Interviewing with Engineering Managers

Interviewing with Engineering Managers

As part of the product manager interview process, you’ll find that you’ll be interviewing with engineering managers quite regularly.

After all, product managers work closely with engineering managers on a day-to-day basis, and they jointly lead their teams to success.

Therefore, organizations must ensure that the engineering manager approves of the candidate.

But, if you’ve never formally interviewed with an engineering manager before, it can feel like an intimidating obstacle.

Most times, when aspiring product managers think about interviewing with engineering managers, they jump to the conclusion that it’ll be a technically-oriented interview filled with algorithms and data structures.

But based on my own experiences in interviewing with engineering managers, I’ve found that I’ve almost never been asked technical questions by engineering managers.

To help you prepare for your interview with engineering managers, I’ve pulled together the guide below. First, we’ll discuss what an engineering manager looks for in a product manager. Once we understand what engineering managers care about from product managers, we’ll then dive into the kinds of questions that you should expect to see. Finally, we’ll provide best practices around how to respond to these kinds of questions.

So let’s dive in!

What do engineering managers want in an ideal product manager?

Let’s first establish an understanding of what an engineering manager does.

An engineering manager is responsible for the following:

  1. Guiding her engineering team to execute at high velocity and deliver with high quality
  2. Establishing a safe, inclusive, and motivating culture that enables each engineer to develop a satisfying career
  3. Identifying engineering constraints and tradeoffs for the business to consider
  4. Leveling up the technical foundation of the product, and ensuring that the product can quickly evolve to meet business needs and customer needs

Imagine the scenario where an engineering manager is paired with a bad product manager. This is what happens:

  1. A bad product manager creates uncertainty and confusion, which means that the engineering team cannot execute at high velocity and fails to deliver key use cases
  2. A bad product manager damages the engineering culture, which causes morale to drop and causes key engineering talent to leave the company
  3. A bad product manager ignores or fails to understand key constraints and tradeoffs, causing the business to fall prey to bugs, performance issues, bad user experiences, and missed deadlines
  4. A bad product manager fails to provide insight into the future of the company and the future of the product, causing the technical foundation to grow in the wrong direction

In other words, a bad product manager makes the engineering manager look bad.

If the engineering manager is paired with a poorly-performing product manager, the engineering manager’s own career is at risk, because the engineering manager is unable to deliver on her key responsibilities to the business.

If I were the engineering manager, I would want to find the best product manager to partner with, because they will enable me to meet my obligations to the business.

What kind of product managers would I be most afraid of, if I were the engineering manager?

I don’t want a product manager who will overburden my engineers with unrealistic expectations and insane volumes of work.

I don’t want a product manager who plans poorly and creates confusion for my team.

I don’t want a product manager who fails to help me build up my desired engineering culture.

I don’t want a product manager who treats my engineers as replaceable cogs; I want a product manager who treats my engineers as thought partners and subject matter experts.

And, what kinds of product managers would I love to work with, if I were the engineering manager?

I want a product manager who will ensure that engineering and design have a seat at the table. Product, engineering, and design should operate as a trifecta when it comes to making decisions: strategy, prioritization, deadlines, commitments, metrics, etc.

I want a product manager who will share business context with me and my team. Engineers want to know that their assignments are meaningful and valuable, and business context is what transforms mundane tasks into missions.

I want a product manager who will shield my team from sudden thrash, but who will also push my team to stay flexible and drive them to grow.

I want a product manager who will empathize with my engineers, and serve as a friend and mentor to them.

Let’s remember that as product managers, our jobs are to find pain and to solve pain - and that includes the pain of the engineering manager.

So, now we know what engineering managers need from product managers. Let’s identify what kinds of questions we’ll need to address during the engineering manager interview round.

What questions should I expect when interviewing with engineering managers?

Notice how the engineering manager isn’t necessarily looking for a technical subject matter expert. Rather, the engineering manager is looking for a business partner who will enable her engineering team to grow.

Therefore, you should expect to highlight the below in the engineering manager interview round:

  • Your ability to prioritize and focus
  • Your ability to ship
  • Your ability to put out fires
  • Your ability to shield the team
  • Your ability to motivate and grow the team

You’ll want to have tangible, specific examples of your previous experiences so that you can demonstrate the capabilities above. 

Luckily, if you have been regularly performing retrospectives on your past work, you’ll already have a wealth of experiences to draw on!

Why do I say that you should be prepared with narratives?

I say that because it’s nearly impossible to practice every single kind of question that an engineering manager might ask. 

