Great Product Manager Questions

Red Macaw

The Laudi Group and Red Canary organized and shared a great set of questions for product managers and answers from a panel of product management leaders.  Steve Johnson, another leader in our space shared his answers to the same questions, and in this article, I share mine.

The Product Manager Questions

Hat tip to Steve Johnson at Pragmatic Marketing, for extending the discussion and providing his answers to the questions.  And thanks to the folks at Red Canary and the product managers who originally shared their answers.

I really enjoyed reading their answers – thanks to all of you!

Here are the questions that were put forth and answered:

  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?

I’ve personally enjoyed and grown from the great writing that many product managers have shared with us over the last few years.  I’d love it if they would share their answers.  So, either share your answers, or pester your favorite writers to share theirs.

Without further ado, here are my answers to the same questions.

Why Do You Like the Best Product You’ve Ever Encountered?

I love when products solve obvious (in hindsight) problems with elegant designs.  The products where, once they exist, you say “well, duh” or slap your head and ask “why didn’t I think of that?”  These innovative products tend to be disruptive, redefining markets.  Some of the products are rather mundane – like the ketchup bottle where the lid doubles as the base (reducing waste and preventing countless red-water-stained buns).  Other products are more technology-dependent – like Tesla’s radio, xerographic photocopying, solid-fuel rockets.

I think my favorite for elegant design might be Velcro – if you don’t know how it works, or just want to know how it was invented, check out the wikipedia article.  The time that parents save tying tiny shoes is value enough, but it is far from the only (or first) use of Velcro.  An accurate clock that could be used on board a ship was a biggie too, although I never personally encountered one, at least when it mattered.  Accurate time-telling on a ship was the key to dramatically improved navigation back in the days of sailing by the stars.

How Do You Know a Great Product Manager?

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.  They are Renaissance women and men, with many areas of interest.  They are great communicators.

Most importantly, they are sooth-sayers.  By the last, I mean that they not only understand the big picture and context of their markets and their business, but they know what is likely to change their business, and where their markets are sensitive to or ripe for disruption.  One definition of sooth-sayer is “one who tells the truth.”  You can’t do that without data, and the ability to understand what the data is telling you.

Add to this a dash of humility and a full dose of open-mindedness, and you have a great product manager.

Of course there’s all of the esoteric skills that the role requires.  When they aren’t present yet, I feel like I’ve met a great product manager to be.

I know it when our conversation rambles all over, goes “depth charge deep” in areas, and then bounces back to the broad view, all with an eye for the relevance and insights that matter for the topic at hand.

What’s  Your Favorite Interview Question?


I almost don’t care what the context of that question is – reviewing a candidate’s previous experience, asking them to provide a “fresh view” on my current situation, or convincing them to dance through a hypothetical situation.  What I want to know is why they think there is value, or a problem , or an opportunity, or … whatever.  A collection of well-dispersed, and sometimes-immediately-sequential “Why?” questions can tell me more about how someone thinks, and more importantly, how they are likely to solve problems, create solutions, and dominate markets than any other question I’ve found.

When is the Best Time for a Start-Up to Hire a Product Manager?

Not counting the founder?

Three to six months before the first product peaks.  All successful start-ups have one good product – solving a single valuable problem, for a single market.  Most (my opinion / observation) start-ups don’t have a second good product or market.  A passionate and insightful founder can spend a long time understanding a market, a problem, and a solution.  That knowledge and passion can yield a successful product.  When is that founder, who is busy running the company, going to find a new problem to solve, a new market to dominate, or a new solution to replace his original idea?

Alternately, I guess the founder can hire someone else to run the company, and anoint herself “president of the product.”  That still counts as hiring a product manager.

What Has Been the Defining Moment in [My] Career?

Switching from electro-mechanical design engineering to software development.  The shift in innovation time scales, the different approach to problem solving, and the markedly different economics of product creation had a profound effect on me.  The evolution from “creating solutions to (defined) problems” to “identifying problems worth solving” was more gradual, as I evolved into a programmer-analyst and consultant and product manager.

“Going agile” half-way through my software development career was pretty eye opening too.  I’ll throw that in as my backup answer.

Mistakes.  What Was [My] Biggest?

From someone else’s perspective, it was leading a team down a six-figure software-development path that solved a problem no one really cared about.  That’s probably defining-moment number 3, when I started including validation of value as part of my scope of engagement as a programmer.

From my own perspective, as they say, it’s the train you don’t see that hits you.  I’ll guess that it was something I didn’t do, not something I did, that would turn out to be the key plot device in my Frank Capra movie.

25 thoughts on “Great Product Manager Questions

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion. I am really enjoying the thread and will work on a follow-up post myself.

    For me, one of my favorite interview question is, “if you could launch any product right now, what would it be and why”. Hearing that the product manager has some creative ideas that are backed by some high level data tells a lot to me. It doesn’t really matter how flushed out the idea is, just the fact that she/he is continually thinking about ideas and keeping up with larger trends in general.



    1. Thanks Josh (@joshua_d on Twitter), was great meeting you in person at SXSWi this past weekend!

      I love your interview question too – great product managers do tend to always have an idea or ten on the tip of their tongues!

    1. Thanks, Thorsten! Guess I need to write a benchmarking / competitive analysis article :).

      Here’s an image of what we ultimately delivered (blurred out, of course!)


      • Each relevant capability is a row
      • The middle group shows the relative ranking of the competitors for each capability
      • The right group shows the relative importance of each capability to each market segment
      • At the bottom right, we have weighted / normalized “scores” for strength of offering from each competitor, within each market segment
  2. So speedy Scott – really great.
    So I can start my own competitive analysis right now:-)
    Really enjoyed reading your blog and I’m looking forward to this article about benchmarking (subscribe to the feed right now). Especially the scoring part is really interesting should be described in full detail.
    Thank you very much

  3. Thanks, Thorsten!

    I’ll add for now (since it will be at least a couple weeks before I start writing about benchmarking) a couple things…

    First – both the framework and the data (specific “important” capabilities, relative company scores, importance to market segments, and relative weighting of each market) evolved pretty much continuously through the life of the competitive analysis project. We got more and more data, and got smarter along the way. So the first results did not match the last results at all.

    Second – a big part of the data gathering came out of win-loss analysis and customer / prospect interviews. Check out Sue Raisty-Egami’s blog for some great tips on how to do win-loss interviews – she’s an experienced pro at it.

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