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.
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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