help-wanted

A question that I get every week is “how do I get my first tech product management job?” See old posts here and here, Quora responses, etc. My answers were feeling theoretical and out-of-date, so I converted this into a market research question: what are hiring managers asking for in entry-level product management candidates? Objective data rather than my opinion.

One of our researchers pulled 41 current postings for US technology product managers, evenly split between B2B and B2C. We tabulated the qualifications and hiring criteria: prior years in product management, market segment experience, technical skills, degrees, certifications, etc. These are not cookie-cutter jobs, and the interview process tilts toward soft skills and “fit” rather than paper qualifications, but if hiring managers are asking for specific qualifications, I assume they are important.

Here’s what we found:

  1. Most (but not all) hiring managers want someone with product management experience, even for first-line jobs. 76% asked for previous experience in a product management role, averaging 3.3 years. [I expected this to be even higher.] Another 17% asked for extensive experience in related roles. Only two postings from big companies (IBM and HP, representing 5% of the sample) had openings that new college graduates could qualify for.
  2. 93% asked for excellent verbal and written communication skills. They called out cross-functional teamwork, executive and customer presentations, and market-sensing abilities. Product management as a contact sport.  No staring at your shoes.
  3. 88% called out experience in their market segment as very important. B2B SaaS companies want data center and enterprise software experience; health information vendors want e-commerce and healthcare knowledge; streaming media companies crave interactive TV advertising experience; consumer audio players want product managers with consumer device smarts, etc. I believe that strong product managers can quickly learn a new product space, but hiring managers say they want the perfect candidate.Unicorn
  4. 83% named specific technologies. 35% called out Agile, 20% hope to get PMs who also have UI/UX experience. They are looking for familiarity with the company’s underlying product tech (virtualization, email/SMS, big data, mobile and web games, financial analysis, testing methodologies). Given a choice, every manager wants someone who can “hit the ground running.”
  5. 93% want a BA/BS (68% prefer CS/EE). This may seem like overkill, but product managers who can’t hold their own with opinionated development teams are hobbled. Likewise, 32% want MBAs. Need to know how to build a credible business plan (and when the boss is blowing smoke).

This may seem like a caricature, but companies are paying recruiters handsomely to find product managers with segment-specific experience, awesome people skills, CS/EE + MBA credentials, and the ability to drive results in matrixed organizations. Perfect candidates are slightly less rare than unicorns… but you’ll need to check most of these boxes to get through an external resumé screen.

Certifications?

There was not a single mention of product management certifications. (One posting did ask for Pragmatic Marketing training.) We might want employers to value various emerging product management certification programs, but the market clearly does not. (Yet.) I’d recommend that product management hopefuls not invest in certifications as a way to land their first PM gig.

FYI, I am a big proponent of product management training and education: classes, Product Camps, workshops. I’m just back from a week in Dublin teaching and evangelizing product management. But the hiring market clearly isn’t there: I don’t see any facts that tie certification to hiring success.  It’s incumbent on educators and certifiers to show that we add value.

Where Does That Leave Candidates?

If you’re already a product manager – probably a great communicator with a track record, technical and business degrees, and a good social network – your LinkedIn message box is already full of recruiter inquiries.  Nice to be in demand.

If you’re looking to break into technology product management, the external recruiting cycle isn’t your friend. I still see most product managers get their first PM job via internal transfers: sales engineers or business analysts or developers who already know their company’s market and technology, find a mentor within the product management team, demonstrate product skills, and campaign within their company for the opportunity.

Sound Byte

Technology product management is an odd mix of technical, market and organizational skills. It’s not a “book learning” role, so real experience under fire is what hiring managers want.  Consider your fit for what companies are searching for, and find a path that combines optimism with realism.

BTW, thanks to Colm for collecting and analyzing the data. Feel free to collect your own sample, or re-analyze ours.

Comments
  • Rich Mironov Reply

    Responding to @loriaustex: “Market data? Tell us/me more…link to it?”

