How to Evaluate Candidates for Product Mindset

Rajesh Nerlikar May 20 2021

The following is adapted from Build What Matters.

There is one factor that separates the great product managers from the ones who’ve perpetually struggled, and it’s not experience, domain knowledge, or anything else so easily identified on a resume. So, what is it?

A product mindset.

In our work as advisors for many startups, we’ve worked with hundreds of product managers. Some have been highly experienced, some fresh out of school, and others pulled in from other positions at the company or non-product positions elsewhere. In every instance, the single most important characteristic was their mindset.

It’s always important to search for this mindset, but it’s especially critical when making your first product team hire. The first hire forms the foundation of your product team and determines the direction the team will go. So when making this first hire, you must look for a product mindset.

What is a Product Mindset?

The best way to understand a product mindset is to look at it in action. One of the best product managers we’ve ever worked with—and one of the best examples of a product mindset—was an individual on Ben’s team at Opower

This individual’s intense curiosity was his superpower. When he first became a product manager, he had strong customer empathy, but he had no idea how the technology worked. 

Understanding his limitations, he sat down with the engineers and talked with them at length, then followed up by reading books and watching videos about anything he didn’t fully understand. 

In fact, he got to a point where he had a better technical understanding of the product than some of the engineers. He was able to figure out exactly what data he needed to make smart decisions, and when he couldn’t access it through existing reports, he adapted and learned SQL to pull the data himself. 

He never gave excuses for not delivering results, and instead offered creative ideas for how to improve the next time around.

Breaking it down, these are the key attributes this product manager possessed that made up a strong product mindset:

  • Customer empathy
  • Curiosity
  • Humility
  • Adaptability
  • Intelligence
  • Data-driven decision-making
  • Continuous improvement
  • Scrappiness

When you’re making your first product team hire, these are the attributes you need to look for.

How to Evaluate a Product Mindset: The Value of Homework Assignments

So product mindset is critical, but how can you evaluate a person’s mindset from a resume and a conversation? You can’t. This is something best revealed through an exercise.

We strongly recommend that you give homework assignments to all prospective product management hires. It is one of the most tried-and-true ways of separating great candidates from good ones. 

It’s easy for a prospective hire to hand you a resume that rattles off all of their accomplishments and the business impact they’ve had, but the truth is, product managers work in cross-functional teams. When you read about their past accomplishments, you don’t know if they drove them or if they were simply along for the ride. 

A homework assignment gives you a way to see the real value of a prospective hire because it’s something that they do by themselves. It’s amazing how often a candidate who looks great on paper will utterly fail a homework assignment.

We realize this is a controversial topic. Indeed, some leaders are dead set against the idea, because they worry that it will scare off a good candidate. In all honesty, this is a possibility. 

However, we’ve only seen it happen a handful of times out of hundreds and hundreds of interviews, and in several of those instances, the reluctance to do the homework translated into a broader reluctance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty at the whiteboard, which is key for any good product manager.

Tips for Designing the Homework Assignment

A well-designed homework assignment offers candidates the opportunity to showcase their product mindset, without placing too much burden on them.

First, the assignment should present a real business challenge that your company is currently facing or has faced. Don’t give the candidate some weird math homework that has nothing to do with your company or feels more like an aptitude test versus a real case study. 

You want to see how they would perform in the role, but you also want to give them a clear indication of the type of work they will be doing. Ideally, they will walk away from the assignment saying either, “This is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing,” or “This is not for me.” That’s a realization that is better had before they start working for you, or even before they waste a day of their time (and yours) in in-person interviews.

Don’t ask a candidate to spend more than two or three hours on a homework assignment. You’re not looking for a polished response, anyway. Even if they just provide a half-baked idea for solving a problem, that’s perfectly fine. 

The homework assignment doesn’t need to be polished, because it’s meant to be discussed and explored further during the interview process. Ask questions like this: “Why did you make this decision? What kind of data would you collect to validate this assumption? If you had to drop something from the minimum viable product to make an accelerated deadline, what would it be? Why?” 

By answering these kinds of questions, candidates will show you how they think rather than merely telling you what they expect you to want to hear.

Making a Great First Hire

Many of the best product managers have little formal experience in product management, no certifications or advanced degrees, no prior exposure to the domain, and sometimes start with insufficient understanding of the technology and business acumen. 

The ones who succeed are the ones self-directed and motivated to learn everything they need, ask the right questions, take accountability for outcomes, and refuse to quit—the ones with a product mindset.

With well-designed homework assignments, you can identify those hard-to-find traits that make up a product mindset and increase your chances of making a great first hire.

Want more advice in making your first product hire? Check out our free video training on the product hiring best practices for startup execs.

Written by Rajesh Nerlikar

Rajesh is a co-founder of Prodify and Principal Product Advisor / Coach. He is currently the VP of Product at Regrow. Prior to that, he was the Director of Workplace Products at Morningstar, a Senior PM at HelloWallet (which was acquired by Morningstar) and a PM at Opower (which went public in 2014).

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