05015 Degrees of Ability: Hiring Into Product Management

Product Management is not a job that people can go out and get a degree in. You can get a degree in Computer Science that covers the knowledge you need in order to start out as a programmer. You can get a degree in Marketing that gives you the basic foundation to get started in Marketing or Advertising. But there’s no college level degree that I know of out there in Product Management.

This makes it a real challenge to find, evaluate and hire good Product Managers. With so few objective external indicators, you have to define the Product Manager position very clearly and scrutinize candidates to see if they are a good match.

So what do you look for when you want to hire an ace Product Manager to champion your product and move forward relative to the competition? After some years doing Product Management and many more before that doing things that all tie in to Product Management, I see the ideal candidate as having a combination of four critical elements.

Read on for a discussion of what to look for to find a good Product Manager, and questions to ask to better judge whether they’re Product Manager material.


Four Factors

When looking for people who will make good Product Managers, I look for a combination of four factors, namely natural talent, artful skills, bitter experience, and hard work. All these things need to be in place to make for a solid performance.

  1. Natural Talent is basic abilities that people seem to have possessed throughout their career or school years. It forms the foundation of what they can do and how well they do it.
  2. Artful Skills are developed and consciously honed over time. These did not usually come naturally or automatically to someone, but over time the person has learned how to use them to good effect.
  3. Bitter Experience is a real-world perspective that comes from past frustrations, limitations, and failures. Except for the unluckiest among us, it takes time to build this up.
  4. Hard Work is the ability to put in a steady and sustained effort towards accomplishing a project or goal. Without it you don’t get very far using the first three factors.

One: Natural Talent

Natural talent forms the basis upon which the other factors can be built. So it’s important to have a bedrock of natural talent that a Product Manager can draw on to be successful in the many and widely varied tasks that they will need to carry out.

A person’s natural talent can be all over the board in terms of what exact talent or talents they have. Here are some talents that are important for Product Management:

  • Marketing flair. The ability to makes things sound appealing to people who are likely to buy them. The ability to persuade and get people excited about ideas and projects.
  • Technical aptitude. The ability to understand complex technology, hardware and software, and figure out how all the pieces work together, not to mention potentially new ways for them to work together.
  • People sense. The ability to collaborate with people, communicate with them, and motivate them to get things done and improve their efforts.
  • Analytical ability. The ability to see a situation, break it down into its component pieces, and understand how it works the way it does, why it works the way it does, and how that could be changed.
  • Business sense. The ability to see how things and people can be built into an organization that makes money, and profitably.
  • Synthesizing ability. The ability to join seemingly different things together so that they create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is something that Product Managers need to do a lot, especially when it comes to joining up the business and technical aspect of things.

A Good Question:

Your goal in asking the question is to find out where a person’s natural talents lie, and how those talents have been applied to improve Product Management.

Of all the types of things you do when you work (or study, if this is someone starting out their career), what’s your favorite? Give some examples of how you have applied that in your jobs (or in school).

Two: Artful Skills

Artful skills are not what comes to you naturally. They consist of the many necessary skills that round out your abilities at work. There are often lots of tips and tricks you have to pick up in order to learn to use them well. Frequently you start out wielding skills as a clumsy tool, then become better at it over time.

For example, so much of the time Product Management is a balancing act between technical and business imperatives. The ability to balance two things that don’t balance naturally takes lots of skill. You have to hone your communication skills and make use of many tricks of the trade to get the right mix between the business and the technical in order for your software product to succeed.

Another example: Using the psychology required to be a change agent requires lots of focus and skill. It’s hard to be the person who is pushing comfortable people to go where they’re not comfortable. To get organizations to change requires the ability to communicate, to inspire, to cajole, to push, to prod, and to uproot with grace, humility, and humor.

A third example is presentation skills. For some these come naturally, but for others, you need to first learn the basics, then learn about and cleverly incorporate the hundred tricks and ideas that make a decent presentation great. Using your listeners’ names where appropriate, using your audience’s terminology to make the subject seem familiar and comfortable, bonding with everyone in the room, these are all skills that require both science and art to use successfully.

A Good Question:

You want to hear about a skill that didn’t come naturally, and you want to hear how someone got more adept at it.