Below is a non-exhaustive set of example questions that come up in the engineering manager interview round:

  1. Tell me about a time when you defended the engineering team, when customers or executives were being unreasonable in their demands.
  2. How do you typically keep engineers in the loop about company initiatives and priorities?
  3. How do you typically keep engineers in the loop about customer needs and customer context?
  4. Tell me about a time when you had to juggle multiple high-priority initiatives. How did you approach the situation?
  5. Tell me about a time when you were able to keep the engineering team staffed with shovel-ready work while you drove a highly uncertain discovery project.
  6. How do you usually like to plan out work?
  7. How do you deal with sudden shifts in priorities?
  8. How do you deal with sudden fires?
  9. Let’s say that we estimated that a critical initiative will take 2 months to complete, and our leadership team decides to fund the initiative. But, now that we’re tackling the work, we discover that it will actually take 5 months to complete. How do you react?
  10. As a product manager, how do you typically onboard new engineers to the team?
  11. How do you typically structure your product specs? Why do you structure them that way?
  12. How do you typically structure tasks for the team? Why do you structure them that way?
  13. How do you typically approach the roadmapping process? Who do you involve, at which stages of the process?
  14. Say that you prioritize working on a feature that is owned by a different team within the company. How do you set our team up for success?
  15. Say that a different team within the company decides that they need to work on a feature that our team owns. How do you approach the situation?

If you attempt to memorize the answers for all of these questions above, you’ll sound robotic and unsure of your own experiences.

It’s much more powerful for you to have a deep grasp of your narratives, and then share your experiences with the engineering manager on-the-fly based on the question that she asks you.

And, I want to repeat a crucial point: most of these questions have nothing to do with your technical ability. You can be an effective product manager even if you’re not technical!

Expect to answer questions about communication, coordination, collaboration, prioritization, and execution. The value of a product manager comes from the soft skills they provide to the engineering team, so be sure to highlight those soft skills during the interview!

That said, note that there are some kinds of product management positions that do truly require a strong technical foundation.

If you're interviewing for a technical product manager position, such as a platform product manager, API product manager, integrations product manager, data product manager, AI/ML product manager, etc., expect to be grilled on technical concepts.

For these positions, while you won't be expected to code, you'll need to demonstrate your technical competency to your engineering counterpart during the interview. In these cases, you'll still need to demonstrate your soft skills, but you'll also need to prepare for much more technically-challenging questions.

How should I address interview questions from engineering managers?

First, ensure that you conduct pre-interview research, so that you have a clear understanding of the company, the industry, and the product. The background context you gain here will help you tell more compelling stories to the engineering manager that you’ll interview with.

On top of that, sometimes recruiters will let you know who you’ll be speaking to next. If you learn who you’ll be speaking to beforehand, conduct some research about the interviewer too.

Look up the engineering manager’s LinkedIn profile, GitHub profile, and any blogs or articles or presentations that she’s created. You want to understand how this person thinks, because that’s the person you’ll likely be partnering with on a day-to-day basis.

Now that you have a sense of what traits are most valuable at the organization, prepare a set of narratives that you can rely on throughout the interview.

Reflect on the last 3 initiatives that you shipped and the last 3 fires that you put out. You want to bring real, tangible examples of your operating processes so that you can share a compelling narrative about how you operate.

Whenever I’m interviewing with engineering managers, I lean on the following three-step framework to address their questions.

First, I share my mental model of how I would typically tackle the problem.

Second, I discuss a real example of that situation, so that the interviewer can see how I bring those principles to life.

Finally, I invite the interviewer to share her own experiences and feedback, and discuss how we might work together on the job to tackle the problem.

As an example, let’s say I’m tackling the question “As a product manager, how do you typically onboard new engineers to the team?”

First, I’ll begin by discussing key principles:

  • The most effective engineers are the ones who are empowered with context about the business, the customer, and the product
  • New teammates typically lack context about the targeted customer segment and the product, and this is where I can provide the most help as a product manager
  • The first couple of weeks on the team sets the tone for the rest of their time on the team, so it’s crucial to overindex on onboarding in the first couple of weeks

Then, I’ll discuss the most recent time I onboarded an engineer.

I’ll talk about how I set up a quick 5-minute meeting every other day to check in on how the new engineer was doing, and a deeper weekly 90-minute onboarding session to discuss the industry, the customer, the company, and the organizational structure of our teams.

I’ll discuss how I worked side-by-side with the new engineer during her first month on the team as she tackled her first set of tickets. For each ticket that the engineer worked on, I talked the engineer through the ticket’s requirements, provided the engineer a demo of how that functionality currently works, and shared context on why we want to enhance the functionality. 

Afterwards, I’ll pause and ask the engineering manager about her prior experiences in working with product managers in onboarding new engineers.

After all, engineering managers have typically worked with a variety of product managers, so getting their read on the kind of product managers they prefer can be really valuable.

I’ll ask for an example of when she found a product manager’s “new engineer onboarding process” to be particularly successful, and an example of when she found a product manager’s “new engineer onboarding process” to be particularly painful. I’ll ask why she enjoyed particular processes and why she disliked other ones, so that I can be the most effective business partner for the engineering manager.

At the end of the day, interviewing with engineering managers isn’t something that you should find painful. It should be an honest, genuine conversation between two people who are looking forward to working together in the most effective way possible.

Closing thoughts

Product managers and engineering managers must work tightly together to succeed. Therefore, it’s no wonder that companies expect product manager candidates to speak with the engineer manager that they’ll work with in the future.

Take the time to understand what engineering managers value in product managers, and prepare your narratives so that you can have an honest conversation about real experiences.

By doing so, you’re setting up the foundation for a fruitful future partnership together!


Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around interviewing with engineering managers? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!

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