Hiring product managers

One of the trickiest things to do is hire product managers in tech companies. Having put in place a successful product team at Unruly and worked extensively with numerous teams large and small I thought I’d note down my thoughts on how I approach it.

Definition of a product manager

The number one issue with the job role of product is its ambiguous and flexible definition. By its very nature, a product job requires a lot of cross functional skills. It’s really important to be clear on where exactly the product function fits in across your organisation:

Job spec

To produce a good job spec, take the questions answered above and roll them into a high level document that highlights the key aspects of the role.

Screening

I usually looked for a few key indicators on CVs/profiles:

  • Do they think of asking for additional information? Do they ask about the deal size overall, what is meant by a ‘quick answer’, what the overall impact of the project is? Do they check just how unchangable these dates are? I usually had answers on hand to these types of questions.
  • What do they do when they get off the phone? Again, common sense: They should immediately be trying to contact people who can help them. Do they ask who else is in the office who may be able to help them? How far do they go?
  • If the teams who can help are off-site and uncontactable, how do they deal with that? Do they go back to the head of sales to explain what’s happening?
  • Identifying the key people they need to ask. This is not specific to the company, but just about their willingness to say they’d talk to anyone they could find to help. Some candidates end up saying they’ll talk to the client directly, but it’s very important to ascertain why they’d want to do that, and who they’d inform before doing so.
  • Compare the relevant merits of two product roadmaps - given a huge amount of effort is required to create product b OR c based on product a - how do they evaluate which one to go for?
  • Desire for ownership - Good product managers end up owning their products. Not necessarily in the sense of dictating their features or roadmap (though this may be the case), but in terms of understanding them in exhaustive detail and liasing with every stake holder.
  • Desire/evidence of autonomy and leadership - A good candidate should be very capable in a team, but also want the autonomy to make their own decisions and determine their own work load. Look for evidence of being a self-starter and creating value by themselves.
  • Comfortable with rapid change - Product roles often operate in a state of flux as products are created, maintained and killed. Just how big a part of their role this issue represents is something that should be made very clear to the candidate and they should be asked how they feel about it.
  • Entrepreneurial flair - There’s a lot of cross over between entrepreneurs and good product managers. It can seem like a catch 22, but it’s a good thing if they express the desire to start their own business in the future.
  • Kindness - At it’s very heart, for me, product is defined as a function which succeeds or fails based on its ability to bring people along with it. Whether thats making sure a development team understands the business case for a less exciting feature, or taking the time to explain at length why a set of features won’t be implemented that would benefit another department, the product manager must be kind. If the product manager ends up as the villain, then there work becomes difficult at best, or irrelevant at worst.

Compromise

Given that the ultimate product manager is a warm hearted polymath spanning all relevant areas of a business, it may end up feeling impossible to hire a particular candidate. This is where the team element of product becomes important. Candidates will always sit somewhere on multiple axises of the various relevant skills and experience. By making sure common sense and kindness are present across the board, it means you can hire individuals whose skills will make them valuable, and as a team cover off all of the aspects of the product spectrum. If you are hiring a first product manager, then it’s really important to remember that compromise will always be present to a certain degree.

@Twilio product guy. Ex @Hailo product director. Ex @unrulyco head of product. Serial creator of experimental apps — latest is http://ufr.ee

@Twilio product guy. Ex @Hailo product director. Ex @unrulyco head of product. Serial creator of experimental apps — latest is http://ufr.ee