (ex-Uber, Microsoft, Skype engineer) confessed in a tweet, “we EMs have no clue how to do these. At first, you wing it; by the third time, everyone has their own, completely different setup.”
In my chat with Harry Stebbings last week, I shared a bit of advice on this, but it was quite brief. So let’s get much deeper. Below, I’ll share suggestions for:
Structuring your PM interview process
What specific skills to test for
My favorite interview questions
How to structure an interview project (plus a bunch of real-life examples)
Tips to get them to take your offer
Disclaimer: People have strong opinions about how to interview, but very few people have enough data (or have looked at their data) to know if their interview assumptions are actually predictive of performance. Interview best practices are generally anecdotal, so definitely do your own research.
With that, let’s get into it.
How to structure your PM interview process
High-level, I’d set up your interview process like so:
Recruiter phone screen [30 minutes, optional]: Make sure the candidate meets the minimum requirements for the role and is likely to be a fit for the organization. Focus on their expectations for the role, basic skill questions, personality fit (e.g. not an asshole), and their interview timelines. About 50% of candidates should make it through this step.
Hiring manager phone screen [30 minutes]: Make sure there is a strong chance that the candidate is a fit for the role. Focus on getting to know the person as a human, the role, and a couple skills or attributes that you believe to be most important to this role (more on this below). About 40% to 50% of candidates should make it through this step.
A full-day interview [4-5 hours]: The day is made up of two parts:
A project (done at home before arriving, in the office, or live), sharing what they came up with, with a group of potential colleagues
Three to six 1:1 interviews with potential colleagues, each testing for a key PM skill
Post-interview panel discussion [30-60 minutes]: Each interviewer blind votes Strong No, No, Yes, or Strong Yes. Share your vote, discuss, and then the hiring manager makes a decision.
Reference checks: Ping their references (and backchannel) to make sure you aren’t missing anything.
Make an offer: Put together a compelling offer, share it with them, and try like hell to get them to accept.
To benchmark a typical hiring funnel, I asked Benji Encz, CEO of the recruiting platform Ashby, to share stats he had on conversion rates at each step, and wow, did he deliver. Here are hot-off-the-presses stats his team pulled for me, based on over 75,000 recent applications across high-growth tech companies. Takeaway: You need to talk to an average of 23 PM candidates to hire one great one.
“Many early-stage teams underestimate how many candidates they need to speak to to make one hire. In our data we also saw that only 13% of inbound applicants even make it to the first screen. You will either need a lot of inbound, or more likely, you will have to fill the funnel with sourced candidates and referrals.”
—Benji Encz, CEO of Ashby
I would be remiss if I didn’t plug my new Talent Collective here, which is quickly becoming the single best place to find and hire product managers—and help you find your next dream gig. Learn more here.
What skills to interview for
There are 10 core skills of product management, but assuming you’re interviewing an IC PM (i.e. not a manager), you can whittle it down to these six:
Interestingly, product sense isn’t ever on PM career ladders, but it is something that companies interview for, so I’ve included it in the list above.
What interview questions to ask
I wrote a whole post sharing my favorite PM interview questions, so definitely go read that, but here’s a sampling:
Collaboration: Tell me about a time you disagreed with an engineer on your team and how you resolved it.
Execution: Pick a project you’re proud of that took 3-9 months. Walk me through it from beginning to end. I’ll ask questions along the way. [Give this ~7-10 minutes]
Strategy: Pick a product you worked on in the past year—talk me through your strategy for it.
Customer insights: Tell me about a time you did user research on a product/feature and that research had a big impact on the product.
Impact: What’s the most important or impactful product you shipped? What made it so important or impactful? Would it have been as impactful without you, and why?
Product sense: How would you improve feature x in our product?
This full post includes what to look for in the answers, red flags, and a ton more great interview questions to inspire you. Seriously, go check it out.
And don’t forget to keep your questions consistent, with predefined good and bad answers, to avoid bias.
“Companies should rely on a structured interview that standardizes the process among candidates, eliminating much subjectivity. These interviews pose the same set of questions in the same order to all candidates, allowing clearer comparisons between them.”
—Iris Bohnet, Harvard Business Review
I’ve found the project portion of the PM interview process to be the most informative component of the interview. It’s the only time you’ll get to see the candidate tackle a chunky new problem, be able to watch them in action, and have a discussion about it. Though some people don’t include it, I couldn’t imagine a PM interview without it.
“Years later I can see that the performance on the project was closely related to their success at Slack over the course of years.”
—Merci Grace, former Head of Growth at Slack
The goal of the project is to get a taste of how a candidate approaches a new problem. Most importantly, you aren’t looking at how close they got to the right answer. Instead, you are looking at how they break down the problem, how they structure their solution, and how they communicate it to you. Often the discussion afterward is even more valuable than the prompt itself.
You have two options for delivering the project:
Before the interview: Give them a project before the full-day interview, to work on at home in some timeboxed amount of time. They then share what they came up with when they come in (or Zoom in) for the full-day interview.
The day of the interview: Give them a project at the beginning of the interview day, with a timeboxed amount of time for them to work on it (e.g. 90 minutes). Once they are done, they share what they’ve come up with.