7 questions software product managers must ask during a job interview

I was asked by Jeff Lash to answer a question for his blog on what questions a product manager could ask during a job interview to better understand the role of product management in the company. Here are my recommendations –

1) Why are you hiring a software product manager? – This is an important question to ask especially if you are going to be the first software product manager in the company. Why has the company decided that they need the first or an additional software product manager? Is it because they realize that they need to listen to the market needs more, is it a replacement for a software product manager who has left the company, or is it because the company is expanding into new markets? The answer to this question will reveal a lot of valuable information that will help you make a decision. Yes, job description that was advertised will give you an idea, but job descriptions tend to be too generic.landscape

2) What does product management do today or what is it expected to do going forward? – Unfortunately, product management’s role is so diverse from one company to another. In some companies, a software product manager is responsible for running the business – market research, product requirements, product packaging, pricing, go to market launch etc. – the role is truly strategic. In other companies, it is all about writing specs with very limited exposure to the customer (believe me such companies sadly exist). You want to know where the company you are interviewing with falls in this spectrum. Are you comfortable with how the company views the role of product management?

3) Who does product management report to? – Companies that truly understand the value of product management have product management reporting to marketing. The ones that least understand the value of it, make it report to engineering. Engineering is the last place for product management from an organizational point of view. If you want to truly build market driven products, you want product management to be independent of those folks who build the products. I have worked in both the organizations and the case where product management reported to engineering was an outright disaster. There was no healthy tension between those that understand the market (external facing) and those that build the products (internal facing). You cannot have the fox guard the hen house, can you?

4) Who determines the future direction of your products – marketing, sales or engineering? – This again helps you understand how the company values product management. If sales drives the future direction, then the future direction is forever changing based on what was heard at the last sale. If it is driven by engineering, then it is usually determined by what can be build. If it is run by marketing it is fine as long as it is “market” driven and not “marketing” driven. How much voice does product management  in determining the future direction based on the market needs?

5) How does the company listen to the customer needs? – Dig deeper into this because all companies will tout that they are customer driven, but there are a lot of companies who don’t walk the talk. Ask for specifics such as customer visits, focus groups, user surveys etc. – how often is this done and how is the input incorporated into the product development process? The best way to do this is to find names of some of the company’s customers and ask them. This will give you the true story of how the company is viewed in the eyes of the customer. It is harder to do this with enterprise software, but with small business software, this is easy to do. Dig into discussion forums, do Google search and you will be surprised as to how easily you can unearth names of some of the company’s customers.

6) How would you best describe the company culture? – If you get a blank stare when you ask about the “culture”, then you need not ask anything more. Companies with good culture will give you specific examples of how well they treat their employees. If you are being interviewed by multiple people, ask each one of them this question. Look at sites such as glassdoor.com to see if there are any reviews of the company by current or former employees.

7) What are the company’s short-term and long-term challenges? – Great companies will be able to give you a detailed answer to this question. This is because they are very clear on what they are and where they are headed. Yes, the future is not guaranteed. Beware of pompous claims of “we are the market leaders of this market and we have no competition” etc. Another way to do this is to ask “What could derail the company going forward?” – how credible is the answer you get? If you get an answer that nothing is going to derail the company, then beware.

Yes, we are in an economic climate where it is hard to find jobs, but not asking these questions in fear that you may not be selected would be a big mistake. Good companies that truly value their employees will appreciate candidates asking these questions because it exhibits diligence the candidate does before making a decision. Would you not want your employees doing due diligence before making decisions? And if you sense the company or the person who is interviewing you is irked or bothered by these harmless questions, then beware – the company may not be a good fit for you after all.

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12 thoughts on “7 questions software product managers must ask during a job interview”

  1. Is there any age preference for applying Product Manager position? What sort of interview questions are expected for an entry level PM or associate PM, having no background experience in management (hailing from pure technical side) ? How to get into Product Management full-time career ?

  2. Your answer to #3 made me think about a different aspect of this question. I have worked with and interviewed with companies, those in particular in Silicon Valley, where marketing and engineering often seem at odds. Often PM’s are in their ivory tower and engineers are in the trenches. Sometimes Engineering was driving things and just tossing product over the fence to marketing, and in others product management gave most of the direction but engineers were rarely let out of the trenches. My best experiences were when the PM actually worked in the same space with the engineers teaming together giving both a feeling of equality. It also worked best when engineers got out in the field with PM’s when exploring new product specifications with customers. I’ve generally felt there is too much separation between engineering, marketing and even manufacturing which often puts everyone in a defensive stance.

  3. Good post Gopal, though I think readers need to realize that while these are very good questions, a lot of what is said in interviews in response to these questions can be far from the truth, particularly for smaller companies.

    It is often VERY difficult for founders to hand over the reins to Product Management unless there is a VERY strong PM executive on staff. And even then it can be a challenge.

    Also, how companies describe their culture and what kind of culture they really have can be very different.

    What company is going to say in an interview that they have a really political culture and there are some VERY strong personalities in Engineering who will push back hard on anything or anyone they see as stepping on their turf.

    Or what company will admit that the founders will claim they want to be hands off, but in reality will regularly insert themselves into meetings and decisions uninvited because they are really micromanagers and don’t trust employees to make the right decisions.

    Yet, I’m sure many of us have (unfortunately) had to deal with those kinds of cultures, but no matter how many of the right questions you ask, you’re going to only find out about these things AFTER you join the firm.

    1. I could not agree more with your last comment and that can be very frustrating. I have learned that through personal experience. I researched the company, spoke to current and ex employees and when I joined, I still was surprised at the amount and type of politics. Different yardstick for everyone depending upon who knows/ knew who. Now I am just spending ENOUGH time in the company so that I don’t appear to be a job hopper on the resume and trying to figure out in the meantime, if I can be the “new” buddy of the powerplayer here. It is not something I am good at and is very stressful.

  4. A good post. I believe you also need “alignment” in that engineering wants to work and take direction from product management and sales is willing to sell what is in te product and not drive new functionality with each deal. I would be interested in product managers views and strategy on this current economic climate. My recent post highlights some things from an executive perspective. http://fivepond.com/2008/12/30/the-economy-and-innovation/

  5. I’ve found that when they give a definitive answer to question #4 ( Who determines the future direction of your products – marketing, sales or engineering? ) that you’re due for trouble. The future direction of the products should be determined collectively, taking input from all departments into the mix. That’s the magic role of PM – to help make decisions happen, not to make decisions.

  6. Martin,
    I have experienced that before and it was like constantly hitting my head on the wall because people are entrenched in their ways because of the comfort factor.

  7. Very nice overview! And even when all the answers you get are “wrong” or not satisfying it could be a nice job. But then your first 6-12 months will most likely be spent teaching the company what product management is all about.

  8. These are very good recommendations. I would add what is the management style of the person the product manager will report to. This is important as this person and the product manager must be able to work together.

  9. I think this is blended in item #4 but I would also say to ask who determines the priorities on the product roadmap. If it isn’t mostly the product management group based on customer/business needs I would shy away from that company.

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