Sunday, April 14, 2013

Product Management: What hiring manager looks for

The other day I had a chance to sit down with someone who was looking to get into product management role.  He shared his experience of applying for product management positions, and I shared with him how I got into product management role.  I told him that I began my career as coder, then professional service guy, back to engineering as development manager, and only after that the opportunity landed on my lap to try out product management role.

Then the topic turned to what I look for from product managers that I hire.  I thought that might be help him get some perspective on what hiring managers look for and what areas that he should invest his time to land a  product management position.

After sharing my perspective with him, I thought my blog readers might be interested in what criteria that I measure PM candidates.

There are three areas that I look for from PM applicants.  Note that I consider all three areas to be equally important.

1. Discipline to learn domain knowledge quickly

PM owns the product.  Any product has a problem that it solves, and it exists in a particular industry.  Almost always there are competitors.  Often competitors include do-nothing option or customers using the existing products in creative way to solve the problem.  All of these scenarios should be understood by PM.

They begin from PM understanding the problem, competitors, industry trend, consumer taste and technologies available to solve the problem.  It is so-call domain knowledge.  All successful PMs have in-depth domain knowledge.  So it's natural for hiring manager to look for domain knowledge.

I look for two aspects to measure the domain knowledge from candidates:

Either they show that they already have domain knowledge, or that they demonstrate the earlier track records of picking up the required domain knowledge fast.

Say you worked for social media company as sales engineer, and you understand the social media industry.  Right out of the gate, you are uniquely qualified to apply for social media product management position.  All your customer interactions, competitor's information, and available technologies would be directly applicable to a product management role in other social media product companies.

But that's not to say that you cannot apply to the position if you don't have the prior social media experience.  What you then need to do is to demonstrate that you can quickly come up to speed.  There are multiple ways to do this.  One way is to launch your own startup idea in the social media field.  This is a classic way of learning by doing, and you can read more about how to do them on my three-series blog posts.

The other way is to share your views and lessons about the topic.  There are many ways to share ideas and content.  The best way is to create your own blog and start sharing content through the personal blog.  That way, all contents can be found and can be easily attributed to you, and people on the web can benefit from your work.  Plus when the interviewer asks a question about your domain knowledge, you can point them to the blog as your referenceable work.  

2. Prior product management experience

When I scan for product manager candidate, I always look for product manager keyword.  That's because I want someone who has been around the block and knows something about how product management works.

That is bad news for some candidates.  Especially for someone who does not have prior product management experience to highlight.  But there is also good news.  It is now easier than ever to find resources to teach yourself how to be a good PM.

There are many wonderful resources around that help you take a peek into what a PM should do: SVPMA (Silicon Valley Product Management Association), many product management and startup blogs, Product Camps, StartupDigest, many product management and user experience books, to name a few.

To test product management competency, I often ask questions like the following:

  • What is the number one job of a product manager?  Who does a PM interact with to get the number one job done?
  • There is not enough data to make a decision, but the engineering team demands the requirement to be specified.  How would you come to a decision?  Would you collaborate with anyone?
  • Product development is about to hit the feature complete.  While doing a beta testing, beta customer demands a last-minute feature request.  What do you do?
  • Engineering team just delivered FRS with 3 man months of work estimate to develop the feature to your requirement.  What is your next step?
  • Executive team suggests a new product idea.  What needs to take place to launch the new product?

3. Capacity to connect with customers and all departments

Product manager is at the center of any product organization.  PM must be able to communicate with everyone in the organization.  If there is any hindrance in communicating with other department such as personality issues, too big ego, inability to listen attentively, and ability to earn trust from other team members, then it will eventually show up some problems.  Often they show up as lost deals, incorrect customer expectation or even worse solving the wrong problem with a new product launch.  

That's because PM is at the central hub of all communication paths.

Customer's requirement needs to be translated into product requirement and gets communicated to engineering team.  Support team must understand the product behavior ultimately from PM, and PM must listen to problems that customers are having from support team.  Marketing team must interact with PM to create product marketing materials, and find out what messages are resonating in the market or not.  Sales team must be able to signal to PM the upcoming opportunities and influence the feature priorities, and PM must be able to clearly communicate what features are coming up in the future releases.  Exec team needs to understand what the product strategies are and how the product is progressing in implementing the strategy.

PM is a role where information needs to constantly flow from one department to another.  And as the number of people PM needs to interact with, there are bound to be some who are not as easy to speak to, have different point of view and what PM's role is really about.  Even if there are differences in opinions, style of work, and personality, PM must be able to keep the information flowing.

PM must be able to encompass the entire organizational team in sharing product behavior and vision.  Perhaps it is the second most challenging position to HR in dealing with different departments and many personalities.

Hope this has been helpful to you.  If you have comments or feedback, please let me know at jaeho9kim (at) gmail (dot) com.  If you haven't, please follow me on Twitter: @jaeho9kim.

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