What really makes a great product person — David Cancel on starting and scaling product teams

David Cancel is Co-Founder and CEO at Drift. He shares his expertise on SaaS and running product-centric companies. Follow his reading list on Quibb.

After over two decades in tech, David Cancel’s observations on the importance of product are intensely meaningful. He’s witnessed a shift in how companies are built, where the power lies inside of startups, and the ever increasing importance of hiring great product people. With product no longer an afterthought, what does that mean for startups today? When your customers care about the product more than the underlying tech, how does that shift industry norms? David’s controversial advice on this topic garnered a lot of attention recently and piqued our ears to learn more.

Hiring non-product people as product managers

David shared his process for hiring product people earlier this spring — and it was pretty controversial. The post on Medium now has almost 1000 recommends and over 60 comments. His perspective clearly struck a chord. His underlying argument is that people who are trained in the skills of Product Management aren’t necessarily the best people to actually work in product, and that their experiences in previous product roles aren’t indicative of their potential to be a great product person in the future.

“It’s not that the skills are secondary, it’s that the past experience is secondary. What we’re looking for are things that fit more on the qualitative side, which people hate because it’s so squishy.”

So what does David do differently? He looks for certain characteristics and prioritizes those over past product experience. He has found that people who are hungry, active and quick learners, and empathetic end up becoming much stronger product leaders. With those core characteristics in place, his wealth of product experience allows him to then train and teach the skills that those types of people need to succeed in the role.

“I want to know if the person is hungry to learn, if they have something to prove, if they are naturally curious about the types of things that we are all curious about. Even if they haven’t done it before. Is what they’re obsessed with? Is this a person that we like to be around from a cultural standpoint? Is this someone that will make this team stronger from a diversity of thought standpoint? By definition, if you can check off a box, those are the teachable things. You can’t teach hunger. You can’t teach: is someone nice. You can’t teach: do you want to be around this person.”

That’s one of the biggest takeaways from David’s non-standard approach: there are things that you can teach and things that you can’t teach. What David has learned is that the types of things he and his team values are not teachable, but the types of skills that product people need are teachable. It’s especially adverse to the processes codified internally at large tech companies (i.e. Google, Intuit), which are known for their strong PM training rotational programs.

David doesn’t believe that these types of programs are inherently bad or flawed — he himself has created similar programs to train PMs. It comes down to the simple truth that he has found more success with his current process. He’s done plenty of unwinding or untraining of people with PM backgrounds, and finds there’s more efficiency and better results when they start with principles.

Your product should shape your team

When thinking about how you build your team, and what type of people you should hire, David emphasizes the importance of the actual product informing that decision — specifically, the importance of the feedback cycle inherent to your type of product. Why is that? Everything associated with how your product team will work flows from that driving characteristic. David is a strong believer that you should hire people who are comfortable in that cycle.

“What matters is the way that you work. What’s the cadence for how you build features, how you ship features, how you test features, how often do you release features? What do your personas look like, and how apt are they to accept change? You’ll use a different methodology depending on the type of product it is.”

He used a great example, speaking to the inherent differences of working on a mobile iOS product, in comparison to working on a web-based product:

“When you’re developing mobile products, because you’re going through Apple, and an approval process, that development really feels a lot like shipping package software back in the day. It looks a lot like a waterfall, because you’re not in control of the cadence of shipping.”

Compare that to David’s current company, Drift. As it’s a web-based SaaS product, the shipping cycle is more constant. There are many more chances and opportunities to put something out into the world, and collect feedback and performance data very quickly. This lends itself to a much more iterative cycle. Because of that, they have focused on hiring people who are comfortable with a quicker pace and shipping constantly.

The Drift team
“This is different than what we did at Hubspot, and what we do at Drift, which is: we’re building SaaS software, so we control how fast we can ship, so we tend to have an organization that tends to recruit people who like and are comfortable with shipping multiple times a day. We build our structures and our teams around that cadence, and our organization around that cadence. So it really depends on who your customer is, and how often you can make changes, and how comfortable they are.”

Stepping into the CEO’s shoes is never easy

Another nuanced aspect of hiring is in relation to executive roles. As a product-focused CEO, David has a lot of experience bringing on the first major product hires, choosing the people who will assume many of the responsibilities that he brought into creating the company. This partially explains David’s approach to hiring non-PM people for product roles, as we previously mentioned. But in addition to that:

“Because product is core to myself and the businesses that I’ve been a part of, I tend to do better with bringing in someone and teaching them, or bringing in someone from a different part of the team, versus bringing in someone who is more experienced, and has been a product person at lots of other companies.”

This isn’t a unique situation to product-focused CEOs, however. It’s a trend that he’s seen across the companies that he advises and those where he’s become close with the CEOs of other non-product focused founders. It’s always very difficult to hire someone who is taking over the functional area that used to be the sole domain of the CEO. The clarity around which the CEO understands the requirements of the role means that their bar is much, much higher in that area, compared to other functions across the company.

“The hardest hire to make is, and the hardest role to be in within a company is the role that the CEO used to play before. Whether it’s product, or sales, or marketing. How are you ever going to be good enough? They’re always going to be in the weeds with you, and how can they give up control?”

His advice on how he developed his process for hiring product people would apply here as well: focus on the underlying characteristics that the CEOs knows are core to the role, versus relying on external signals of the requisite skills.

When the CEO has ownership and clarity around why and how they’re identifying the skills that they possess that then translate into successful hires, the process becomes scalable as the organization grows and continues to add more people to that original core competency that the CEO possesses — the one that made the company successful and at a point of scaling in the first place!

Listen to our entire conversation with David Cancel on the What I Know Best podcast.

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