experience

David Cancel’s post This Is Why I Never Hire Product Managers on Medium got me thumping  my keyboard with a lengthy response.  Here’s what I posted in response:

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Respecting David’s opinion and experience, I’ve taken the opposing position in my three decades of leading, hiring and mentoring product managers. In almost every case, my number-one hiring criterion for product managers is that they have had some previous product management experience. My own observation (including as a CEO and a smokejumper VP Products at a half-dozen product companies) is of a tremendous correlation between product experience and the market success of products.

Taking some of David’s points in turn:

[1] Good (great) product managers bring a critical mix of technical talent, business insight and market/customer/user insight. They have to be multi-faceted: technical enough to earn the respect of their engineering teams; sharply insightful about competition, markets, and software economics; and with deep reservoirs of empathy that let them walk a parsec in their end customers’ gravity boots. (Design skills, brilliant communicating and organizational savvy don’t hurt, either.)

An MBA can be useful, but it’s not the same thing. I’ve never hired a newly-minted MBA onto my product management team. I’m always interested, though, in someone a few years out of B School who’s had his nose bloodied at a startup, worked back up the ladder a bit, and gotten a fresh dose of humility. While an MBA can be valuable, it doesn’t by itself make you a product manager. Let’s not just equate the two.

[2] Of course, startups with less than 8 people don’t have a full-time product manager. See my talk on Why You’ll Eventually Need a Product Manager at Your Startup: my take-away is that a startup of 12 to 30 people absolutely needs its first (great) product manager, and that (great) product manager needs solid experience to channel the chaos of a growing startup. Product Hunt and YC startups are too early for anyone to wear a full-time “product” badge, but many successful startup teams are hiding a boatload of product expertise.

And YC is perhaps the wrong place to look. Founders of successful startups ($1B+) skew much older, see How Old Are Silicon Valley’s Top Founders? Here’s the Data. David and I have each been through a bunch of startups (6 in my case, with two exits). I’ve had the privilege of working with founders in their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s with substantial experience in every function (including product),

[3] Over and over (and over and over), I’ve picked up product teams that were primarily hired for their market-specific background or application-specific expertise. Subject matter experts (SMEs). While individually talented, as a group most suffer deeply from a lack of core product management skills and models. SME-heavy teams generally stumble over strategic pricing and packaging (e.g. assigning every new feature its own SKU and price and pricing unit); weigh their own personal product expertise over any emerging market trends (“I know what the market wants: I’ve used these products for years”); don’t appreciate the need for a release cadence (“my customers don’t want updates more than once a year, so we only ship once a year”). They focus on the two largest customers instead of the broader market segment. They lack product chops.

Likewise, pure engineering teams have their special blind spots. They are much smarter than I am (just ask them), but tend toward a simplistic view of how products are positioned, marketed, sold, supported and EOL’d. Engineers naturally think that problems should be solved by more engineering. And few have been though enough Myers-Briggs to handle seemingly-irrational behaviors from Sales & Marketing.

I’ve mentored up some engineers into great product managers, but there was a lot of learning along the way.

[4] “How hard could it be?” David’s implication is that there’s not so much to learn, and it’s not so hard to learn it. That passion and adaptability and energy are a direct substitute for experience. That a CSPO certificate and some OKR videos are enough to set someone on the right path. That product stuff is instinctive, or easily absorbed, or obvious on inspection.

My data suggests otherwise. I’ve seen (helped) some great product folks develop their talents over years: moving from single-team product owners working someone else’s backlog to strategic thinkers able to see around competitive corners and into customers’ heads. Mentoring includes hundreds of hours spent learning to say “no” to off-strategy prospects; copiloting customer validations and A/B test designs; gaming possible release models; tuning upsell packages; calming panicky executives who want to cancel critical commitments; speaking the truth at customer forums. And my clients often hire me to help them hire folks with great product skills.

I completely endorse most of David’s desirable qualities. Curious? Check. Product junkie? Wonderful! Customer-driven mindset? Absolutely. Ideas for how to make your product better? Of course, or show them the door. See my piece about Interviewing Like A Product Manager.

I take exception, though, that technical skills don’t matter. In my little corner of the B2B infrastructure world, I’ve seen too many technical lightweights fail as product managers: unable to sit down with their (technical) customers as equals, and unable to negotiate with Engineering on an equal footing. Consumer-focused products may have less of a need here.

[5] Checking our biases. I doubt any software team would hire someone with no software experience, even with deep curiosity and enthusiasm for learning how to write code. Likewise, the first question for candidates to be Director of Finance would be about their experience in/knowledge of finance. We might hire an Inside Sales trainee without any previous selling experience, but unlikely to promote a really smart developer to VP of US Sales. DevOps wizards have generally spent some time immersed in DevOps. (If I offered a two-day course in Enterprise Software Architecture for non-techies, and awarded each attendee a certificate proclaiming them to be Enterprise Software Architects, no one would be fooled.) As my friends from Texas say, “a weekend at the dude ranch doesn’t make you a cowboy.”

Product management is a tough, strangely shaped role that does vary dramatically from company to company. It’s a bad fit for most folks, as many discover when they try it on. I’d rather they discover this on someone else’s product in someone else’s startup.

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Last, my appreciation for David’s great work over the years. I was a Lycos user, am a current Ghostery user, and know that HubSpot has tens thousands of fans. He’s created tremendous value for investors and customers and employees. Hat’s off! And thanks for prodding me into this opposing view.