Finding a new team member creates anxiety for many managers and for a good reason. The right hire unlocks new capabilities, allowing the team to achieve even more. The wrong choice, however, can drag down the highest functioning of teams. Hiring for established and historically well-defined roles like product management is challenging enough, but companies looking to augment their product team with a product operations manager have additional challenges, especially when developing product operations interview questions.
Other challenges around the role include:
- It’s an emerging role without consistent definitions or industry career paths. The perfect product operations candidate might not even know to search for this job title. Companies lack the luxury of sketching out a summary and assuming applications fully understand the role for which they’re applying.
- A shortage of applicants with specific product operations experience. Hiring managers must get creative and connect a candidate’s past experiences and translate them into the product operations space. While the product operations career path is maturing, very few applications have past product operations expertise listed on their resume.
- Teammates who don’t understand product operations or work with this new colleague. Product operations can look different from organization to organization, and existing team members may have competing or conflicting ideas about this new role and what it means for them.
This article discusses the importance of defining the skills, tool familiarity, and product knowledge required, as well as some strategic questions to ensure you’re hiring the right person for your team.
The Product Operations Role
So, what exactly is a product operations manager? Product operations managers support and enable the product management team by:
- Managing systems and processes, including documentation and reengineering.
- Supporting timely, audience-tailored communication from product to the rest of the organization.
- Assembling, analyzing, and synthesizing data for the product team, with an eye towards automation and dashboarding.
- Absorbing other non-core product management tasks or task precursors to free up product management.
A strong product operations manager acts as the connective tissue connecting the product with the organization, enabling long-term, sustainable, repeatable product management practices.
While the description above captures the essence of the product operations role, it’s typically guided by the organization’s organic needs. Some companies hire product operations because their product managers generally need more support. Others hire to solve a particular challenge, such as better using the flood of data coming at the product team or improving communication with other functions.
Creating an accurate and appealing job description
When hiring a product operations manager, the job description should capture your envisioned role. If product operations is a new function for your organization, circulate the job description to key stakeholders. Not only does this allow you to smooth out any bumps before anyone is hired, but it also gets everyone on the same page and presents a consistent perspective to each candidate.
Next, consider the concrete skills and knowledge the right candidate must possess, documenting what’s a firm prerequisite versus what’s nice to have. Use this to educate human resources and recruiters to screen applicants who may not have cookie-cutter qualifications and experience.
Great product operations professionals might come from sales operations or marketing operations, or they could work in product and be looking for a new challenge or better fit. They may also be a data jockey from another industry great at synthesizing disparate data streams into actionable insights.
11 Product Operations Interview Questions
Next, we’ll explore how open-ended product operations interview questions elicit the insights needed to select the best candidate and future coworker. Aside from covering the basics of software applications, past roles, and cultural fit, the questions below help elicit a more well-rounded view of each candidate’s hard and soft skills, as well as their temperament.
1. What drew you to this role versus product management or other operations jobs?
Understanding each applicant’s motivation and vision ensures that their expectations for the job match your own. Given the emerging nature of product operations, not every applicant will understand your particular concept for the position.
2. How do you define the boundaries between product management and product operations?
The boundaries will look somewhat different from organization to organization. However, in a nutshell, product operations is about making the product management team the customer so that product can focus on the organization’s customer.
Product operations take direction from product on issue prioritization. And as the primary user of product processes and systems, they’re a key stakeholder in determining how feasible or practical an approach may be. They own the process itself, along with the associated documentation and training.
Product uses data to determine the product roadmap. However, product operations plays a key role in collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing data used by product. Product sets the direction and strategy while product operations support and helps communicate the system to the rest of the organization.
3. What strategies, systems, or approaches do you use to manage your day-to-day?
The best systems thinkers and process pros use these skills organically in their own lives. This question helps you discover these natural processes people.
Product operations keep the plates spinning and look ahead to anticipate issues. Strong candidates will talk about lists, action tracking, following up, future planning, and issue anticipation.
4. What sort of process analysis, documentation, or process reengineering projects have you worked on, and what was its impact?
Product operations use systems and processes to help product management run more efficiently. More mature companies may need to look at process reengineering or improvement while emerging companies in growth mode are more likely must build out cadences and processes. A strong product operations candidate speaks confidently about past process work and its impact on outcomes.