    Here’s a zip of 41 job posting PDFs: http://www.mironov.com/assets/prodmgmt-Job-Posting-PDFs.zip . Not guaranteed to be statistically representative, but a place to start. I’d encourage folks to pull their own samples. All US, all tech companies/products, already posted where the world can see…

    And our analysis at http://www.mironov.com/assets/PM_hiring_criteria.xlsx . Again, invite smarter folks to poke and improve. FYI, simple text scans of the posts give some false positives, since PDFs include “People Who Viewed This Job Also Viewed…”

  • Lori Witzel Reply

    Rich, thanks so much for sharing this – I sure wish I could use something like Indeed.com for an advanced keyword search to drill down into hiring criteria. Do you (or any of your readers) know a way to do this?

    • Rich Reply

      Would love a repeatable method or tool. We used old-fashioned brute force and some intuitive reading-between-the-‘s.

      • Lori Witzel Reply

        I think you did good, but totally agree with the need for a better method than brute. ;-)

        Wondering if you have a sense of the population size you sampled? Trying to orient re: whether more brute force is needed to get a good statistical sample (and if so, whether we can make this a B-school project)…

        • Rich Reply

          874 hits on LinkedIn job listings for (“product manager” or “product management”)

          Assuming some are non-tech or very senior, and others are missing, my SWAG of 1000 current US openings. So we sampled ~ 4%. I’ll leave the T-test as an exercise for the (b-school) student.

  • Geoffrey Anderson Reply

    Great post Rich, and in line with my past experiences. Sadly, some really great positions go unfilled for years waiting for a unicorn to magically appear.

    I think this makes a great companion to the Pragmatic Marketing annual survey.

    • Lori Witzel Reply

      Hi Geoffrey – your comment raises a couple of interesting points for me.

      If the position goes unfilled for a long period of time due to a lack of unicorns…what harm is done to the org by NOT filling? (I know of some instances where, if the hiring manager doesn’t fill a job quickly, it’s assumed they didn’t really need the position and the headcount is cut.)

      And are there “gap patterns” in the lack of unicorns – for example, is it generally easier to find the technical skills than the SME experience or vice-versa? If there are gaps, can they be remediated for an almost-unicorn via pinpoint training or on-ramping?

      • Geoffrey Anderson Reply

        Lori – good points, and I do have some experience in these long open positions.

        Company A, made medical devices. Their unicorn needed to be a senior, proficient, technical product manager, but they demanded extensive experience in dealing with FDA regulations. Seemed reasonable, but they were searching for over two years before they widened their requirements, and realized that a rally good product manager can pick up the procedural aspects of regulatory compliance pretty quickly.

        Company B, had been searching for product managers off and on. Their problem is that they were really waffling on what was important. The description, and the recruiters were looking for product managers, but when you talked to them, they really wanted a product manager who could be a sales specialist. They ended up hiring (and relocating) at least three different people, then firing them when they weren’t super sales specialists.

        For me, and I have done very different tech areas (semiconductor capital equipment, networking hardware, instrumentation, and enterprise software), having the solid foundation of product management, and a demonstrated ability to dive into new technology and come up to speed have been quite effective.

        A true unicorn is finding a SME and a kick-a$$ product manager in the same person. They exist, but they are hard to find, and they are expensive to attract.

      • Larry McKeogh (@lmckeogh) Reply

        IMO, yes to your question about gaps, with a caveat on how broad of a gap it is. If a hiring manager is serious about the position and filling the need they should have some sort of on-boarding plan. If gaps exist, the plan should address those and have satisfaction criteria attached.

        The challenge incumbent on the hiring manager is to determine if the candidate is the type to shrink the gap or be stymied by it.

      • Rich Reply

        I see a lot of products that are rudderless… well-meaning (but unseasoned) dev managers and junior product owners fixing bugs and delivering small incremental functions based on non-strategic customer lobbying. Nothing that moves the revenue needle.

        Prodmgmt is as much about steering as about herding functional groups. See this old bit; http://www.mironov.com/post_course_correction/

        • Geoffrey Anderson Reply

          I am with Rich on this. They get into a rudderless state and keep letting the current take them wherever it flows.

          It becomes the new normal (or they never experienced “real” product management) and they just don’t know better.

          Then they call in a good consultant (maybe the 2nd or third attempt) to ‘fix’ the issue, and ‘right’ the ship.

          Or they become a sales lead organization, and get stuck at $xxM in revenue, never able to break out of the rut.

