(and what good answers look like)
Let’s get something straight: there is no question that is so insightful, so incredibly, mind-blowingly smart that it will move a candidate from the “reject” to the the “accept” column. Your goal is not to appear smart with your questions.
Instead, realize that you should be just as invested in validating the company you’re talking to as they are in validating you. There are two overriding concerns for you, the candidate:
- Is this company legit?
- Is this what I want?
Here are the questions I used when I was looking for my current job. I was interviewing specifically at startup / earlier-stage companies, and some of these questions reflect that, but the bulk of the questions are generally applicable to all companies.
Is This Company Legit?
What is the biggest risk to your success? (Both the company as a whole, and individual team)
- A well-prepared team will have thought about contingencies, risks, and preemptively minimized their possibilities.
- You should hear actual risks to the product, business model, and target market (not filler like “hiring smart people”), alongside specific action they’re taking to address them.
What is your #1 priority for this quarter? For this year?
- This should be top of mind for whoever you ask, though expect the scope to change based on the seniority of your interviewer. Evaluate if the stated priority seems:
- Important to the business
- Properly scoped (not too broad)
- If you’re not convinced, push back and let the interviewer convince you.
What is your biggest [x] problem right now?
- I typically ask about “product problem” and “process problem”.
- If the answer is different from their stated #1 priority, ask why (not necessarily a bad thing if they can explain it).
- Process problems tend to fall into the same pattern and are more of a function of company size than anything else, but occasionally you hear something interesting.
What is your engineering team’s unique advantage?
- This is more of an indication for how intentionally a company has been building and growing.
- There a handful of common answers (seniority, independence, pedigree) which isn’t a red flag, but try to tease what they’re doing to ensure they keep that advantage.
Why are you best suited to succeed in [market]?
- This is most applicable to startups, but every product will have competition and should have an answer.
- The team needs to have justified confidence. Otherwise, you might as well take the idea and start a similar startup yourself.
Have they been in the news recently? Ask about that
Ask about their performance metrics.
- Part of your homework is to know what their key metrics generally should be based on their stage and business model, but you can always ask what their KPIs are first.
- Some information may be confidential or their process is not to share, but try to get as much information as possible about:
- ARR, customer count, churn, D/MAUs, ARPU
- Growth rate for all numbers above
- Headcount growth, if they mention intentional hiring
- This question may be better suited for later stage interviews, closer to an actual offer, but it’s an important one that you shouldn’t accept an offer without knowing the answer to. Fundamentally, it asks a company to prove that they’re as successful as they say they are, and that everything they’re doing is working. Without a business, there is no company. See: Fast’s fall
Is This What I Want? (Product Management Culture)
“Good” PMs are, in part, defined by the company and its product culture. For example, an Apple PM is known to be quite different than a Google PM. What does the best PM at your company look like?
- You will get an explicit description of the skills and traits that work best within the company.
- Each company exists on a spectrum and you don’t need to fit every single trait described, but knowing what makes a successful PM at the company will give you some data on your chances for individual success if you join.
Can you describe someone (other than yourself) who you think has been very successful here and share what you believe made them successful?
- A similar question to the above, but answers can potentially expand beyond product managers, and tends to reveal small, cultural details that are hard to know about otherwise.
- This question tends to generate good follow-up question opportunities.
How would non-PMs at your company describe the role of Product?
- This gives a sense for how established the product org is within a company, where the typical division of responsibilities lies, and the reputation of the product organization overall.
- Pay attention to if different departments (e.g. engineering vs. design) answer differently. Naturally, you’ll get the best answer from actual non-PMs.
Where do ideas come from? How are roadmaps written?
- A peek into day-to-day life, and helpful to tease out how much strategy involvement you’ll have as a more junior product manager.
What is something new you learned here?
- Look for answers beyond “gaining knowledge about [domain]”. Anyone who switches industries will naturally gain new domain knowledge.
- Press to hear about skills, challenges, or times they’ve had to step up and grow their role, as a proxy for if you’ll have opportunity to do the same.
How do you see my role evolving as the company grows?
- The specific answer here will probably not be useful or predictive of your actual trajectory, but it’s a good test for if they’ve thought about how their organization will scale, and how much they intend to invest in your personal growth along the way.
Is This What I Want? (General Company Culture)
What’s your favorite thing that’s happened that could only happen here, not at other companies?
- This is my favorite culture question. Be sure to clarify that it can be anything, not strictly work-related.
- It can be hard to think of an answer on the spot so don’t over-index on that, but pay attention to how excited they are about the thing they eventually describe.
What’s the hardest piece of feedback you’ve received, and what’s the hardest feedback you’ve given?
- This can be a sensitive question to ask, and is generally more useful for someone you’ll be working with directly, such as a manager.
- You’ll get a sense for the culture of feedback within the company, and if it aligns with what you’re comfortable with.
What is something you (or the company) have recently failed at?
- What’s the tone they answer in? Generally, this will be a bit like “What’s your biggest weakness” — most answers will have a “It’s a good problem to have” vibe to them.
- At minimum, everyone should be cognizant of their failures and where they can improve. A lack of failures doesn’t signal perfection, it shows complacency and a lack of awareness.
Do you have an example of a decision where you chose values over metrics?
- At some point, every company will hit a crossroad between optimizing metrics or choosing less growth in service of a larger value. Depending on how much this matters to you, ask for an example.
What is something that the company did at the request of employees?
- Work is at least a third of your life. You should work for a company that recognizes you as a more than a “resource” and is willing to make changes as part of its commitment to the wellbeing of its employees.