I spent part of last week interviewing product management candidates on behalf of a client far from Silicon Valley. This is a key hire for them, injecting product management into a technology group that has (until now) had gone without. Since I defined the position and wrote the job description, it’s an opportunity to compare my hiring biases against our market sample.

As is typical, we’re looking for candidate with demonstrated product management chops AND experience in a narrow solution space AND enough software development skills to work credibly with Engineering AND within commuting distance of their R&D facility.  Plus a willingness to leave their current role.  Certainly not easy people to find. I refer to such perfect candidates as unicorns: rare beasts, sometimes entirely mythical.

Fans of set theory might represent it this way:

 Unicorn Venn1

After working through a slate of good candidates, we realized that we might not find everything in one individual. It became important, therefore, to prioritize. Which talents and experience MUST we have, which can a strong candidate learn on arrival, and which do we set aside for additional hires?

I rank these according to my own well-established biases:

1. Has experience product managing a revenue product/service at a technology company. With a product management title.

I strongly believe that the product management role demands a unique mix of technical skills, business tools, organizational savvy and real-world revenue-customer experience. The first year is very challenging, with a predictable set of hurdles:

  • Facing down paying customers who have reasonable (or unreasonable) feature requests that are not on the roadmap
  • Patiently explaining to execs (again) that adding their really good idea into the plan requires us pushing out another really good idea
  • Exploring simpler (faster) partial solutions to technical problems with developers who want to design all-purpose (complex) architectures
  • Updating the roadmap (again) and backlog (again) to reflect the new new development reality
  • Dealing with salespeople who’ve made customer commitments without approval

So I value folks with actual hands-on, front-line product management experience.  Who have been there and taken their lumps.

I mostly reject “similar role” stories. Project managers, development leads, scrum masters and dev product owners, consulting team leaders and sales engineers who’ve done “something like product management” are not who I’m looking for.  Exception: well-established product teams with strong leadership, solid cross-functional relationships and willingness to mentor a newly fledged PM.

2. Technical enough to stand up to the development team

Developers are harsh critics of marginally technical product managers, especially on B2B or complex infrastructure products. Right or wrong, they tend to write off a new arrival that lacks software street cred. A BSCS or BSEE isn’t specifically required, but someone who understands the software creation process, hold their own on detailed requirements, and knows why automated testing is critical to success. IMO, hiring a tech lightweight is setting that candidate up for failure.

3. Be physically in the office with the development team, at least half time.

IMHO, there’s no substitute for in-person, face-to-face, see-my-raised-eyebrow contact. Lunch with the team.  Water cooler chats.  Figuring out which junior developer is worth three of her managers.  Surprising the development team with pizza.  So while I appreciate conference calls, WebEx, Rally, nuanced emails and occasional full-day review sessions, I want a product manager who is co-located with the development team. (Hint: a development team that is itself co-located makes this much easier.) So I search for candidates who live near R&D, or are willing to move.

Full stop. Three criteria look like this:

Unicorn Venn2

Not easy to find, and possible that we’ve already over-specified. Some metro areas may be too short of seasoned product managers to check all three boxes. If pressed, I’d consider a half-time product manager commuting from oh-far-away.

So the rest of my list has to be “below the fold.” How to justify this?

4. Vertical expertise and subject matter expert (SME)

I’d love to have a new product manager who already knows (for instance) geo-tagged housing prices. Or wireless intrusion detection. Or the intricacies of mapping Pantone colors to RGB monitors. Or the autonomous car market. But if I’m looking for a seasoned product manager with technical chops located in Chicago (#1, #2 and #3 above), hands-on experience with online dating apps (ahem!) may be too much to ask.

Experienced product managers are used to learning new markets, meeting new customer groups, grappling with unfamiliar tech, and training new channels.  If that’s too risky, consider adding an expert in your narrow technology or vertical alongside product management.

5. Solid UX/UI Experience.

Especially for consumer-facing products, the user experience/user interface represents a lot of what the product “is.” Great design sense is a requirement of the development team. I think it’s usually unreasonable, though, to add to our candidate screen. UI/UX professionals bring their own craft, process, sensibility and tools to the real problem of designing coherent applications. I salute any product manager who can do this, but am not comfortable demanding it.

6. Specific academic degrees.

I have a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA, both of which have been very helpful over the years. (Tom Gibbings referred to these “Engineering MBAs” in a note to me.) It’s not the degrees that matter, though, but what they’ve been used for along the way.  I listen hard during interviews for alternate learning: off-hours at Codecademy, pricing models for a startup, time spent analyzing competing offerings. Candidates who remind me that high-priced degrees are only one way to gather and demonstrate skills.

Notice that we haven’t yet gotten to salary, benefits, or the relative desirability of your company versus the competition. It’s up to you — the hiring manager — to close a great candidate once you find her.  Remembering that a long-unfilled product management slot carries its own costs.

Sound Byte

Clear priorities among your requirements helps you keep your search realistic.  Don’t hunt only for unicorns.

  • Alan Taylor Reply

    Applying PM skills to hiring PM’s – deciding which of the really, really important features you can live without!

    I have seen a really good PM who came in as an SME without PM experience, but that did fit the “well-established product teams…” exception.

  • Tom Gibbings Reply

    Engineering MBAs – Extroverted nerds, unite!

  • Geoffrey Anderson Reply

    It is amazing how often the key attribute desired by companies transitioning to a “product management” structure (vs. chaos or engineering lead) decide that deep domain/SME is top of the list. They truly overlook a lot of flaws in a candidate to find that deep, specific domain expertise.

    100% agree with the need to be near the dev team. This job requires personal contact and nuances are lost on webcasts and phonecalls. I couldn’t imagine being remote even 50% of the time (and you should be traveling 25 – 30% of the time to keep abreast of customer trends in the market.

    Tough task you have there!

  • Gregory Louis-Charles Reply

    Launching a new product in a new market is a lot tougher than most people think. this is especially true when barriers to entry are low and you have to play catchup to lots of existing players already. You need a PM with vision and marketing savvy to find that differentiator to ensure that the product once it finally launches is successful. SME portion will take care of itself over time as the person gets more exposure and experience in the vertical. After all, customers are not looking for the technical jargon. They want to know what your product can do for them.

  • Jeremy Reply

    Great post. If I could add one point of emphasis though, this process really needs to be shared across all the stakeholders in the hiring process. I just recently ended a 3-month interview cycle that ended in me not getting hired, with the final reason being that I lacked the “domain expertise” needed for this role. I was understandably shocked by the final decision, especially since the hiring manager and even some of the development team explicitly stated to me that they weren’t worried about this since they had plenty of experts around. Sadly, the upper management disagreed and the hiring manager really couldn’t push back much despite them agreeing my PM skills were what they needed and that I understood the challenges they faced.

    I don’t write the above as a criticism of the company, as their team was one the best I’ve met in recent history. I’m just sad that they now have to extend their search even further because of a disagreement in key hiring factors.

    • Rich Reply

      Jeremy: agree entirely. I often see the first round of candidates as an experiment: does the interviewing team actually agree on the role, mix of skills, emphasis, style? Real people to discuss vs. sterile job descriptions.
      An end-of-day recap of all candidates by the team (assuming that several folks come in for a round-robin interview cycle) may uncover latent disagreements. Harder for those first candidates to make the cut.

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