Don’t forget about process documentation. Lighter documentation is en vogue, but it’s still needed to keep processes in an accessible form to facilitate use and adoption, particularly in high-growth organizations.
Finally, the candidate should reflect on the impact of the work. Processes with poor adoption aren’t successes. Systems with too much friction and little payoff languish. Articulating their impact gives you insight into their track record to date.
5. How do you balance efficiency and effectiveness with a process or system?
Successful processes and systems must be both efficient and effective. A governance process only involving product management may be more efficient, but ideally, all the stakeholders have a line of sight into how the product’s actions impact other functions. Conversely, involving too many cooks comes with its share of issues.
Finding that sweet spot requires understanding stakeholders’ perspectives, needs, and routines. Product ops can then design an approach threading the needle between efficiency and effectiveness.
The better candidates will discuss the process they used, what they factored in, and who they spoke with. And since there’s always room for improvement, listen for an iterative approach rather than a one-and-done solution.
6. How do you get up to speed in a new knowledge area? How do you continue to stay up-to-date?
The best product operations colleagues have product knowledge on par with their product management counterparts. The knowledge allows product operations to more effectively represent product to the rest of the organization and spot data anomalies important to the product.
Each organization must decide how vital specific product or industry knowledge is and a firm prerequisite. Regardless of where you land, people who learn do it quickly and stay current.
In a rapidly changing product landscape, the knowledge someone walks in with quickly grows stale without a commitment to ongoing learning. That flexibility and the ability to learn a new space means they’ll have more opportunities to flex and grow as product operations evolve at your organization.
7. When communicating to a group of stakeholders, what do you consider when assembling your materials?
Product operations support and augment communications from product to other organizational functions such as finance, support, and sales. Product managers spread too thin benefit from a partner that can focus on communication and understanding how and when other functions use product information.
Some things to listen for include:
- Tailoring content and presentation for different communication channels. A standing forum requires a different approach from a management report.
- Any standing templates, norms, or structures they use.
- Doing the stakeholder analysis to understand each audience’s seniority level and background knowledge.
- Determining the emotion, action, or knowledge you want stakeholders to walk away with.
- Considerations of any context or process information needed.
8. How would you build relationships with the stakeholders outside of product?
Wearing their communications hat, a product operations manager can take on some interactions with stakeholders outside of the product. Excellent candidates will discuss meeting with stakeholders to understand better what they need from development and their timelines, cadences, and considerations.
Product operations can triage requests and needs by becoming the “go-to” person for external stakeholders, so product management only engages with essential items demanding their expertise. The more they know, product operations can improve timely communication, be proactive, and design processes incorporating stakeholder needs.
9. Tell me about your data background and skillset. How would that apply to the product space?
We’re living in the age of data overload. With a million channels for customer feedback, telemetry, instrumentation, and Internet of Things data, product managers are drowning in data fishing for those rare insights that lead to a better product.
Product operations managers have an enormous opportunity to support product managers’ data needs, so comfort and facility with data are critical. Beyond the actual applications and specific data analysis skills, key things to listen for include:
- Working with products to understand their data needs
- Using data to answer a question from product
- Automating key data tasks, so data work is easily repeatable
- Understanding the data needs of stakeholders and partners
- Analyzing data to find new insights
10. How would you spend the first 90 days if we hired you?
Their approach to their first 30, 60, and 90-day periods on the job demonstrates the candidate’s values and ability to prioritize. Ideally, the candidate plans to spend time meeting colleagues and listening to their perspectives rather than immediately making changes before establishing foundational relationships. The answers should feel aligned with your organization’s culture.
11. What part of this role do you think will be the most challenging, and how do you plan on meeting that challenge?
You have one last chance to assess how self-aware the candidate is and if they have a growth mindset. Every job has its challenges, so this is an opportunity for applicants to reflect on what they’ve learned in the interview and demonstrate their comprehension of how the role matches their skillset.
Product Operations Manager Interview Questions Takeaways
Using a consistent set of interview questions with each candidate makes it easier to compare and contrast answers across applicants. Similar questions also ensure each applicant received comparable information about the opportunity.
Triangulating with others involved in the interview process at the end should help solidify your confidence in a selection. Then it’s time to make an offer and begin the onboarding process for your new product operations hire.