IT organizations are increasingly shifting from project-based organizational structures to product-based methodologies, which involve cross-functional teams. These new building blocks of business include both tech and business pros, and they’re generally led by a product manager, who acts as the point person throughout the product’s lifecycle.
Product managers aren’t a new job category by any means, but this shift means that they’re newly prominent and important to many companies’ strategies. As a result, many corporate leaders who are used to hiring for IT now have to learn what makes a good product manager as they seek to fill these roles.
If that’s a position you find yourself in, don’t panic. We spoke to a host of experts, including product managers and those who supervise, hire, and mentor them, about what you should be looking for if you’re hiring a new PM for your team.
Seth Dobbs, CTO at IT services and consulting firm Bounteous, gives a pretty good thumbnail sketch of what an ideal product manager would look like. “This is absolutely a hybrid role and requires a good mix of skills,” he says. “They need to have enough knowledge in both technology and UX to at least be able to understand technical and experience constraints and tradeoffs, but need to be centered around business and customer value to drive decision-making around tradeoffs.”
Dobbs says he also looks for adaptability given the rapid changes that often evolve in a product-based environment, in addition to the ability to “meet deadlines, budgets, and the overall business strategy as they work through these tradeoffs,” he says. “They also need to have strong interpersonal skills and know how to lean into the experts to leverage their insights in forming a roadmap and plan, but also leverage their skills in getting the work done.”
That’s all easier said than done, of course, and in practice it’ll be hard to find a candidate who can cover all those bases. But our experts gave us some pretty good guidance on specific qualities to look for in a candidate.
Look for great communicators
Almost everyone we spoke to agreed that communications skills are a must when it comes to product management. “I can typically tell within the first 15 minutes of a phone call whether or not I’m going to hire someone,” says Cait Porte, who is chief marketing officer at software development company Digibee and has a background in product management. “The people who can articulate themselves well can translate business and technology wording and phrasing in a way my team will respond well to. Effective communicators can not only articulate themselves well, but serve as translators between business and technology, ensuring that the right solutions are at the top of the priority list.”
Tal Laufer, VP of products at cybersecurity firm Perimeter 81, explains that communication is a must-have in this job because of the role product managers play coordinating various stakeholders. “A product manager serves as a bridge in the organization. Many aspects of their work involve connecting and bridging different teams and disciplines, striving for the success of the entire company,” she says.
Seek out those who go beyond the data
Most businesses, especially in tech, pride themselves on making data-based decisions, and many of the team members a product manager will be working with will be very data-focused. That said, a product manager needs to both be able to understand what hard data is telling them — but also be comfortable making more intuitive and creative decisions. “Being technical is great — it allows you to understand the details — but it can also hold you back at times,” says Luke Gannon, product manager at graph database company Neo4j. “If you can only view things with your developer/computer scientist hat on, you run the risk of being closed off to new, creative ideas and suggestions.”
“Lots of folks are stressing metrics and being data-driven,” says Shane Quinlan, director of product management at software development firm Kion. “But in most cases, you’re starting with a dataset that’s not statistically significant — we’re not all building B2C at crazy scale. Yes, data is important. No, you don’t need to wait on perfect data to make a decision. Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.”
Emphasize measurable outcomes
Nothing helps attune a candidate’s intuition like experience. Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science, a product management coaching and consulting firm, says that a candidate’s resume should show what they’ve done in the field — and what they’ve achieved. “The first thing a hiring manager should look for is measurable outcomes on their resume,” she says. “It’s not enough to say they’ve gone through the motions of product management. The hiring manager needs to know what tangible improvements were achieved.”
And while there may be a stereotype of fresh-faced product managers with little real-world experience, many companies will choose candidates with in-depth knowledge of the business domain in which they’ll be working, according to Stephanie White, director and head of product, technology, and professional at fintech recruiting company EC1. “Product managers who our clients hire have to be domain experts, understand how the product is being used commercially, as well as understand end-to-end product build technologically,” she says. “This is so that they can attend client meetings and sell the user experience, as an extension to the sales and propositions teams.”
Charles Paumelle, chief product officer and co-founder of Microshare, a smart building data solutions company, agrees. “Business and technical acumen is needed to answer the questions ‘Why will customers spend money on our product?’ and ‘How can our organization deliver a cost-effective solution to the customer’s needs?’” he says.
Look beyond certs and education
On the flipside, many of the experts we spoke to held formal training and education in less esteem. “Certifications are not the key to becoming a PM,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “I don’t care how many classes your previous employer paid $5,000 for, if you can’t explain simply how a website works, talk about a product that inspires you, and prioritize work with some level of objectivity, you won’t cut it.”
