The role of software product manager is integral to the process of building the right product and building the product the right way. And while it’s easy to assume that you can find someone fairly quickly, the reality is that this is a very specialized position that requires a very specialized search. 

Software product managers have a lot on their plates. They must be able to form a vision for the product, socialize it to stakeholders and communicate that to the development team. They need to lead teams through product discovery, including being capable of performing deep competitor analysis and customer research into the needs and unmet needs in the marketplace. Other responsibilities include developing a product roadmap and backlog, working closely with the engineering team during product delivery, getting stakeholders on the same page, gathering and analyzing data, and measuring outcomes through detailed KPIs and metrics.

A good software product manager is managing the various risks of product development. At the core of product management, and particularly in discovery, are four risks: value, usability, feasibility and viability.  Value risk is concerned with whether customers will either buy or use the product, usability risk is focused on whether users can use the product, feasibility risk looks at whether engineering can realistically build it, and finally, business viability risk is about whether this will work for our business.

Finding the right software product manager requires a thorough and strategic recruitment process. But once you’ve got them in the interview room, I’ve found it useful to have a quiver of questions to draw on in order to surface the right candidate. It may be helpful to think about this in terms of the following categories:

Questions to Ask About Skillset

I find it useful to start with a simple question, tell me about yourself?  Then to begin to explore their skillset and background. This will give you some valuable insights into how they think and approach their job.

  • What makes a good user story? Another simple question, but don’t be fooled, this one is rarely answered well.  It pulls back the curtain on their actual knowledge of the development lifecycle.  Look for an understanding of business value, collaboration, artifacts (like story mapping), and the importance of acceptance criteria.
  • Describe your process for product discovery and product delivery? Zooming out, I want to hear a good comprehension of the product development lifecycle.  Candidates should describe how product discovery informs what the right product to build is, and product delivery is how we build it right. I’m really looking for a description of continuous discovery, with a description of a regular sustained practice of customer research and experiments to inform product development.
  • How do you prioritize what to build? This is where I expect to understand how they prioritize a product backlog in the context of value and continuous discovery.
  • What should a roadmap have on it? A product roadmap and a product backlog are separate artifacts, a good software product manager can describe the difference and what makes a good roadmap.
  • What have you learned about saying no? This question can catch people off guard. They’ll pause, and maybe you’ll see their wheels turning. Listen carefully to their answer, as it will tell you about their maturation as both a person and a professional.
  • Tell me about your biggest mistakes? Most people are prepared for the question about their biggest weaknesses, but this question tries to dig a layer deeper. It forces them to come up with examples of mistakes they’ve made (which then allows you to assess what their weaknesses might be) and how they might have applied any learnings. This helps you get around soft answers that attempt to turn the weaknesses into a strength.
  • Tell me about a time you needed to get a team to commit? This speaks to the candidate’s ability to rally people and coalesce them around a specific task. 

Screening for Technical Capabilities

Next, ask a couple of questions about their technical capabilities and viewpoints:

  • Is having a tech background an advantage? Why or why not? A tech background can be an advantage and a disadvantage for a software product manager, I’m looking for self awareness and examples of why that is.
  • Who is responsible for the future cost of change? Does the candidate understand tech debt, how do they think about it, when is it acceptable and how should the team manage it.
  • Who is responsible for quality? Again, this is another question about mindset and ideology. Be wary of people who push quality off on certain individuals or positions. Quality is a team effort and must be prioritized at every level.

Questions to Ask About Culture Fit

It’s not enough to have someone who has the skills and technical capabilities to be a good software product manager. You also need someone who is going to effortlessly integrate with the team and be a solid fit within your culture. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Who is the best engineer you’ve ever worked with and why? You’ll get some really interesting answers to this question. It’ll show you what traits and skills the candidate believes are most important.
  • How would your current manager describe your strengths/weaknesses? This is a slight twist on the classic strengths/weaknesses question. It can show how good their EQ is but really it tends to prevent my weakness is my strength type of response. Also gives you some useful information for when you call around and ask for references. When you call previous managers, do their assessments of the candidate align with their own? Or is there a lack of self-awareness at play?
  • Tell me about a time when you took the blame for the team? Any good manager has to take the blame from time to time, but I’m looking for examples where they really showed up and gave the team cover, how it made them feel and what they learned.
  • Tell me something you’ve recently learned? Listen carefully to the answers here, I’m looking for a curious mindset. Not only do you want to know what they’ve learned, but it’s also helpful to think about where and how they learned it. Are they immersing themselves in a variety of learning environments, or are they on a singular track?
  • What kinds of people do you like/dislike working with? This question is interesting because it forces the candidate to be honest. At this point in the process, they may not know the dynamic of your team. So they can’t tailor their answer to what you want to hear.
  • Do you consider yourself a lucky person? This is another question that people typically aren’t prepared for. Do they believe in luck and how do they assess it? All of us have had some kind of good and bad luck. Do they believe it’s random or some kind of personal trait?  A personal trait will likely be attributed to hard work. Do your best to press in here and see what they mean by hard work.

Streamlining the Interview Process

The above are some example questions you might ask in your interviews for software product managers, but it’s still up to you to design an intentional process. As always, it’s a good idea to interview multiple candidates and to have multiple rounds of interviews with stakeholders across your organization. Being patient and thorough will yield better results and eventually help you land the right hire for your team.