Do Your Product Manager Interview Questions Always Get The Real Story?

Do Your Product Manager Interview Questions Always Get The Real Story?

This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

Okay, show of hands.

Who else is tired of resumes that overstate accomplishments?

And as if overstatements aren’t bad enough—don’t forget about the blatant lies found on the resumes of some senior executives.

With 4.3 million results on Google for lying on resumes, it would seem that this is an epidemic.

As a hiring manager, are you protecting yourself?

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. The only way to combat this is interview questions that specialize in stepping through the resume and digging deep into specific candidate accomplishments.

This is called the Most Significant Accomplishments interview—and it is essential for anyone you’re considering as a product manager.

The Most Significant Accomplishments Interview

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency for the role by looking at:

  • Examples of how a candidate previously achieved comparable results
  • Examples of how a candidate has managed and executed comparable work
  • A candidate’s motivation to do the required work
  • Career growth trend
  • Dependability and responsibility

The approach we take for this interview is a product manager specific adaptation of Lou Adler’s most significant accomplishment interview questions outlined in his book Hire with Your Head.

This interview should take 45-60 minutes to complete. The key sections are:

  • Background & Resume Review: 15-20 minutes
  • Candidate’s Perspective on Product Management: 15-20 minutes
  • Most Significant Product Accomplishment: 15-20 minutes

On the most basic level, this interview is all about collecting the facts you need to evaluate a candidate’s competency for the job and to determine whether or not he or she is an achiever.

Unfortunately, you cannot rely on the resume—you have to ask the tough interview questions and dig deep into the details yourself.

Here is a 5 minute video from Lou Adler on his process:

Background & Resume Review

Start the interview by clarifying the role (using the actual job title) that the candidate is interviewing for:

You have decided to interview for our Product Manager role.

Spend 1-2 minutes describing in some detail your performance expectations for this position.

Then ask how the candidate’s background has prepared him or her for this role:

Can you talk to me about how your background has prepared you for this position?

This set up is similar to the “Tell me about yourself” opening, but is more focused and gives you more control over the direction of the interview.

Now gauge a candidate’s drive and ability to plan long term:

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Not everyone loves this question (especially people who don’t plan).

But it’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going. If a candidate doesn’t have a good personal roadmap, how likely is he or she to build a good product roadmap?

Start the resume review with the most recent position:

  • Can you talk to me about your most recent job?
  • What was your role? Responsibilities? Accomplishments?
  • Why did you take this job?

Now repeat these interview questions for as many of the roles as you believe are relevant.

  • Can you talk to me about your next most recent job?
  • What was your role? Responsibilities? Accomplishments?
  • Why did you take this job?
  • Why did you leave?

Candidate’s Perspective on Product Management

This section asks the candidate to speak unaided about product management in response to two open-ended questions:

Can you talk to me about your approach to product management?


What makes a good product manager?

These questions allow you to judge the candidate’s understanding of how products are built and how product management works.

If you’re looking for additional perspectives on good product management, Khosla Ventures provides a great PDF written by Marty Cagan of Silicon Valley Product Group.

Now, ask a candidate to rank the responsibilities of a product manager by personal preference:

How would you rank the responsibilities of a product manager from what you like most to what you like least?

This question allows you to further evaluate how well the candidate has internalized product process. It can also help you identify strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, ask about mistakes:

What was your biggest product mistake?

Everyone makes mistakes. The answer to this question can help you gauge how fast a candidate will learn and how open they are being with you.

1.3 Most Significant Product Accomplishment

Start off this section by describing a specific challenge of the position:

One of the big challenges in this role is ____________.

Then ask for an example where the candidate has done something similar:

Can you tell me about a major project or accomplishment where you’ve done something similar?

Next, get more open-ended and ask about his or her most significant product accomplishment:

Can you talk to me about a major career accomplishment you believe represents your best product work?

What you are hoping for is energy and passion as a candidate talks to you about the problems a specific set of customers were having, how they identified the key use cases and how they got to a solution.

If it isn’t clear already, find out why they built this product:

Why did you build this product?

Then, start to dig into the process the candidate used:

How did you prioritize?
What was the most painful feature cut you made? Why?

Expand your focus from features and functions to the whole product and to the competition:

How did you validate the concept, size the market, and test with customers?
What was the unique value proposition?
How was this product different from the competition’s?

Also ask about business model, segmentation, distribution, pricing and support.

Everyone has experienced failure. Ask the candidate to talk about it:

Can you talk about a product you have managed that failed?
Why did it fail?
What did you learn from it?
How can you tell if a product is well designed?

Get an understanding of the completeness of the candidate’s product life cycle experience:

Can you give me an example of a product you owned from concept to launch?

The next several questions and focus have been adapted from Vittorio Viarengo’s excellent Guerilla Guide to Interviewing Product Managers. Gauge a candidate’s passion for innovating:

Can you give me an example of a project that was particularly innovative?
What features differentiated the product? Why?
How was what you did different from what others had done?

Make sure to stay focused on how the product solved a customer pain. Does the candidate describe orthogonal or out-of-the-box thinking?

Really good product people love to build products. Find out what the candidate has built personally:

Have you ever built a product in your spare time to solve a problem for yourself? Why?
How did you go about building it?

Other Questions

This final section is optional. Many of these items would be covered in detail in a product management case interview.

This question allows you to test how well the candidate understands various development methodologies (waterfall, agile, etc):

Which development methodology do you prefer working with? Why?

This question allows you to see what resources the candidate feels are important to the job and why. A focus on TechCrunch vs a focus on product thought leaders provides an interesting insight into how a candidate prioritizes.

What blogs do you read on a daily basis? Why?

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This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

P.S. A lot of people have asked for book recommendations to further prepare for a product manager interview. Here are some great ones:


Photo by Klearchos