Digibee’s Porte goes even further than that. “Historically, jobs for product managers were reserved for MBA graduates,” she says. “As someone who both served as a hiring manager and obtained her MBA, I believe it shouldn’t be a qualification as a product manager.” It’s not that having such as degree is a bad thing per se, she says, but “people naturally think an MBA is enough of a qualification. In reality, it’s so much more than that.”
Understand your specific product-based needs
If you’re worried about finding someone who fits all of these bills perfectly, good news: In all probability you’re going to have more than one product manager at your company, and different specific roles and experience levels may be called for.
“In terms of experience, sometimes you are looking for someone who has experience in a certain market or with a certain technology, but other times you are ready to invest in someone who has the attitude and aptitude without the experience,” says Trisha Price, chief product officer at software development company Pendo. “There is no one-size-fits-all, because diverse teams with diverse experiences are what drive the best outcomes and create the best cultures.”
“There are different ‘flavors’ of PMs in practice,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “There are startup PMs, go-to-market PMs, scale PMs, design PMs, platform PMs, data PMs, and more. Someone who’s awesome at one flavor may not be the best at others (or there’ll be an adjustment period). Understanding your problem is key to hiring the right product manager. That’ll inform how you rate them on specific skills — more technical, more business-oriented, more design-oriented, a jack-of-all-trades.”
“I consider is a candidate’s ability and aspiration to be more of a ‘pioneer,’ a ‘settler’ or a ‘farmer,’” says Microshare’s Paumelle. “Product management ranges from pure innovation and R&D to create brand new products (the ‘pioneer’ heading into the unknown), to the productization of alpha products into a mainstream market (the ‘settler’ who establishes a community and builds the first structures), to the optimization of established products (the ‘farmer’ who increases the yield year after year).”
Tailor your interview process
You might be able to suss out some of this via resumes and email exchanges, but a lot of your hiring decision will come down to the interview and how the candidate does in the room (or on the Zoom, as the case may be). Our experts had plenty of advice on how to assess a candidate in an interview:
- “Something we do as part of our interview process is a bit of role playing,” says Mona Ghadiri, director of product management at cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant. “Part of that is to see how they respond to role playing in general; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is so critical as a product manager. It is also critical to see how they answer the questions and think on their feet when a problem statement is in front of them, because we are in front of customers and our peers presenting information frequently. We also ask about how they have prioritized work in the past. We’re not so much looking for them to rattle off frameworks like RICE [reach, impact, confidence, and effort] or WSJF [weighted shortest job first], but seeing if they were able to use those frameworks in a practical application.”
- “I ask for good, detailed examples of how they make tradeoffs against business need, user desire, and technical feasibility, and how they successfully navigate the different stakeholders to get to agreement,” says Bounteous’s Dobbs. “I’ll also typically ask them to walk me through a high-level strategy or roadmap for a product they have managed in the past. Overall, I try to understand how they think, how they have reacted in various scenarios, and how they drive things forward.”
- “Don’t show up unprepared,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “JIRA does not make a PM. I don’t care that you’re a wizard in JIRA. Show me you understand problems. Show me you’re thinking about ways of working. Show me you can lead a small team.”
- “No matter what level they are interviewing for, from entry level to senior director, I always look for a passion for solving problems for the customer,” says Dan Ciruli, VP of product management at software services provider D2iQ. “That is the number one thing I want out of a product manager. One of my favorite interview questions is, ‘Tell me about your favorite customer.’ Their answer tells me everything I need to know about how they work with customers, what inspires them, and whether or not they are truly problem solvers.”
Don’t lose sight of the intangibles
“I’m a big fan of finding the ‘raw talent’ that would make a great PM,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “For an associate product manager, the day-to-day skills can be taught, but you can’t fake or learn interest in the problem and empathy with your peers and users.” In the end, most of our experts agreed, it’s that interest in solving problems that’s the most important quality to find in a candidate for product manager.
“I went into product management coming from a hardware development background,” explains Perimeter 81’s Laufer. “Even as an engineer, I was always curious about the full picture. What do customers want? What is the market like? How can we build a better product for our customers? This curiosity and my love for working with people led me to a product focused role. I had to learn about a lot of subjects, all at once, but I had (and still have!) a blast doing so.”
She adds: “I love that part of the job, teaching young PMs how to do things right.” We hope that the product managers you find go down this same successful path.