No company is perfect, especially when it comes to continuous discovery. But some companies are decidedly better than others.
No company is perfect, especially when it comes to continuous discovery. But some companies are decidedly better than others. – Tweet This
You can probably easily list off where your current company is nailing it and where there’s room for improvement when it comes to adopting continuous discovery habits. You likely have a good sense of what’s happening regularly and smoothly—and where you’re getting tripped up (or haven’t actually started yet).
What happens, though, when you’re ready to find a new role? How do you assess where other companies are when it comes to their continuous discovery practices?
It’s worth remembering that change can be slow to come to the business world. Most companies do not yet have a full-fledged continuous discovery practice. Some have begun their journey. Some don’t work this way but might allow you the space to introduce these habits. And others simply aren’t ready.
As a job-seeker, how do you test the waters to figure this out? I caught up with several product professionals to learn how they approached the job search process. They shared their insights, takeaways, and resources that helped them along the way.
Meet the Product People
For this post, I spoke with the following people:
Abdeljalil (Abdel) Karam, Product Manager
Abdel started a new role as a product manager at a company that makes maps for autonomous vehicles on December 1. He began his career as a freelancer and tech entrepreneur, so this will be his first full-time official position as a product manager in a company that is not his.
Andrew Skotzko, Product Director
Andrew is currently a product director and podcaster. He began his career in marketing, then switched to engineering, and eventually discovered the product discipline, which he says “feels like home between the technical part of my brain and the human part of my brain.” He’s exploring new products to unleash creative performance and thriving teams through the evolving future of work and web3.
Paolo Appley, Senior Product Manager at User Interviews
Paolo began his job search at the beginning of 2021 and started his current role as Senior Product Manager at User Interviews in April. He says he tends to base his career decisions on the opportunity for growth. Before taking on a new role, he always asks himself, “Where do I see my own growth happening over the next couple of years? And is that aligned with the culture and goals of the company?”
Richard Simms, Senior User Experience Designer at SEEK Learning
Richard has been designing digital experiences since 2005 across broadcast, websites, and mobile apps. In his previous role, he conducted customer interviews, but the process wasn’t structured in a way that made it easy to share those insights with the rest of the team. “For my next role it was really important for me to choose a company that worked in a way that met my desire to work with continuous discovery,” he says. He started his current role as Senior User Experience Designer at SEEK Learning in August 2021.
Emily Flannery, Product Manager at Cloudflare
Emily started her job search in early April 2022. She interviewed with six companies over eight weeks and received two offers in early June. During the process of interviewing for a product manager role at Google, Emily received the advice to check out tryexponent.com and to read Cracking the PM Interview. She says these clarified two things for her: 1. The level of preparation typically necessary to make it through the most competitive interview cycles (a lot!) and 2. Helpful frameworks for answering common PM interview questions.
As product people who have been involved in a job search recently, they took time to reflect on how they approached it and were excited to share what they learned from the process with Product Talk readers.
Before You Start: Articulate What You’re Looking for
Before you begin applying for roles or even looking at job descriptions, it helps to spend some time understanding exactly what you’re looking for in your next role. This might include things like salary, learning opportunities, or company values. Paolo believes this was a critical part of his job search process. He says, “The work I did at the front end to make decisions about the outcome I was looking for—I wanted to go into a PM role, I was looking for a place where I could do a lot of experimentation—having those outcomes in mind was really important to my overall success.”
The work I did at the front end of my job search to make decisions about the outcome I was looking for—having those outcomes in mind was really important to my overall success. – Tweet This
Beyond answering those general questions about your own desired outcome, be sure to get really specific about what you need in terms of continuous discovery practices or support. Why does continuous discovery matter to you?
There can be multiple layers to how you answer that question. Andrew says there are a few main reasons why finding a company that will allow him to practice continuous discovery is non-negotiable.
One: In any job you want to be growing your skill sets. You want to be as close to the edge of the field as you can. And this is the edge of the field. Two: It’s just more fun, more satisfying, and more engaging from a lived experience, day-to-day quality of your work life—which has a huge impact on your overall quality of life. And three: It’s an almost existential issue of choosing what we give our time and energy to. I have been a part of far too many product efforts and projects that never went anywhere. And it sucks to pour so much time and energy into something you believe in and have built the wrong thing and see it go nowhere. I know we’ll never get to a 100% hit rate, just by definition, but we can do a lot better than we do.