What is one of the skills that you feel you have developed over the years? What tips or tricks do you use? For that trick you just mentioned, when would you use it and when would you avoid it? Can it backfire?

Three: Bitter Experience

This is one of those areas where you hope to benefit from the experience someone has gained other places, rather than this being something they’ll learn on the job with you!

Nothing helps someone do a good job like experience. And Product Managers have such wide ranging duties, that often change from month to month and even year to year, that the broader the experience they have, the better. And in my experience, you learn more and faster the hard way.

And I don’t use the word “bitter” lightly. Product Managers often have idealistic goals for their product. When they meet the reality of a poorly managed sales force, an inefficient development team, a lack of understanding by the management team of marketing basics, or unmotivated employees, they may watch their high flying projects crash and burn.

Bitter experience helps teach a Product Manager how to pick up the pieces and move ahead despite the fact that what they just attempted has failed. It also teaches a Product Manager what to do less of, what to do more of, and what not to do the next time they try.

Because Product Managers take many paths to get to their position, you do not necessarily need bitter experience as a Product Manager per se. Experience with team efforts, marketing campaigns, sales calls, and other projects can all be useful to a Product Manager.

A Good Question:

Look for signs that the candidate analyzed what went wrong and their thinking evolved to be more realistic.

Can you give me an example of a hard lesson that you learned? What happened exactly? What did you learn? And how have you applied that lesson since?

Four: Hard Work

Without the ability to persevere, to try, try again when at first you don’t succeed, to keep taking little steps toward the big goal, you won’t get much accomplished. Product Managers may see some of their good ideas come to naught, and it takes a certain amount of will power to keep going, and to keep trying, and to try other things.

Does it help if a Product Manager is stubborn? That’s a tricky question. Being stubborn could be good or it could be bad. I would say that when you take someone who is naturally stubborn and they learn how to add on some artful skill, such as patience and people skills, being stubborn can be made to serve them well. But being stubborn can just as easily backfire on someone who must rely on influence and collaboration to get things accomplished.

A Good Question:

You’re looking for someone who understands that hard work is basically a very practical, tactical approach, spending time and effort and keeping at it. But they also understand there’s an element of planning and smart timing – maybe even politics – involved.

What does the term “hard work” mean for you? Is hard work necessary? When you know you have a major project to accomplish, how do you go about making sure that it gets done?

School Degree or School of Hard Knocks?

When you’re looking for someone who will make a good Product Manager, it’s always a useful consideration to wonder how book learning and theory measure up to hard won experience. I recommend you look for a balance of both.

Theory can be very important for understanding systems, seeing patterns, and creating the strategies that will help drive your product forward. Schooling can provide that. But you also need to have seen how strategies can be most effectively applied, and where they can go wrong.

Many Paths to Product Management

Probably the most challenging part of hiring a Product Manager is the fact that successful Product Managers have taken many paths to get where they are. Since Product Management is not a major, but something you find out in the field once you start working, many people stumble upon it by chance, and discover they love it.

Look for someone whose experience, regardless of which path they took, covers many of the components of software product management, such as software marketing and development, sales, strategy, QA, customer service and relationship building.

Marketer or Technical?

Here’s another question most organizations face: do we hire someone who is a marketer or technical? Can we find someone who’s both? Do we want both, or do we want just one?

Candidates who come to you from other Product Management positions may often have worked only on the Marketing or technical side. It is vital to understand where a candidate stands on the spectrum, and to be clear about where you need them to stand, so that you hire the right match.

Certification and Seminars

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that while there may be no Product Management majors out there, there are organizations that develop standards and standard levels of skill for Product Managers, including certifications. The PDMA and the AIPMM both offer certification, and hold conferences and local meetings. Look into whether a candidate has been active in an organization for Product Managers.

Companies like Pragmatic Marketing offer consulting that helps set a standard methodology, language, and approach to Product Management. Find out if the candidate has attended any programs such as this.

You Know For Sure Only After They Start

Finally, there’s the longstanding problem of hiring people. Even the most carefully conducted interviews don’t always mean the new hire will work out. You just never know for sure until they start working for you. This is as true for Product Managers as for anyone else. But you can use the ideas above, and especially the questions, to find the people who stand the best chance of doing well on the job, and who can make your product more successful.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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