5 Critical Product Owner Interview Questions

Product Owners are vital in any scenario, but are arguably one of the pillars to help ensure a product is successful on a Scrum Team by maximizing the value delivered. Making the wrong decision when hiring for this role can be catastrophic for your team and product. No pressure, right?

If you’re preparing your Product Owner interview questions and have ‘how much time do you spend in Jira?’ or ‘how good are you at multitasking?’ written down, stop right now. Ball up the piece of paper and throw it out the window. Scratch that, throw it in the trash–litter isn’t cool. Here, we’ll give you the questions that will lead to the right person for the job.

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1. What is value?

This is a very hard question but a very important one. If a Product Owner’s role is to maximize value, a Product Owner should know what value is. 

Look for concise answers that relate to customer happiness. Bonus points if they also include the cost at a certain happiness level. No iPhone is worth $100 million. It’s valuable to you because it provides deep utility at a reasonable price considering how much utility delivers.

2. How do you know you are delivering value to your customers?

Any candidate that says “because I got sign-off” is a person not ready for the role. Look for someone who is comfortable with the unknown and experimentally verifying their ideas to gather more knowledge. 

A Product Owner must assume everything they think is wrong until validated in the marketplace. Every feature idea, every stakeholder request, every wild hope, and dream could be totally wrong until you see results from your customers. They should always be looking for ways to empirically measure success and customer happiness through frequent inspection of analytics tools, usage statistics, support requests, reviews, anything they can get their hands on which might show true results. 

“Frequent” is a key word here. Scrum is designed to gather facts and review facts at a high enough frequency to catch mistakes before they become big mistakes. 

3. What is the point of Scrum?

This is a tricky question but the answer is actually quite simple. Look for simplicity in the answer. If they go on and on about a “methodology” and rules and tactics, they’re not the right person. 

You’re looking for someone who thinks about Scrum as a strategic tool for competitive advantage. The whole point of Scrum is to produce a usable and valuable increment every single Sprint without fail. The reason why is that it mitigates the most risk. Especially if the new increment of product gets in the hands of their stakeholders immediately. 

In this fashion you can mitigate risks from testing, requirements, integration, financials, customer happiness–the list goes on and on. If a Scrum Team does not produce something usable and valuable every Sprint, they’re merely spending the company’s money and increasing the risk of missed expectations. The longer a team goes without producing a new increment of value, the more risk is created.

4. What is the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as a Product Owner?

Many answers would work for this one depending on your specific needs. However, look for responses that speak to making hard choices between competing stakeholder priorities, solutions or features when there isn’t a perfectly clear path to success. 

A Product Owner has to make hard choices with imperfect information all the time. The whole point of the role is having someone empowered to make these decisions quickly, nimbly toward product success.

5. Tell us a time where you may have had to say no. Why?

“No” to a BLT for lunch? “No” to hanging out with co-workers for a happy hour? Borrrring. You’re looking for the difficult “no”s delivered. Like when a Product Owner’s boss tells them to change their Product Backlog incorporating their own ideas. If it doesn’t make sense to do so, that should be a hard “no”. 

Bonus points if the candidate knows the delicate dance of giving a “no” that sounds like a “yes”. For example: the boss asks you to put their number one priority at the top of the backlog. If it’s not a ridiculous idea, just not worth doing now, they should say “yes” and show them where you think it makes sense on the Product Backlog given context and all the higher value things that need to be tackled. 

“No” is hard to say to someone who has authority. And to address a difficult subject here’s a quote from the 2020 version of the Scrum Guide:

“For Product Owners to succeed, the entire organization must respect their decisions. These decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog, and through the inspectable Increment at the Sprint Review.”

Be The Knowledgeable Leader

It goes without saying… but we’ll say it anyway–to effectively build and lead a Scrum Team, you need to know what you’re doing. If you’re not comfortable with Scrum, it would behoove you to read the Scrum guide and/or take a class on the subject. It will be very difficult to hire for a role if you don’t fully understand the purpose it serves. 

It’s very common to think of a Product Owner as a requirements hunter-gatherer or just someone that interfaces between the product manager and the developers. If you’re looking for just a go-between, you’re likely missing the point of a Product Owner. 

Scrum is about speed to results, it’s about agility, it’s about empirical decision-making in product development. If you don’t hire the right person, it’s like hiring a 12-year-old to drive your million dollar race car. Expect bad things to happen.

Instead, hire a tenured race-car driver who has been around the track a few times. Okay, we’ll lose the metaphor. Instead, hire Scrum experts that can help you understand the ins and outs of each role giving you the knowledge and understanding you need to build the best team for your project. Hire us. 

At Responsive Advisors, we can take you from amateur to expert. And don’t worry, we don’t do boring, we don’t believe you have to wear a tie to learn, and dogs in the background are preferred. 

Greg Crown

Likes baking, craft beer, whisk(e)y & beaches.
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