In any job you want to be growing your skill sets. You want to be as close to the edge of the field as you can. And continuous discovery is the edge of the field. – Tweet This
Abdel’s situation is a little unique. He’s only ever been an entrepreneur, so he had big expectations both in terms of company values and approach to continuous discovery. He says, “The biggest difficulty was not in terms of salary or value match, but finding the right environment where product managers are empowered and open to change.”
Sometimes your definition of what you’re looking for might be based on a less-than-ideal past experience. You understand where a previous company was falling short and you’d like to have the chance to try out a new way of working.
This was the case for Richard. In a previous role, he says, “I spoke to a lot of customers and tried to provide the teams with insights that we were building value. This continuous interviewing was good but it lacked structure and didn’t feed into the next highest priority that should be worked on.” The frustrations he experienced helped him articulate what he wanted. “For my next role it was really important for me to choose a company that worked in a way that met my desire to work with continuous discovery.”
The opposite might also be true. Positive past experiences can help you highlight what you’d like more of in your next company and role.
Paolo puts it this way: “I realized building effective software is best done at the small team level. They have the freedom to ask a lot of questions, can work closely with each other to develop solutions, and can change quickly as they learn from customers and experiments. Small teams rallied around a mission tend to be more effective and everything in my career has taught me that being close to the user is the key to building good, simple solutions that work well. From an outcome standpoint, I needed to be somewhere that shared those beliefs.”
Building effective software is best done at the small team level. Small teams rallied around a mission tend to be more effective. – Tweet This
How to Approach Your Interviews: Questions to Ask
You will learn a lot about prospective employers from the interactions you have with the recruiter, hiring manager, and your potential teammates. How responsive and transparent are they? How much do they respect your time and effort? How well do they prepare you for what to expect in each stage of the interview process? These are all important clues about what it will be like to work there.
In addition to paying careful attention to how an employer treats you, you’ll also want to proactively seek out information from them. Take opportunities to ask questions from the people you meet.
Finding the best timing for when to ask your questions can be a little tricky at first, but after a few interviews you’ll start to get the hang of when it makes the most sense to do so. Richard says, “Most of the interviews were informal to start with—more of a chat before progressing on to a formal interview and case study presentation. I refrained from asking too many probing questions in the informal chat and would wait for the end of the formal interview, knowing that there was time for me to ask questions.”
Which questions should you ask? That all depends on what you’re trying to learn.
Abdel says he is always trying to determine the following about each company he interviews with:
- Do they differentiate between discovery and delivery?
- Do they differentiate between outcomes and outputs?
- How much empowerment do they give to product managers?
- What kind of attitude are they looking for in a product manager (hopefully they’re focused on curiosity and learning!)
Andrew found that treating job interviews the same way you would treat a customer interview and employing the same tactics was a game-changer. “Having your research questions and interview questions separated out was what cracked it open for me. One day it just kind of clicked—the idea that I could interview companies the same way that Teresa taught me to interview users and customers.”
Andrew recommends asking questions that uncover actual past behavior rather than speculative or aspirational future behavior. Some of the questions he suggests asking include:
- What were the last few things your team has built and shipped, and how did you decide to do those?
- When’s the last time you talked with customers? How often have you done that in the last month?
- What’s the last feature or product your team killed?
Andrew wrote about this topic at length—including how he’d evaluate different answers to these key questions—in How to Know If You’re Interviewing at a Product-Led Company.
Paolo also used this approach and many of his questions overlap with Andrew’s. He says, “The core question that I tried to ask at every interview was: ‘Can you walk me through a recent solution that was shipped? Take me through that process from start to finish.’”
What should you look out for in the answers? According to Paolo, “In the good answers, the decision-making process originated at the team level. Not just what to build, but why they were building that thing. I wanted to see that they were considering a lot of options; they weren’t just locked into one idea. And I was also looking for measurement—how were they measuring the impact of the work? Did they care? Did it matter to them?”
Richard also used many of Andrew’s questions. He found the most success with: What was the last feature or product your team killed? In one particularly noteworthy response, a product manager said he was “the Marie Kondo of killing underperforming features.” This caught Richard’s attention since, “In my last role this was a frustration that I often felt—the bloat of features—and I liked hearing that nothing was fixed and they were iterating on what was in production.”