          The rest writes itself…

  • Larry McKeogh (@lmckeogh) Reply

    “Perfect candidates are slightly less rare than unicorns… but you’ll need to check most of these boxes to get through an external resumé screen.”

    What is more surprising is that many companies and hiring managers don’t know what a unicorn looks like because:
    (a) its definition is constantly shifting or they are not in touch with what pain needs to be solved
    (b) don’t recognize the unicorn b/c its an omnivore. Meaning, products and technology are changing at a rapid rate. If it walks and talks like a PM, it may just be a PM despite lack of 15 years social experience or whatever other unique requirement is thrown out there.
    (c) HR/employee screening systems are not well versed in range of qualifications needed.

    I agree, getting your first gig requires proving your interest and drive. Developing a mentor relationship is a great way to navigate the turbulent waters. Once told someone asking the question, nibble at the edges. Everything interesting happens there. Eventually you’ll find you’ve eaten your way to the middle.

    Thanks for the summary and information.

  • brian piercy Reply

    Maybe I missed it, but I thought the elephant in the room was (is) salary expectations and potential age bias.

    Rich’s post rightfully mentions “fit” which can be a wildcard for cultural expectations. It seems incomplete to not at least acknowledge the factors.

    (Happy Sunday, everyone. :-))

    • Rich Reply

      Could be… I help assorted clients interview potential prodmgrs, and am always pushing for real, live, actual, hands-on experience doing the job — so “older” should translate into “seasoned and sensible and harder-to-fluster and seen-it-before” but doesn’t always.

      IMHO also a big bias toward guys, because, um… just because we’re guys. As Cranky says:
      http://crankypm.com/2012/06/cranky-product-manage-aspiring-product-guy/

  • Scott Sehlhorst Reply

    Great article Rich!

    I have two paths of takeaways from this.

    As a potential future employee (of someone looking to hire a product manager), you should (a) invest in yourself – spend time drinking “turn myself into a unicorn” potions, and (b) when interviewing, have a crisp dialog about what the acceptance criteria are for “success in the role.” Think of it this way, the hiring company has a set of requirements, ambiguously hinted at by the hiring specs. As a product manager, you should be able to identify what the actual requirements are, and assess if you can (and want to) meet them. As a bonus, you turn the interviewing dynamic around – the central focus becomes “do you want to work here?”

    As a potential employer, first I need to revisit my requirements. Then I need to determine if all of them need to be satisfied “on day 1″ and which ones can be satisfied on day 30 or day 180 or whenever. If I cannot find a unicorn, then I have to relax some of my “day 1″ constraints – and solve part of my problem through training the person I do hire. Given that approach, which constraints make the most sense to relax?

    As a consultant, the two cents I will throw into the mix are (a) every company with which I have worked already has some people that know the domain – so training a newly hired product manager on the domain is an option, and (b) learning a new domain takes a lot less time than learning a new craft. You wouldn’t put someone with 20 years of SME experience in a software architecture role, if they didn’t already know how to create great architectures. That role has comparable complexity to product management.

    Given that perspective, which constraints does it make sense (for your company) to relax?

  • Steve Johnson Reply

    What I see most often is a hiring manager looking for too much of everything: the “ideal” candidate must have domain, business, marketing, and technology expertise–and be working already in the same capacity at a similar company.

    Product leaders should look for a balance of these areas of expertise. For more, see my ebook at http://www.under10templates.com/writing/expert

  • Erik Kaas Reply

    I agree that “domain expertise” is not critical – of all the PM “traits” it’s the easiest one to learn/acquire.

    Also, many published job postings are created by HR drones – it would be interesting to filter those out and only review job descriptions written directly by the hiring manager without HR edits.

    I like reading PM job descriptions and will often save good/inspired ones so I can steal from them when creating a new posting

  • Kent Shimek Reply

    What would your advise be for an aspiring product manager (technical background with SaaS sales experience) who works in the US, but the product team and PMs for their company are located outside of the US? What types of responsibilities would you first look to take on and how far can you go towards being a PM without relocating?

  • […] software demands a specific mix of technical and market/business skills which the job market calls “product […]

  • […] a strong advocate for product training, workshops, product camps, etc.  However, I have seen no market evidence that any product certification actually helps someone land a product job.  So I can’t […]

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