The Non-PM’s Guide to Hiring A Product Manager

I recently wrote up this process document to help the founders I’ve invested in hire their first product managers. This is the process that I used at Slack to hire product managers and it’s similar to what a lot of startups use. It’s often hard for non-product people to feel like they know how to evaluate product managers; I hope this clarifies that process for you.

Start with Internal Prep

The key to hiring a great PM is knowing what you’re looking for and asking candidates to show you that they can perform & communicate in the way that you expect. PMs are accustomed to doing additional work outside of the process; it’s the best and only way I’ve seen to actually get into their product skills.

The most important prep you’ll do is ask PMs to do a take-home assignment answering a relatively specific product problem your team has come across. I like to use real problems that my team has encountered because it’s much easier for potential colleagues and non-PMs to evaluate the answers, even accounting for all the things you know that they don’t. It also gives PMs the opportunity to ask questions while they develop their solution. The questions PMs ask are very revealing and will tell you a lot about how the candidate thinks.

Consider what your most pressing product problems are and write them out, then edit it down to a concise few sentences.

Some Overall Tips

  • Be consistent. Ask the same questions at the same points for all the candidates you interview.
  • Recommend that they spend a few hours on their homework, but always let them spend more. Their time is a good indication of how seriously they’re treating the opportunity.
  • Remember that execution is what matters. The worst PM hires are the ones who talk and do not deliver. Always ask about impact.
  • Ask calibrated, non-leading questions and then… stop talking. Don’t follow up with a “What did you do?” at the end — let them lead you.
  • If you hear something that’s worrisome in an answer, like a contemptuous tone of voice when relaying an anecdote, open up your body language and say “Tell me more”.
  • Always let candidates ask you questions – it’s not a good sign if they don’t have any.
  • Always ask candidates for feedback on the process. Disrespectful processes can push away excited candidates. Great processes can hype people who are otherwise unsure.

Recommended Process

1. Phone screen (run by the hiring manager or recruiter) — 1/2 an hour call to gut check

This is a call or video chat with the hiring manager to assess basic skills, fit, and temperament. The phone screen is a great time to suss out any red flags and figure out if the background that they’ve put on their LinkedIn really matches up with their experience at the company.

2. In-person meeting (hiring manager) — 1 hour

Now that you’ve determined it’s worthwhile to spend more time with this person. You shouldn’t need to directly ask someone things like, Have you worked with an experiment framework before? Rather, those tactical answers will emerge during these stories along with many more revealing characteristics.

Here are some sample questions for the phone screen or in-person interview (read this book for more in this vein):

Could you tell me about a time in which you were trying to fix or improve something [in the y product or at x company] and it didn’t work?

This question is meant to help you find people that identify and look to solve problems. It should also help you figure out how this person goes about trying to fix something, and how they deal with failure.

Could you tell me about a person that you found it really difficult to work with?

Then your first follow-up question… What do you think they’d say about you?And your second follow-up question… What could you do to turn around this relationship?

Here you’re trying to understand: Does this person take 100% responsibility for themselves? Do they have empathy for people they disagree with or have a hard time working with? Do they keep looking for solutions?

Could you tell me about a time when your boss gave you an assignment that didn’t seem to make much sense?

Do they just take orders and then blame their boss when things don’t pan out? Are they going to push back on you when you’ve given them incomplete context? Do they ask smart questions?

Could you tell me about a time when you were given an assignment that you were sure wasn’t going to succeed?

Do they disagree & really commit, or do they half-ass things they don’t think will work? How do they argue? How personally do they take a no?

Could you tell me about a time when you were struggling to meet a commitment you had made to a customer or colleague?

How do they deal with adversity? Are they empathetic? Do they put the customer or the team before themselves?

Optional step for PM-to-PM or designer-to-PM interviews — 1 hour

If you already have a PM or a designer on your team, you can ask them to lead a whiteboarding session to look for design-thinking competency. These often begin with one very straightforward question: Design me a hotel. Design me a UI for a self-driving car. Design me a house. Design me a photo app.

Great PMs will ask a ton of questions to narrow in on what the user is looking for and sketch solutions as they explore the problem. These are often a lot of fun and should feel joyful. PMs should be absolutely in their element here, asking endless questions, teasing out assumptions and requirements, and filling whiteboards with notes.

3. Take-home assignment (candidate)

Now that you’ve assessed a baseline with the candidate and have built rapport, send them either one or a handful of your pre-written product problems to solve. Give them a range of average hours to work on it, but allow that it’s up to them. Ask for it back within 3–4 days to create a sense of urgency but let them defer for sickness/travel.

Here’s a sample format for questions & instructions:

Problem statement: We’re seeing high retention and a straightforward sales with our early customers, but we want to scale more quickly than we can by manually onboarding each customer.

Instructions: Choose one of the above problem statements. Using whichever tools you like, create a deck or a document that defines the problem you’re solving. Come up with 2–3 possible solutions and tell us a bit about their pros and cons. Choose one solution and flesh it out: Define relevant user flows, some of the user experience, the metrics and/or qualitative judgments that you’d use to determine success. As appropriate, define your go-to-market or launch plan and how you’d promote, improve, or iterate on the solution after launch.

Next steps: You’ll come in to [company] to present this deck to a cross-functional team. Be prepared to answer questions about your product definition and solution, and don’t be afraid to ask us questions as well. Good luck!

4. Group presentation & 1:1s with team members — 2–4 hours

Have the candidate come in and present to the team, ideally including a cross-functional range of people with whom they’d be working. Schedule 1 hour for the presentation and a Q&A, then follow up with 1:1s, ideally with the people who were present for the presentation. Individual team members should have a list of questions that they’re asking each candidate, most of which should be unique to them. These interviewers can also dig into any specific questions that came up for them during the presentation, but that they didn’t have time or were too shy to ask.

Ideally the last meeting is a 10–15 minute check-in with the hiring manager to get feedback from the candidate on the process and to answer any questions that they may have.

Remember to have fun — you should like working with this person.

And if you’re working on a startup broadly around the Future of Work or a mobile SaaS product, I’m actively investing and would love to hear from you.

Advisor & angel investor. Former VC at Lightspeed, former Head of Growth at Slack. Happy to help.