Oh boy, what a delightful question, and I have a long response to this, so bear with me.
This is a two-fold answer, and in the first part, I’m going to lay it out from the perspective of a Product Manager interview, as that’s what I have experience with. In the second part, I’ll bring it up in a general context.
If you’re someone who’s serious about your future, you’ll want to know as much as possible about the organisation and people you join and associate yourself with. Buckle up!
Part 1: ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS during the interview!
Ever been given a problem statement by the interviewer, and you instantly start scribbling stuff onto a piece of paper with your answer? A big NOPE to that, please.
First things first, never jump into solutioning. It’s the first and biggest mistake a PM can make in their line of work, which is why it’s common to pose a problem statement to a PM and wait to hear their response. I wrote “response”, not “solution”. This is the easiest way to lose the job, and also the easiest way to identify whether the interviewer knows their stuff (better not test it during the interview though). And the way to avoid this mistake, is by asking questions.
Ask questions about the problem statement, about parts you don’t know well enough, about parts where you might have to make assumptions. Work together with the other person in a question-answer style, gain consensus and buy-in so that the eventual solution simply comes out of asking the last right question.
Remember, in Product Manager interviews, there is no right answer. There is however a right approach to solving the problem, and that approach involves questions to identify and make assumptions of the unknown.
Secondly, why don’t people ask more questions in general to the interviewer (be it the PM, or HR, or even the Founder)? I don’t have a concrete answer to this as the reasons may be diverse. But let’s tackle a subset of it today.
Is it that people afraid of negative consequences? Are you scared of blowing an interview because of asking questions? My friend, if that’s the case, you’re probably interviewing with the wrong company and people. If asking questions is not encouraged, you want to pick up your resume and run far away.
But let’s assume your interviewer is a smart chap and the company is actually great. In that case, why would you be scared of asking questions? Do you think you might ask a wrong question? Well, there is no wrong question, there are stupid questions for sure, but not wrong ones. There’s an easy solution to this, prepare a list in advance, questions you want answers to that will help you gauge what kind of company, culture, people you might be entering.
You know, I’m a really great guy, so I went ahead and compiled a non-exhaustive list of questions that you can ask in your next interview. Each question is designed to benefit you by helping to learn about the company’s culture, the way they operate, future prospects, working style, and much more. I would love to be asked these questions the next time I’m interviewing a candidate. Here we go!
Part 2: A list of QUESTIONS TO ASK during an interview
These questions can be specific to your role, or to the company. Here’s a list of questions I think are important to ask, not just to your immediate PM, but to the HR and Founders of the company. These are questions I would ask if I were seriously interviewing at a company.
General questions about the company
What is the current runway? How long can the company survive without another fundraise? What is the future funding plan? -- If a company is running out of funding in the next 12 months and the future funding plan is grim, you might be stepping into a landmine. While early in your career you can take bigger risks, consider your current position in life, and responsibilities after learning about this.
What is the biggest challenge that the company is facing right now? What is the plan to overcome it? – The answer to this question gives a good understanding of where the company’s focus is, and solving those problems what would be influencing the product strategy/direction in the near future.
How are raises calculated? How often are raises given? How do bonuses work? -- Hey candidate, we all want raises and bonuses, and we all have different expectations about it, so it’s best you voice your expectations and understand the reality, instead of feeling betrayed 6/12 months later when the raise does not match what you had in mind.
Questions specifically about the Product org
What does success look like in my job? How will it be determined that I or the Product team is doing a good job? What are the KPIs? -- The last thing you need is vague expectations from your team leader or upper management, which you act upon, but then later realise that you’ve left your evaluation completely up to their subjective opinions. Set hard metrics, clear success or failure outcomes such that nobody questions your work and what you’ve done for the company at a later stage
Does the team come up with what to build, or is it directed from the top down? How much ownership does the product manager have to determine product strategy? -- The right answer is a healthy mix of team and upper management, but the last thing you want to do is be given the illusion of freedom, only to enter a pseudo autocratic organisation. If that’s your thing, cool, if it’s not, find out early on.
Asking the right questions is something everyone needs to do in their career to make better decisions. In my case, it wasn’t that I was scared to ask questions, but more so that I wasn’t aware that I should be asking such questions in the first place. Ouch!
I don’t want to list one question, as that makes it seem like one question is the answer to it all. No, it’s not that simple. Here’s a list of questions that I think I should have asked, but didn’t (borrowing from the list above).
What guides product strategy? How does the company collect feedback from customers?
Does the team come up with what to build, or is it directed from the top down? How much ownership does the product manager have to determine product strategy?
What’s the relationship currently like between Product and UX, Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, etc?
What is the last thing you shipped?
What is my career progression going to look like in your company? Does this role eventually contribute to higher-level decision making?
What projects do you picture I'd work on?
The last thing I wish I had done is less question, more request. I urge more people to try this -- Ask to meet your team members, and perhaps even work with them for 1 or 2 days to get a feel of the kind of people you’ll be hanging out with. Remember, you’ll possibly spend years with these folks and their influence will shape you as a person, so you don’t want to go in blind.
3. Who is that one person (or kind of person) that you would like to hire in your team today? And why?
I believe in hiring people with three distinct traits above all else.
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