At some point in every interview that you have, the people on the other side of the table will inevitably pose the ultimate question to you: “So, do you have any questions for us?” There are hundreds of guides out there that list out the kinds of questions that you should ask in general, but due to the nature and uncertainty that comes with Product Management positions, I think there are several very specific questions that a savvy candidate should pose to their potential employer. Far too often, we fail to take full advantage of this opportunity, and though it’s certain that there will be some amount of spin put into the answers that you receive, no Product Manager should leave an interview without asking these five questions:
How Does Your Company Define Product Management?
This is the key question that you want to know and understand the answer to. As many people have touched on, Product Management simply doesn’t mean the same thing across different organizations. And most organizations aren’t really good at explaining how they view the role in their discussions with candidates. The reason for asking this question is really two-fold — first, it demonstrates that you know enough about Product Management to understand the differences that can exist between organizations; second, you should never go into a role where their particular definition of Product Management is different from yours, or at the very least where it’s unclear what the expectations of the role actually are. Nothing is going to frustrate you more than going in thinking that you’re going to be managing strategy and vision, only to wind up doing nothing but managing the day-to-day development efforts for your product. That’s not to say that either of these are necessarily bad, only that you need to be as clear as possible before you walk out that door what the company’s view of Product Management is, and compare that to your own to determine whether it’s worth continuing discussions.
How is Your Product Management Team Structured?
Similarly, you want to know just how many Product Managers there are, how they’re structured within the organization, who they report to, and how they fit into the culture in general. If it’s a small Product Management team but a large number of developers, that’s going to be a very different experience than if it’s a smaller ratio of Product Managers to Developers. Similarly, if you’re going to be reporting up through Marketing, the job is going to be very different from one that reports up through the CTO, or (preferably, perhaps ideally) straight up through the CEO. You’ll need to have some understanding of what drives the Product Team, and knowing the size, shape, and organizational structure of the team is the very first step toward a better understanding. You also want to be sure that there is some kind of structure to the organization — unless you’re looking at an early stage startup where everyone is doing anything they need to, a lack of organizational structure should be a warning sign to anyone looking into Product Management that there’s a high chance of scapegoating and finger-pointing to be encountered. Some thrive in chaos, but even those Product Managers need to be in a healthy environment and understand what they’re getting into.
In What Ways Do Your Product Managers Work With Your Development Teams?
The point of this question is to stealthily poke at whether or not the role you’re discussing is actually a Project Management role purporting to be a Product Management role. You’re looking to figure out whether they understand the difference, and whether it sounds like they’ve got their own process figured out. If they mention a project management team, or that they have dedicated scrum masters on their development teams, then you’re on good ground. If they discuss backlog reviews, prioritization, and sprint reviews, you’re golden. If they start talking about running the daily scrum meetings, or doing detailed triage, or focus on specifications…well, you might want to be a little more careful. It’s very common to see the lines blur between project and product management, and our goal with this question is to dig in deeper and uncover the reality of the role without being blunt about it.
How Much Freedom Do Product Managers Have in Your Organization?
This is a really important question for me — and any Product Management candidate who asked this question of me or my team would gain some instant kudos. There are a wide variety of levels of “ownership” that Product Managers are endowed with, and it’s of the utmost importance to understand just how much freedom you’re going to have to make decisions before seriously pursuing any role. This is important for our day-to-day expectations, but it’s also key to your career path — while there’s not always a lot of progression, the general measure of your success as a Product Manager is going to be the decisions that you make and the successes that those decisions lead to. If you wind up making a mis-step into a role where your decisions are hamstrung for one reason or another, it’s going to reflect in your attempts to make lateral or upward moves in your career later on. Senior roles, in particular, are going to be based almost entirely on what results you can clearly and unequivocally demonstrate — which means that the more freedom you have in a role, the more credit you can legitimately take and the more proud you can feel about what you’ve done. Generally speaking, seniority and freedom go hand-in-hand; the more senior the role, the more freedom you should expect, and the more freedom you should be given. Beware senior roles that are beholden to one or two very strong personalities in the organization. This can be a recipe for career disaster, unless managed in the right way — and to do that you’ll need to know exactly what you’re getting into from day one. As a bonus, asking this question shows that you, as a Product Manager, value freedom and independence, and are willing to not only make decisions but to take responsibility for the outcome of those decisions — both of which are indicators of strong and successful Product Managers.
What Tools Do You Use to Manage Your Product Management Process?
This is another almost-trick question, intended to find out whether or not the teams are actually using a Product Management tool, or whether they’re bending a development/source-code/issue-tracking tool into a Product Management tool. I’ve spent enough time doing this to realize that there’s no 100% perfect Product Management platform out there, but there are some major stumbling blocks that come with performing unnatural activities with development-centric tools. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less of a problem, as there are a lot of options out there and a lot of varying integration points that allow different tools to talk to one another. Really what you’re looking for here is an indication of structure or a thoughtful approach to Product Management. If the only answer is, “Oh, we log User Stories in TFS and run the backlogs there,” without anything further — no challenges, no struggles, no issues — then you might want to dig a little and make sure that you’re not running into a quagmire of bent and broken tooling that takes longer to work around than to work with. Similarly, if they’re talking about Asana, or Trello, or any number of other tools, you’re looking as much for the issues they encounter as the tools itself. “We use Trello for our sprints, and it works pretty well but…” is the ideal answer — the tool itself isn’t nearly as important as what it reflects of the intentions behind its adoption.