Hiring good product managers is hard. The role of Product Manager has become one of the most sought after job titles across many industries, and with so many applicants sporting impressive resumes and sharp communication skills, it’s hard to separate the stars from the bench players.
It doesn’t help matters that the field of Product Management is so loosely defined, and the skills required of PMs vary so greatly from company to company. With so many variables, how do you find the right fit?
At Levvel, we’ve played around with a few different ways to evaluate product managers. While all of my interviews start with the “What’s your story” question (How to Hire Developers), my product manager interview centers around a scenario I call “Uber for Goats”.
It goes something like this:
Imagine a client comes to us with an idea to build “Uber for Goats”\. The client has a lot of experience in agriculture but little experience with technology\. He says that people often need goats for a short period of time to eat excess vegetation. Goat seekers could be farmers trying to clear land, land owners taming their landscape, or even a city trimming grass on highway medians.
The problem is that acquiring goats and getting rid of them once they’ve done their job is slow and expensive. Goats are often sold in traditional markets or even on Craigslist, which makes for slow and inefficient transactions. The client wants to solve this problem using a technology enabled, on demand, goat renting service—Uber for Goats!
As a product manager, what kind of process would you use to help the client go from idea to reality? What questions would you ask? What steps need to be taken? How would you structure and staff the project?
This is a very wide open and intimidating question. I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from both candidates and coworkers claiming it doesn’t provide enough direction to answer successfully on the fly. Couple that with the non-traditional app space and ridiculous name, and this question definitely throws people for a loop.
Regardless, I still love this scenario because it tests the exact skills that I look for in product managers and I’m not going to feel bad about it.
The first thing I’m testing for is how well the candidate rolls with the punches. Product managers regularly get thrown into all sorts of unexpected and unfamiliar situations.
For example, PMs might have to wade through the techno-mumbo-jumbo with dev teams arguing about performance characteristics of directed acyclic graphs. They may have to gently explain to the marketing department why the new version of an app they’re showcasing at the annual conference won’t be ready until next year. A product manager’s job regularly involves negotiating the right amount of user testing to ensure the product is both usable and first to market.
Product managers regularly get thrown into all sorts of unexpected and unfamiliar situations.
Given the daily pressures a product manager needs to navigate, if the candidate can’t deal with a quirky question about goats and a fake client, they’re just not going to make it. I need a PM who can keep their cool even when they’re confused, off balance, and dealing with a product that chews grass for a living.
Ask the Right Questions
This goat scenario is confusing and vague, and the best way to get clarity is to ask good questions. It’s stupid simple, but under pressure, people tend to forget this simple fact and jump straight to spouting opinions. A great candidate will buy time and get clarity by asking the right questions first.
PMs regularly find themselves in situations where they don’t have all the information they need. Just like a business requirements document (BRD) written by a middle manager on their way out to a happy hour can’t be considered the complete source of truth for a project, the “Uber for Goats” scenario described above doesn’t hold all the necessary information to move forward.
Here are a few questions a candidate might want to ask to gain clarity:
- What is the client’s background? The description might lead you to assume they’re a small-time farmer, but they may be the head of a large agro-business or a part of a government organization.
- How does the app relate to the business? Is the app positioned as the face of a new tech startup or a new product for an existing business?
- What’s the funding scenario? Self funded? Corporate funding? VC? Angel? What are their expectations?
- What does success look like? Is it proving interest to get more funding? Is it revenue? Market share?
- What resources are they bringing to bear? Is there a dev team? A designer? A code base from a previous attempt or a prototype?
- What competitive advantages does the client have? Partnerships? Inside industry information? Goat inventory? Are there competitors?
- Is there anything driving timing? Why now? Are there any external events, business situations, or competitive activities that would affect the market window?
Things are often not as they seem and asking open-ended questions can really change the complexion of the problem. The conversation that emerges from follow-up questions also provides the PM with an opportunity to showcase their expertise in the context of the scenario.
Apply Your Personal Philosophy
The grand finale, master stroke, cherry on the sundae, for a candidate answering the “Uber for Goats” scenario, is demonstrating a well-developed product management philosophy.
Junior or mid-level PMs can usually demonstrate an understanding of core concepts like product roadmaps, user testing, agile development, lean methodology, A/B testing, and hypothesis testing. Great PMs can package all of these concepts together into an opinionated framework they use to create great products. If the candidate can clearly describe their philosophy and frame the discussion in its context, we know we have a winner.
At Levvel, the core of our Product Management philosophy is that real problems cross disciplines. That is, in order to create a successful product, you need to solve user problems, business problems, and technology problems at the same time.
Much of Levvel’s work is based on the philosophy that digital transformation involves more than implementing modern engineering practices like agile development and DevOps capabilities. Rapid development and deployment is only effective if you can identify the right products to bring to market and if you have the operational agility to get those projects prioritized and funded within the market window.
Real digital transformation goes beyond technology and necessarily hinges on creating a customer-focused culture built to gather learnings from customers and put those learnings into practice quickly.
A great PM would communicate a philosophy like this one and put it to practice by systematically crafting a set of workshops, activities, documents, and team makeup that intentionally implements the framework.
Essentials of Product Management
The mark of a great product manager is the ability to create clarity and structure out of extreme ambiguity. Doing so requires demonstrating poise under pressure, being persuasive, working across disciplines, demonstrating intellectual honesty, and most importantly, never losing sight of the big picture.
Uber for Goats is an unusual, unexpected question. It’s meant to be that way. The best PMs aren’t phased by it, making them far more likely to handle their equally unexpected and unusual life as a product manager.