So you’re a product leader, and need to hire a PM. If you work at a company like Amazon or Google, you’ve likely got a robust infrastructure to lean on: a recruiting team to help screen candidates, question banks honed from thousands of PM interviews, and calibrated interview panelists on standby.
But what about the rest of us? This playbook will help you reduce subjectivity, save time deliberating on candidates, and above all, hire great product managers -- all with a fraction of the resources of FAANG.
First, a little context on my perspective:
I’ll walk you through each step, using concrete examples:
An obvious-in-hindsight mistake many product teams make is not testing candidates on attributes they value post-hire. This is a bit like holding tryouts for the basketball team by testing tennis skills. You may end up finding good PMs, but it will lead to misaligned expectations for them and company, and costly hiring mistakes.
So it’s imperative that your company articulate the attributes you want PMs to embody.
Let’s illustrate with an example: my fictional bike-sharing company, Mike’s Bikes:
💡 Candidate tip: ask your recruiter or hiring manager what PM attributes they look for. Bonus points for the company if they’ve outlined this publicly on their blog or website.
Many PMs will spike in some areas and be average in others. And you likely don’t have time to deeply test each attribute. So it’s important to decide which of your attributes are deal breakers vs. nice-to-haves.
💡 Candidate tip: no one is expecting you to be A+ in each category. Identify your strengths and highlight them (more on that here).
There are many different ways to interview PMs, but I’d summarize the most common formats as:
Product skills assessment:
Soft skills assessment
Now we need to align what we want to test for (attributes) with how we test for them (interview formats).
A couple pointers:
Product managers are the ultimate dot connectors, working closely with partners from engineering, design, product marketing, sales, performance & lifecycle marketing, operations and leadership. So it’s important to get a diverse set of interviewers on your panel.
Depending on the size and makeup of your company, this may need to be tweaked, but here’s a sample for Mike’s Bikes:
💡 Candidate tip: familiarize yourself with each of these panelist roles, and be ready to “speak their language.” For example, emphasizing an unexpectedly delightful user experience may resonate more with a Designer or PM than a VP of Sales.
For each interview, we now need to define the 1) the prompts and 2) rubric used to grade responses. I recommend creating a single document containing both that can be easily shared with panelists, and copied for each new candidate.
Here a sample product case study I’ve used for round 1 PM interviews.
Make a copy of this document to conduct your interview, take notes, and grade the candidate.
This is the initial phone or video call with the PM Lead, PM, or PMM before the candidate reaches round 2. Interviewers will score the candidate across the following 4 attributes. See the rubric for more guidance on grading candidates.
Length of interview: 60 mins
Hi [candidate], excited to speak with you today. We’ll start by getting to know each other briefly, then spend most of our time working through a product case study together. At the end, I’ll save time to answer questions you have about our company, product, role, or anything at all.
Sound good? Let’s get to it.
Before we jump in, a little bit about myself:
Part 1: High level scoping
Let’s say you were a Product Manager at Airbnb, and an executive came to you with an idea to allow guests to book cars through the Airbnb platform, as an add-on to Homes (places to stay) and Experiences (curated travel experiences).
📌 Alternative question: a Spotify executive wants to create a video tab in the Spotify app.
📌 As much as possible, tee the candidate up, then get out of the way. Awkward pauses are to be expected.
Part 2: Use case details
Let’s say the idea was greenlit, and we need to dig into the details.
Thanks so much for going through that with me. Now the floor is yours.
📌 This is a good way to gauge the candidate’s genuine interest in your company. They’ve just gone through an exhausting exercise and their guard may be down. Look for deep interest in your product, mission, and team, not surface-level questions.
Some guiding principles on grading:
This isn’t Jeopardy: do not judge the candidate on coming up with specific details. Though they should find their way to reasonable solutions, their thought process and high level structure are what we are judging them on.
Don’t expect perfection: PM’s don’t actually scope new opportunities in short video calls, so have tolerance for some rough edges to their responses.
If it’s not an easy yes, it’s an easy no: If you find yourself agonizing between scoring a candidate as a 2 or 3, go with 2.
Score the candidates from 1 to 3 on each of the key attributes:
Add any concerns that you’d like other panelists to dig into:
Investing in this process is a non-trivial amount of work, but it will lead to compounding benefits as your company and team grow:
Finally, I hope this playbook will be a useful tool, but it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all: test it, tweak it, and make it your own.
✋ I’m always looking to iterate on this. Have feedback? Shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MikeLyngaas.
Thank you to Packy McCormick, Stephanie Long, and Kenton Kivestu for reviewing drafts of this post.
Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.