Written by Product leadership

How to not suck at giving product interviews

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A major part of any product leader’s job is to hire a great team. You are only as good as your people, and your people are only as good your ability to recruit. Interviews are a major part of the recruitment process, and yet product interviews are often not given much special attention.

The interview process is where candidates will learn the most about a company. They will find out what their future colleagues are like; how they think and how they communicate. From the questions asked, they will learn what current employees values in colleagues, and what problems they’re currently thinking about.

On a slightly meta-level, candidates will also learn about the company’s ability to recruit strong talent. They will judge the hiring experience not only by if it entices them, but also if it will be able to entice other great talent.

To summarise the point: the recruitment process is crucial to creating a strong product org.

I will now go through the things you should do, and the things that you should avoid doing. To finish, I’ve added a suggestion of a simple way to run a great product interview (even if you have little preparation).

Be the employer brand you want to be

A brand’s perception as the sum of all interactions with it. If I’m repeatedly satisfied and delighted with my purchase from a company, that enhances the brand value for me. If I am lied to, or treated badly, that detracts a bit of value. If my first experience is negative, a customer will almost definitely make up their mind to avoid that company in future.

So when you have a potential employee, every interaction counts. Make it smooth and pleasant. Give them options for when they can come in. Offer them water. Read the person’s resume before giving the interview, and prepare questions you want to ask them.

If you don’t, it signals that you don’t care about this person, and that is how they will expect to be treated if they worked with you.

The candidate is selling themselves to you, and you’re selling the company to the candidate. Don’t treat it like a one-way pitch, treat it like you’re getting to know someone to see if they’d be a good fit. Your role is not to fire off questions and judge the response, it’s to get a good understanding of the candidate, and sell your employer brand.

Don’t just try to catch people out

It’s obvious to a candidate when you’re trying to catch them out. It’s a bit insulting (it shows that you don’t trust them), and shows that you’re looking for a lack of weakness, rather than for strengths.

If something comes up naturally from your discussion, dig into it. But don’t waste your time looking for red flags – you’ll miss out on some good candidates that way.

Learn something from every question

Your objective should be to get insight from every question you ask. Questions are be ways to guide the conversation, and you should have a strategy in mind for what you want to learn.

You have an hour (or less) to make a decision about whether to work with someone for the next few years, so don’t waste it on inane questions that don’t tell you anything. These waste your time, and send a poor signal to the candidate.

Pointless questions include:

  • What is this gap in your CV?
  • What tools do you use?
  • Why did you make a certain career decision 5 years ago?
  • Why didn’t you decide to use your degree for your job?
  • Why are you leaving your current job? (more on this later)

These questions are asked because they’re time-fillers. They might give you some good insight, but they’re not well-designed to achieve do so. You won’t learn much, and the candidate won’t enjoy discussing them.

Don’t ask former-roommate questions

You know when you apply to move in with flatmates and they ask you a question like “do you leave washing up for 5 days before doing it?” – that’s a former-roommate question. They clearly have a specific gripe with their former or current tenant, that they want to make sure they won’t have with you.

It’s obvious when you do it a candidate. These questions are easy to answer (“no, I clean up immediately!”) and indicate a negative workplace. Rather, find other ways to understand what the candidate values.

Respond quickly

Time kills deals, so don’t leave the candidate waiting for a long time. Be clear about the process up-front, be efficient and communicate clearly (assuming that you want your employer brand to reflect this).

You want people to leave each interview desperate to join your company, and that feeling will fade each day that passes.

Don’t ask why they’re leaving their current job

I hate this question.

If I’m leaving for positive reasons (e.g. I want to learn something new) then I’ll happily talk through them, but you could always just ask me what I’m looking for in my next role.

If I’m leaving for negative reasons (e.g. I don’t believe in the company direction, my boss is mean, I’ve been fired), then I’m not likely to respond honestly. It doesn’t always reflect well on the candidate or their current employer to be truthful in these circumstances so most people will lie. People don’t like lying, so don’t put them in a situation where they’re incentivised to.

You can always assume that people leave a job because they’re not happy with something. Even if you learn what that thing is, it likely won’t tell you much about the candidate’s ability to do the job you’re hiring for.

So don’t make it a negative experience. Ask what they’re looking for in their next role, and let them tell you why they’re leaving if they want to.

If stuck – grab a whiteboard

In an interview, you likely want to learn about how the person thinks and communicates. Think of a problem that would be typical of their job, and ask them to walk through how they’d approach it. The question should cover both strategic and executional elements, and be open-ended for them to really dig into. For example:

We operate in one market, and are considering geographic expansion. Which markets should we choose next?

Then give them a pen and a whiteboard, and ask them to tell you how they would approach the problem.

This approach works for a number of reasons:

  • It creates a genuine conversation, and avoids the usual question-and-answer session that is both boring and unilluminating.
  • It gives good insight into how they think: Do they frame the problem well? Do they know what they’re optimising for? Do they state their assumptions? Do they ask clarifying questions? Do they value research or going straight to building and learning?
  • It gives good insight into how they communicate: Can they simplify complex ideas? Do they make sure that you understand? Are they consistent and coherent?
  • It’s fun! It’s a conversation about something they’re presumably passionate about (building products), which you both have in common. It’s engaging, uses everyone’s brain, and removes any stress of a “wrong” answer.


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Last modified: May 23, 2019