Interview With the Product Manager

May 4, 2016

Establishing a good relationship with your product manager is key to making a designer’s day to day not suck. More often than not, this is an unknown quantity when joining a new team. PMs come in all shapes and sizes and you gotta be careful before you choose the one.

Here are a few questions you might want to ask a Product Manager before deciding to work with them:

“If you were not working at [company], what would you be working on?”

It seems arbitrary, but once people get going, they talk a lot about what is important to them, what motivates them, and how they think about the world. Also, it avoids cliché answers because it is so personal.

“How do you make decisions as a team when there’s broad disagreement?”

This is one of the most difficult situations to deal with in a team and it happens constantly. The best PMs understand compromise and can motivate a team towards a path forward even if it’s uncertain whether it is the right path.

“How do you communicate decisions you’ve made?”
A: The group communicates decisions the group has made.

This is a good opportunity to check how ego-driven your PM is. I usually avoid working with PMs for whom it’s important to take credit for decisions in the product —it can create an uncomfortable dynamic between the members of the team. It’s the PM’s job to make sure decisions happen, and to make sure communication happens, it doesn’t mean they have to or should be The Decider.

“What’s the most important part of building a successful project team?”
A: Making sure everyone on the team gets to the same place at the same time.

As you plan and execute work, everyone in the team should agree and understand along the way. If you together decide your key project is the Photo Widget, everyone should know why you picked it and why it’s important in accomplishing your goals. Otherwise, team members can harbor lingering confusions about choices made, or even resentments about options not chosen.

“How do you see us working together?”

Perhaps the most personal of questions but this can shed some light on how they perceive both your role and theirs. The best PMs I’ve worked with strive to create momentum and value. Where they add that value is based on the strengths and weaknesses of their team and the scope of the problem at hand. Tension can arise when I think I’m great at and want to own (A) but the PM thinks I’d be better at (B) or that we shouldn’t do (A) at all.

“Tell me about a time when you worked with a designer in the past, and what you’d change about the process in the future.”

Understanding what a PM values and recognizes from a designer is another way of asking what they expect your role to be. This is a good opportunity to decide whether that aligns with the role you’d like to have. I’ve gotten “well, I gave my designer my wireframes, and she made them look so much better…” as an answer to this in the past. Not a good sign!

I hope these questions help you find your better half and kickstart a few hard conversations before pulling the trigger on joining a new team.

Special thanks to Austin, Mills, Cemre, Tuhin and Beth.

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