Product Management Marty Cagan

My Favorite PM Interview Question

I’m going to share here one of my favorite interview questions, even though that means I won’t really be able to use it anymore.  But I’ve got lots of others, and I think this is valuable for all product managers to consider where they stand on this, and why.

One of the most polarizing topics in product, for many years now, is this notion of whether or not the product manager is “the CEO of the product,” and if it’s even a good metaphor.

In truth, I’ve always been conflicted on this question myself, because, oddly enough, some of the very worst product managers I have ever known absolutely love this metaphor; yet it’s also my experience that a disproportionate number of the very best product managers I have ever known love this metaphor.  

And then of course there are many people that absolutely despise the metaphor, and cringe when I even ask them what they think about it.

What makes this such an interesting, and I think revealing, interview question are their reasons.  

Over the years, I’ve found that people generally fall into one of three categories:


The first group loves this metaphor, because when they hear the phrase, they imagine power, fame and fortune (or at least that’s what I think I see in their eyes).  They want to be the one that make the calls.  They want to be in the room where it happens.  Most candidates know that the other members on the team would not actually be reporting to them, but what appeals to them is the influence that they believe (wrongly) comes along with the title.


The second group of people have a viscerally negative reaction to this metaphor because when they hear the phrase, they immediately imagine the pressure the CEO is under, and they want none of it.  They say they absolutely don’t want the responsibility of being “the decider.”  They’re certainly willing to share their opinion, but to them, either “the team” decides or leadership decides.  If being the CEO of the product means they have to handle that much stress, then no thanks.


The third group doesn’t have the visceral response.  To them, well, it’s complicated.  There are some aspects of the CEO role that are very relevant, and others not so much.  

The obvious way it’s not like a CEO is the lack of authority.  

But they understand that the product manager does need to take responsibility for decisions and they see that as similar, albeit they are usually lesser impact decisions.

Most also appreciate that the product manager’s job is to understand and balance the many, often competing, needs of users and customers, sales, marketing, finance, customer success, legal, business development, engineering, design, and more.  That’s probably the most relevant and meaningful part of the analogy.  This is actually what I hope people think of when they hear the phrase.  It’s also, not incidentally, an area where so many product managers come up short.  

Many candidates will admit to me that they aspire to be a startup CEO one day, or at least a VP Product, and so they (rightly) view the product management role as a proving ground.  They think of it a bit as a practice area where the stakes are smaller, but many of the challenges are similar.

I still remember the best answer I ever got on this, where the candidate told me that “it really depends on whether we’re talking about a strong CEO or a weak CEO.  If in your mind, you’re imagining a power hungry, dictatorial CEO, then it’s not a helpful analogy.”

So I’ve learned that what matters is what’s in the candidate’s head.  

I want them to be ambitious, and hungry, and I want them to be confident enough in their abilities to take responsibility for decisions, and I want them to understand they need to worry about all aspects of the business, but I also believe strongly in the importance of humility for a product manager, and I need to make sure they’re not thinking the title gives them anything beyond a shot at earning the respect of their team.