Questions you should ask your future employer during an interview

Preetam Nath, Ex PM @ Unacademy

08 May 2019 • 10

1. What do you wish prospective candidates should ask you in the interview room, but they are too scared to do so?

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

  1. What is the company’s unfair competitive advantage? Why will it continue being an unfair advantage?
    – This question answers why a company might win a market. You really want to know the strengths of the team you’re siding with

  2. 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.

  3. What is your current growth rate (in terms of users or revenue, whichever is most meaningful)? How has that growth been achieved?
    – You want to know what the current team has achieved already, and learn more about their depth of knowledge. Do they actually know what are their growth levers, or are they shooting in the dark?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. What % of the company do my shares represent?(if you’re being offered ESOPs, ask)
    – Too often, startups sell this grand dream of getting rich with ESOPs. Look around, which friend of yours has struck gold in the past 10 years? It’s probably 1 out of 100, and that’s if you’re lucky. Really know what your ESOPs are and will be worth, and don’t allow employers to use it as a bargaining chip to pay you less salary.

  7. What is my career progression going to look like in your company? Does this role eventually contribute to higher-level decision making?
    – Are you joining at a mid or junior level and expecting to rise the ranks and become a Sr. or VP level exec in the coming years? Well, then you should know the way your company plans to boost your career. Would you join a company which doesn’t have any plan to give you a better title and responsibility if you worked hard?

Questions specifically about the Product org

  1. What projects do you picture I’d work on?
    – This is a no-brainer. Why are they hiring you? What have they imagined in store for you? Are you excited by it?

  2. What guides product strategy? How does the company collect feedback from customers?
    – It’s extremely important to learn how customers are kept in the feedback loop in product development. You’ll be scared to learn that most companies talk very little to none with their customers, and while not necessary beyond certain scale, it is absolutely essential for any early-to-mid stage company.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. What are the biggest challenges for the Product team?
    – Does your Product Leader know what the team needs to be improve upon? Are they aware of the problem areas within the Product org and the product itself? The answer to this question will help you determine that.

  6. What’s the relationship currently like between Product and UX, Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, etc?
    – What you derive out of this answer is an understanding of cross-functional collaboration within the organisation. Let me get it straight, the whole point of having all these functions is for them to work together and achieve a common goal. Silos are a hindrance, they cause misalignment, miscommunication, and reduce the scope of success that a company can achieve.

  7. How has the company handled past failures?
    – Does the company have a culture of learning, or are failures just hidden under the rug? Worse, is someone made a scapegoat of in case of a failure, or does the person in charge assume responsibility and come up with a way to improve things? This question will help you understand the company’s culture better.

  8. Which drives more product decisions here: qualitative or quantitative data?
    – Deep insight comes from intuition, and using data to guide that intuition to make better decisions. I’d say beware of both extremes, as product building isn’t completely
    about intuition, neither is it completely about data (you are building products for humans, not robots).

  9. What is the last thing you shipped?
    – A detailed answer to this question will summarise the entire product development process. Get into the details to capture a glimpse of how your work life would look like if you were to join the team.

2. The last time, when you were deciding on a new job, what do you wish you had asked the new team - but were too scared/embarrassed to do so?

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.

  1. Truth seeking – Instead of trying to appease the boss or someone else, they always seek the truth, as in Q. Why is this the best thing we should be doing? If you ask this question and your boss refuses to answer, perhaps you should reconsider who you’re working for

  2. Outcome oriented – Too many people think that working longer hours, doing more actions or activities, etc. is what makes someone effective. WRONG! Get clear on your company’s most desirable outcomes, and then prioritise all your efforts towards achieving those outcomes. You’ll often find that you don’t need to do 10 things to move the needle, but just 1 done thing done right can make all the difference.

  3. Always be learning/Growth mindset – Nobody knows everything, and the first step to knowing more is to acknowledge that. The second step is to keep learning new things as you go. Your skills and your abilities are not fixed, one must continuously keep investing in themselves.

  4. Radical candour - they will share with you their problems, their concerns, their doubts, and give feedback when necessary to their team members, without upsetting anyone or being rude. After all, wouldn’t you want to hear from your teammates on where you’re lacking and how you can improve?

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