What you should be looking for in a product person

Ever since I left Life On Air a couple of months ago, the company I co-founded and headed the product for, I find myself serving as a hub for product people looking for their next move and companies looking for the right product person to join their team. And the roles are pretty broad: whether it’s a company looking for a PM, founders looking for their first product hire, or entrepreneurs looking for a product/ co-founder.

During this time I’ve found myself repeating something I’ve learned and since it seems to be useful for some, I decided to share it here.

The bottom line is the first question I ask:

“What are you missing in your product?”

The answer is not about the desired skills and strengths of the product person you are looking for, rather:

“What is his or her passion?”

In a world where companies see the product as the center of their offering, it becomes critical to hire the right product person. Since product people are like ducks (we’ll get to that), it’s hard to define what makes a product person the right one for your company.

Product people tend to come from incredibly varied backgrounds. And don’t require any unified pre-requisite to become a product person.

Most of us want them to be good at everything; we want them to have many specific skills, like triathletes…or ducks. They need to swim well, to run well and bike well (or fly well if it’s a duck). Take the best triathlete, for example: there will always be better swimmers, better runners and better cyclists, but the best triathlete should be the best at the intersection of all three. Every triathlete has a different level of passion for each of the sports (which doesn’t always align with his skill level in each of them).

Going back to the product people — assuming we are hiring the best people it’s important to understand where their passion lies. Then we can build a radar chart — or a spider web — that analyzes what we need.

I like to divide it to six types of passions: Technical, User experience, User psychology, Data, Project management and Wackiness. I try to look at the person and understand their passion, regardless of their background (which might give off false assumptions.)

1. Technical

These are the product people seeking a deep understanding of how the matrix works, where it can be bent, how it would look in the near future and how to build within its limits. They will be able to come up with the quickest validations for certain features in hacking the system. They try to imagine with accuracy how long things would take to be built. They want to understand and manage the technical debt and it’s relationship with the next steps of the product. They try to see where they can cut corners and try to have a deeper understanding of the impact of certain features on the technological part.

2. User experience (UX/UI)

They like to know the UX trends and design patterns of what’s out there. They enjoy the design iterations, and maybe designing instead of creating mockups. They try to have a better feeling of what design would do to the user when there is no data or the user can’t really explain it. Their comfort zone is among designers. They feel better talking about features and ideas when they are designed rather just wireframes. And if it’s wireframes, they’d rather something interactive, where you can have a better feeling of the user experience.

3. User psychology

These are the people who are really interested in how the users feel. They enjoy listening (most of us don’t). They enjoy and get a lot out of user testing and watching users interact with the product. They feel comfortable digging into support and being one themselves, and they like to be involved in community management or marketing. They like to understand user attributes and demographics and understand how the external ecosystem outside the product impacts their interaction and usage with the product. The message and the voice of the product is important for them. They seek to match the message of the product and the voice of the community with the product.

4. Data

These people will always try to understand and quantify the impact of product features or progress. They truly care about understanding how the numbers show the interaction with the product. Decisions not driven by data are useless. They like to open the day with the dashboards. They feel uncomfortable when they don’t have enough visibility about the actual usage or no numbers to answer to their question. They get annoyed when others are not asking the right questions, and even more when others arrive at the wrong conclusions.

5. Project management

They care about the process of doing things, whether it’s lean enough, something’s missing, or there’s not enough. They look at features and ideas as a sum of small steps and try to breakdown in their minds how to get from point A to point B as you speak to them. They care about prioritization and its methodology. If the decision making is data-driven, they want to know how to make it more efficient and transparent. And how the working process can be scaled. They look for a better understanding of product management methodologies; they like to understand the advantages and disadvantages of Scrum vs. Kanban vs. Agile and so on.

6. Wackiness

This is a tricky one since it’s hard to understand and even harder to measure. What I mean by “wackiness” is that there are people who just think differently. They have ideas that would raise an eyebrow when they talk about them. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best ideas — they’re just different. But different ideas are easy to come up with, and these people can understand how this weird, wacky idea can be created, and what the logic is behind it. They can imagine how this weird idea can be built from point A to point B. They get bored from the product easily, and they feel uncomfortable with patterns and stealing ideas — not because it’s morally wrong, just because it’s boring.

Now when you think about the six different passions, some of you might think that there are some areas missing. Other people might find some of them hypercritical while others are useless.

I believe that we need to think about what is missing in our product and then map these six passions. When I say “missing in the product”, I don’t just mean the product itself; rather, the whole product team, whether it’s founders looking for a product founder to join, hiring a VP of Product, adding a PM for a product team, or adding a PM to a multi-disciplinary squad.

Now, draw the radar of these six attributes for what is missing and then start doing so for everyone you have in mind to take this product position.

Assuming you hire the best people (and we all do), if their passion matches what you believe is missing, and your culture empowers people to make a change, they will influence the rest and take your product to where you want it to be.

I’m still trying to think of an easy, methodical way to rank these 6 attributes using some questionnaire or exercise. One way of doing so might be asking that person to divide 20 “points” between the six attributes according to what he or she enjoys the most. You can also get a better feeling about them from what they read, who they follow, and what has made an impact on them. If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

UPDATE: 🙏 to Christian Montoya for creating a tool for the method https://montoya.github.io/product-person/