While management and engineering are important components of a great technology company, they are only two legs of a three legged stool. The third leg, product management, is just as important in determining success or failure of the technology.
Before we get deeper into product management we should deal with the most obvious, but possibly most important, question you need to ask:
Do you personally believe in the longer term goals for the product?
If the answer is “no” then working for a long time toward a goal you don’t believe in seems like a bad idea, even if you love the management and the technology.
Obviously, in order to know the answer to this question, you need to ask it. Which brings me to one of the most important components of a product management team:
Can they communicate the long term product goals to the technology team?
If you are interviewing with a technology team, determining how effective the product team is at communicating is as simple as finding out how well the technology department understands (and also believes in) the long term product goals.
Much like the technology questions in Part 2, wishy-washy answers are a warning sign. The technology team should be taking direction from the product team. If there is a lack of trust, or understanding, in what the team should be building then it’s hard to see a great product emerging from the process.
Do they know who their customer is?
Even if a product team is great at communicating their long term goals, how they determine those goals is just as important as the goals themselves. In order to pick goals that matter, they need to know who their customer is.
This seems like a relatively obvious thing to understand, but once you drill down into the nitty gritty it can get complicated. A lot of times these customer types are referred to as personas or cohorts. The key here is not just that you have a list of personas, but that they accurately represent your actual customers.
As hard as it may be to determine, you can probe a bit by asking things like:
- How do you know who your customers are?
- How often do you talk to your customers?
A well engaged product team should have a very good idea of who their customers are, how often they use the product, and what they use it for.
In fact, one of the best ways for them to figure out who their customers are is:
Do they collect metrics and analyze them?
Growth hacking has been a buzzword in the industry for a while now and whole job roles have sprung up specifically around this concept. While there are a lot of additional tools and techniques involved in growth hacking, the most important concept is collecting and analyzing data about your customers.
Growth hacking aside, with the advent of big data, cloud storage providers, and cheap services specifically dedicated to collecting metrics, there is no excuse for a software company not to be collecting and analyzing data about how customers use their products — particularly the product team.
If they are not collecting data at a fairly granular level, there is no way they can accurately predict what their customers want or even who their customers are.
How technically savvy is the product team?
This question is a bit more specific, and in some cases it doesn’t matter at all. However, much like asking questions about how a company stores its data, finding out how technical a product team is can tell you how they evaluate data.
With the advent of data collection, specifically at a software company, the product team should at least have a good idea of:
- How to query data.
- How their analytics product works (and possibly how to collect more statistics).
At some level the product team also need enough technical knowledge to understand how the product itself is built. Just like the technology team needs to understand the customer in order to make better decisions, the product team needs to understand enough technically so they can understand the trade-offs they are making when setting product direction.
Great technology companies don’t spring from the mind of a single person or team, despite what the media may say about Steve Jobs. They are born from a combination of factors, the most important of which I’ve outlined in this series:
- Management who communicate a clear vision and hold employees accountable without micromanaging.
- Engineering that follows best practices but always keeps in mind the benefit to the business.
- Product Management who know their customers and can clearly communicate long term product goals based on those customers.