Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.


P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.


One response to “Questions for Product Managers

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