Good questions to ask PMs in your interviews

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: May 14, 2019

Every smart candidate knows they'll need to prepare thoroughly for their product management interviews.

However, most candidates focus their prep exclusively on answering questions and completely overlook the importance of preparing questions to ask their interviewers.

In this post, we'll do our best to convince you of the value of asking great questions, cover a few strong sample questions and suggest exercises to help you generate your own insightful questions.

The cardinal sin: no questions for your PM interviewers

Do not go into a PM interview without preparing questions for your interviewer.

Just because your interviewer asks: "Do you have any questions for me?" doesn't mean you're off the hook. Winging it or asking generic questions here can kill your chances at landing a PM job.

The value of asking great questions

Now for the good news: asking great questions can boost your chances of landing a role.

Here's why PMs highly value candidates who ask great questions:

  • It demonstrates that you have got enough interest to think about the product and/or company in advance. If you can't be bothered to do that, interviewers will be skeptical that you would put the effort in on the job.
  • A primary driver of success in the product management role is knowing which questions to ask: whether it's probing for insights from your customer base or evaluating the risks of a certain product decision with your engineering lead. Showing that you're asking the right questions of your interviewer is a strong signal that you'll have a knack for this on the job.
  • Product managers often index highly on intellectual curiosity and therefore screen for this in interviews. Asking thoughtful, well prepared questions during an interview is an easy way to demonstrate your unique curiosity in the role and the company.

A starter list of solid questions to consider asking in your PM interviews

Heads up! This is not a "one size fits all" exercise. The list below is simply a starting point. You should riff off of it, expand upon it and craft questions tailored to the specific role you're interviewing for and your unique perspective.

Questions on the product management organization and company

How would you define the organization's product philosophy?

Each product organization has its own values and operating styles. For example, some companies are extremely quantitative and do detailed analysis and experimentation before launching anything (e.g., social gaming companies like Zynga), while others rely on product intuition and belief in what users want (e.g., Apple is famously intuition driven). There is no right answer but an infinite supply of different philosophies.

What's the most important skill for product managers in your organization?

Expectations of PMs at different companies (and even within companies) can vary tremendously. Some companies strongly prefer to hire PMs with a strong technical background (e.g., Google), while others, like Amazon, put significantly more emphasis on core business skills (as a result, they recruit heavily from MBA schools).

What does the lifecycle of a regular feature look like?

Every company conceives, develops and releases features differently. Understanding a representative example can be helpful in highlighting what tactical responsibilities a PM might take on there. Picking a particular feature from the product you like and asking "Can you tell me about the process to launch X?" can be very helpful.

How often do you ship?

At the end of the day, a PMs job is to ship products. Cadence will vary depending on company, specific product and the product's lifecycle. For example, products might need multi-year product cycles to ship (e.g., working on hardware like Fitbit or Apple Watch) versus consumer apps which might ship weekly or even daily (e.g., Facebook, Twitter or Netflix). The day-to-day life of a PM on those products will be vastly different.

Questions about the product, roadmap and industry

What are the major step function improvements the product needs in the next 5 years?

The goal here is to learn about the product vision. While it's a simple question, it can help illuminate how set (or open) the high level roadmap is, give insight into a company's unique take and illuminate the clarity of thought (or lack thereof) in a product strategy.

What's the most contentious feature the product team currently debates building? What are the arguments for and against it?

This type of question can be useful to understand what key tradeoffs of the team wrestles with, the nature of important features they're considering in the future and is likely to yield an animated response from the interviewer (because they'll likely want to advocate their position on the feature).

If your product disappeared tomorrow, what would your customers use to fill the gap?

A question of this ilk illuminates how the team thinks about their industry, their product's space within it and their competitive set. Often times, startups like to say, "there is no competition," but it's rarely true in practice - customers almost always have a credible alternative (even if it's "do nothing").

What's the biggest risk to this product succeeding? What's being done to mitigate that?

This is a great question to test if a company is self-aware about risks and has considered how to mitigate them.

Why is now the right time to be building this product in this industry?

It's not uncommon for tech companies to have the right idea, but get the timing wrong. For a large tech company, this can be a waste of resources (e.g., Google Wave) but for a startup, this can be fatal (e.g., Webvan). Understanding why the timing is right for product success is important.

Generating additional questions

OK, now let's switch gears.

Above, we covered sample questions to get you thinking. Below, we'll outline three different tactics which can help you create a robust, insightful list of questions to ask your interviewers.

Tactic #1: "Bang" on the product and take notes

Be a student of the product.

Without a doubt, this is the best way to generate a solid list of questions. Using the product heavily is a great forcing function for teasing out natural questions - because they're the same questions actual customers will have!

If you can't use the product yourself (e.g., maybe it's a specific enterprise solution), your next best option is to find potential or current users and interview them to learn more.

Regardless of how you study the product, you want to conduct a deep dive (we wrote in detail on that here). The byproduct of that exercise will be a greater understanding and open questions - which is exactly what you want!

Tactic #2: Model out the business and user engagement

Build a model to explain how the product makes money and how users engage with the product.

This process forces you to do two key things: 1) understand the key levers in the product and business and 2) make assumptions about pieces of info you don't know. For more on the process, here is a sample model our CEO put together in 2014 for a Postmates role.

Inevitably, building a model will reveal gaps in your understanding: those gaps are great question material!

Tactic #3: Put on your investor "hat"

PMs are product owners and while the role is different than the CEO, it's a high accountability role and requires a mindset of an owner: always thinking about what's broken, what could be better and how to improve it.

Given this, a helpful exercise is the following: imagine the company you're interviewing for approached you and asked if you'd be interested in investing 100% of your life savings in them.

What questions would you need to ask them and understand the answers to before you said yes? Again, that list of questions you generate will be gold.

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.