Emily finds it helpful to ask your interviewers for feedback on the answers you’ve given during the interview. “This can be a valuable opportunity to understand the company and team’s values and approach to continuous discovery habits,” she says. She recommends asking questions like, “How did my response resonate with you? Was there anything critical you felt I overlooked?” and paying attention to how closely their feedback aligns to your own values, approach, and expectations. While perhaps not appropriate for every question, Emily says this approach can come in handy when answering experience, product design, product sense, or execution questions.
If you’re asked a question like, “How would you improve X product?” you could try to make sure your responses highlight how you approach product management and how much you value continuous discovery habits. After you respond, says Emily, “There’s a valuable opportunity in having a follow-up exchange with your interviewer.” If they respond with something like, “I really liked how you based your decision on user needs/put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” or “I thought it was great that you’d prioritize validating the problem/solution with customers,” then this is a great validation that the interviewer or company values continuous discovery habits. Their response may also be a chance to uncover red flags.
Key Insights and Takeaways
Now that they’ve all had some time to reflect on the job search process, each person had a few insights and takeaways to share.
Are you getting time with company leaders? And what are the current product leaders in the company like?
Emily recommends paying attention to whether you’re getting face-time with company leaders and if your hiring manager or interview panel is offering to answer questions outside of structured interview times. “First, these can be really positive signals of a transparent and collaborative culture,” she says. “Secondly, take advantage of these opportunities to ask more questions, and pay close attention to the questions they ask you. These interactions can give you more insight into the habits and behaviors the company values.”
Abdel looks for product leaders who are curious, humble, and active in the product community, whether it’s giving talks or writing blog posts. He also wants to know whether they’re familiar with Marty Cagan and Teresa. “If they know about both, that’s already an amazing sign!” And if they don’t, they can demonstrate their curiosity by choosing to do more research on their own. Abdel says a few hiring managers impressed him by buying Empowered or Continuous Discovery Habits after he brought these books up in his interview.
How open is the company to change?
Some companies don’t have continuous discovery practices in place right now, but they’re open to changing and experimenting. “The willingness to get challenged on discovery practices is a good sign,” says Abdel.
The willingness of product leaders to get challenged on discovery practices is a good sign during the job interview process. – Tweet This
How consistent are you being in asking questions and creating interview snapshots?
This came up a few times. Both Richard and Paolo said they could have been more consistent in asking the same questions and capturing their observations in a way that made it easier to compare and contrast different companies. Paolo says using the interview snapshot template would have made it easier to compare apples to apples.
Are you getting all your questions answered?
Most interviews these days tend to involve multiple stages, so you will probably not be able to ask all your questions in a single interview. But over time, you should definitely be able to get all of them answered. Good interviewers will make sure to ask if you have any questions, but don’t be afraid to be proactive. “The further you get in the interview process, the more leverage you have participating as the interviewee, so take it,” says Paolo. “People want to tell their story. Even though it feels like there’s not space, there usually is.”
The further you get in the job interview process, the more leverage you have participating as the interviewee, so take it. – Tweet This
Are the answers you’re hearing specific enough?
“There were times when I wasn’t pushing enough for specifics,” says Paolo. “Some teams were very forthcoming with the specifics and some teams tended to gloss over them. Looking back, there were a few times when I could have pushed harder to say, ‘No, tell me an actual story about what happened.’” Similarly, Emily finds that it can be easy for teams to “game” their answers, so pushing for specifics is helpful, especially when it comes to understanding their strategy. “Understanding how goals are set, how roadmaps are created, how success is measured, and how the company approaches their product strategy can give you strong clues into how heavy-handed leadership is versus how deeply the product team is trusted, and what role the customer plays,” says Emily.
What kind of company is this fundamentally and what is their business?
“Tech is very shiny and recruiters can kind of lure you in,” warns Andrew. This is why he thinks it’s critical to take time to really understand how the company makes their money. He recommends taking a business model canvas and diagramming the business. The top-down incentives have to be there, and if they’re not really a product company, you need to know that before you agree to work there.
How are product people treated within this company?
In addition to looking at the business model, Andrew recommends looking at the power structures and people that are shaping the environment you’re going to step into. How product friendly and product aligned are they? “Look at reporting chains,” says Andrew. “Who do you report to? Who do they report to? Have they built real products before? Do you really trust their ability to create a strong product organization?”
Other Resources to Check Out
Andrew has spent a lot of time distilling his thoughts on this topic, so be sure to check out his blog post, How to Know if You’re Interviewing at a Product-Led Company and his podcast interview with Marty Cagan, Empowering Product Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives.