Hiring a product manager is hard. There is not an assessment you can give to measure their mastery of the necessary skills like you can with an engineer and designer. But there are specific things you can look for during the interview process to help predict future success.
I've worked with many product managers, been one myself, and now at Aha! help hundreds of product teams around the world build better products. I have seen firsthand the skills you need to look for when hiring a product manager.
When interviewing product managers, ask yourself if they:
Did their homework - Good product managers base their decisions in research. Did they research the company in depth or did they look at the website in their car 5 minutes before the interview?
Communicate well - Being a good communicator is at the top of every "what skills does a product manager need" list. As the product lead, it's is their job to communicate vision and strategy. If they cannot clearly talk about themselves and their background, how are they going to talk to a customer about a complex product problem?
Handle pressure - There is no doubt that interviews can be stressful and nerves can come into play. But that can actually be a good thing when trying to hire the right product manager. How they manage themselves under the stress of an interview can give you an indication of how they will be able to handle a release gone wrong or a customer demanding a certain feature right now.
Ask great questions - Successful product managers also know they will be working across many areas of the business and care to understand how teams are organized and operate. Not to mention they are inherently curious.
Did your candidate ask how the customer success team currently gets new product updates? Or how sales gets support on deals that need a deeper product knowledge? If not, it might be a red flag that you are talking to a product manager who does not understand the importance serving as a bridge between engineering and other areas of the business.
Love your product - If they are interested in the role because you are the cool startup in town or because your company is a big recognizable brand, you should pass. They should be passionate about your product, more specifically the product they are going to be managing.
Hiring the right person to shape the future of your product is not ever going to be easy. But it is much easier when you know what skills to look for and the behaviors that highlight them.
A Product Manager needs to be well versed in 4 main areas I call pillars:
- Soft skills
- Business acumen
- Technical skills (including UX)
- Domain knowledge
I place soft skills at the top because I think it is the most important skill to have. PMs get work done via influence, not authority, so soft skills are some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.
By soft skills I not only mean communication skills (which are very important). I'm looking for areas like empathy, leadership, conflict management, and negotiation skills. Some Product Managers will be stronger in business or technology, and that's OK. It's to be expected. But regardless, every candidate needs to have strong soft skills. Without them, it'll be very hard for this person to be successful at the job.
For more details - What it takes to be a great Product Leader: the Four Pillars
Here is the presentation I gave about "How to get your first product management job". In summary, there are 3 critical skills you have to develop in order to get a job as a product manager in the software field, independently of what channel you use to find recruiters:
- Technical background
- Domain expertise
- Communication skills
There are a few things that will help you learn more about product management:
- Build something. Check out these side projects created by some of our students.
- Find a mentor. Learn from a real-life PM or find one best practices.
- Network. Checkout product Meetups events in your city.
- Read. Check out Cracking the PM Interview.
- Hackathons. Check out product hackathons such as ProtoHack or StartupWeekend.
- APM Programs. check out the Associate Product Manager (APM) programs offered by big tech companies such as Google, Yahoo or Facebook. You might qualify to apply.
I founded Product School to help aspiring product managers who want to break into product management. We currently offer 8-week part-time courses in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York. Our instructors are senior-level PMs at top companies such as Google, Facebook, Lyft, Paypal and other startups.
When considering a product manager, I also like to look at their expertise. These four types of expertise are most likely learned on the job.
Business expertise is where your traditional business leader or MBA graduate brings strength. These experts know the mechanics of business and can apply that knowledge to your product. A business-oriented expert knows how to use research to determine product feasibility, can determine how the product generates profit with lots of financial analysis to back it up. Ideally these business skills need to be combined with one of the other skills or provided as a support role for the other areas of expertise.
Product expertise is about your technology. From their daily interactions, product managers pick up a deep understanding of product and technical capabilities; they achieve this by playing with the product, by discussing it with customers and developers, by reading and reading and reading. For a technology expert, the product almost becomes their personal hobby. They think of themselves as product experts.
Market expertise is a focus on geographic or vertical markets, either by country or by industry. They know how business is done in that market. They know the major players, and the jargon or colloquialisms of the market. Market experts define themselves by the market they serve: “I’m a banker” or “I support BRIC.”
Domain expertise is about the discipline your product supports, such as security, fraud detection, or education. Domain experts know (and often define) the standards for the discipline and can explain the latest thinking in that area. They understand the problems that your product endeavors to solve, regardless of the market or industry. And for a domain expert, your product is merely one way of addressing the problems of their specialty. Domain experts define themselves not by the product but by their topic area.
You're unlikely to find all of these in a single person so you want to think about skills at a team level. I like teams of three: a strategic product manager, a technical product manager or product owner, and a product marketing manager.
For more, see my free ebook "Expertise in Product Management."
Other folks have given some good answers but honestly, for me I look for someone who has Critical Thinking Skills and Investigation/Research Abilities.
A project is doomed if someone lacks the ability to think objectively and critically about a problem and the facts or "facts" that have been laid out in front of them.
A project is also doomed if someone doesn't push back against customers and internal stakeholders when perspectives are being passed on as fact. Allowing a team to create its own echo chamber without fact-checking anecdotes or a team's own data (i.e. validating the data isn't just showing what someone wants it to show) will keep you out of a lot of trouble.
It... depends. There's no one-fits-all skill set and the role and responsibilities of a PM vary greatly across organizations. Or even within one (e.g. an early-stage startup PM has vastly different responsibilities than one in a large organization). I think the important question to consider is what needs you/your company hope to address by getting a PM, both in the short-term and long-term.
A great place to start though is Ken Norton's classic, How to Hire a PM. Great to use as a general template and of course you can customize to the needs of your organization.
Another great resource is Cracking the PM Interview book. It outlines the skill sets that major organizations like Google, Microsoft, Amazon etc. look for in their PM candidates, and also has specific interview questions that you can use for your own organization.
I agree with @JessicaGroff that hiring a product manager is difficult. It's also one of my favorite things to do. Adding a great product manager to a team is one of the most impactful things you can do as a leader!
Like @RogerCauvin (Hi Roger, long time no see) I agree that adaptability is key. Specifically I look for adaptable problem solvers. I want a person who loves to take complex problems and break them down into their smaller, simpler components. I also want raw horsepower upstairs; all things being equal, the smarter you are the more effective you are going to be in the product role.
@AbhishekJoshi is spot on calling out communication skills as well. To be effective product managers must excel in both written and oral communication. They must be able to speak the language of the market, the business, and in the software world, of the engineers as well.
I also put an emphasis on collaboration, specifically a desire to work in close collaboration with UX and Development in order to build the best product. Obviously a collaborative approach to working with customers is key.
Perhaps most importantly I need to know that a product manager understands the value he or she brings to the team. Too many product people believe it is their job to develop a "vision" for the product and then tell the developers what to build. A good product manager must understand that the value they bring to the team is in understanding the market (what problems we are solving, for whom, why they matter...) and not in designing a solution. The solutioning must be done in collaboration with designers and developers.
Effective product mangers must be data-driven decision makers who are good at linking business goals to objective measures and use these to set measurable goals for their team and provide constant feedback on progress towards those goals.
Depending upon the role, having a technical background can be a big help. If your customers are software developers, for instance, I think you will struggle to be successful without a technical background.
Domain expertise is a bonus in my book. The more of it you have, the faster you will become a net positive contributor. But the building is full of domain experts and smart, adaptable learners can climb the learning curve quickly. Product management is a difficult profession and I always favor product management skill set over domain expertise.
Vision, strategic insights, diplomacy, judgment, relentless commitment to customers/users
- Great verbal communicator
- Excellent writer
- Desire to solve real problems
- Continually curious
- Always learning and acquiring new skills
- Understands when to listen and when to speak
At Redfin, we like to reference a First Round Review article on hiring Product Managers. The article states the best PMs do three things:
- Articulate what a winning product looks like.
- Rally the team to build it.
- Iterate on it until they get it right.
The author includes a table in the article with must have, good to have, and bonus skills:
I recently wrote an article that was well received that attempted to address the kind of individual that makes a great product manager (behind every great product is a great product manager) - http://www.productmanagerclub.com/2016/10/12/what-is-a-product-manager-a-different-perspective/
John Cutler shared an awesome summary of the evolving role of the product manager, which I well recommend reading too - https://medium.com/@johnpcutler/the-evolving-product-manager-role-6f288bbc3cda#.5wkqg5jee
Finally...instead of just sharing good reads on the topic, a few things come to mind:
- We often think of product managers being at the intersection of a 'business/technology/UX' Venn diagram. We don't expect a product manager to be a unicorn i.e. a well seasoned techy with awesome design talent and next level busines acument but as Martin Erikkson puts it a product manager should be, “Experienced in at least one, passionate about all three and conversant with practitioners in all”.
- It's a given that a product manager should be digital native - I think increasingly though we should expect more 'makers' i.e. product managers that can craft tangible's and prototype. The ability to wireframe, visualise, sketch concepts and abstracts in ways that are meaningful is a huge asset.
- Possess the ability to 'flare and focus' or think in a divergent and convergent way. Great product people are able to vary their thinking between being ‘bigger picture’ and ‘action oriented’.
The killer question is - how do you facilitate interviews and pose questions that allow you to elicit if an individual possesses these traits. The most awesome interview I ever took part in had me leading a small group of interviewers through a design thinking exercise to solve for a problem I was given in advance of the interview.
I always start with, "what have you shipped?" I want to see everything that's still online and the ability to present a portfolio of EOL products.
I am looking for many of the skills already listed here. But I also want to know that they have learned from mistakes they have made. We have all made mistakes. If we do not learn from them we will continue to make the same ones.
- There are multiple versions of a quote by Thomas Edison regarding learning from mistakes. "I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work."
Some of the best Product Managers I know can site mistakes they have made and what they have learned from them.
The role of PM is multi-faceted. Some of the things, I find extremely valuable are (in no particular order):
- Commitment to succeed no matter what
- Highly Inquisitive
- Problem Solving
- Handling Pressure from every corner
- Big Picture Mentality
- Great Communication Skills
- Business Acumen
- Strong leadership skills to influence others
I believe product management is about being a generalist. Applying the first principles, product manager should be able to ramp up quickly. While domain expertise is important, I have no doubt it can be learned while on the job. I have seen many great PMs who are inquisitive to go deep in a new domain and hone their skills in 3-4 months time. It's the commitment to succeed that takes them far ahead.
I look for three things when hiring a product manager:
- Product management experience
- Market domain knowledge
- Technical domain knowledge
I do not expect to find someone with all three, however, the easiest area to train them in is technical domain knowledge, because we have a lot of people in the business who understand our technology. I would recruit a junior product manager without market domain knowledge, as this takes months or years to acquire this knowledge. It is possible to provide training and experience of product management to someone with technical and market domain knowledge (possibly an in-house project manager or lead engineer) but you have to be very careful that they the ability to handle ambiguity and necessary interpersonal skills necessary to have "all the responsibility and no authority".
There's no question that Product Management can be a tough role to hire for. I look for a few characteristics:
- Intellectual curiosity: this one doesn't show up on a resume, but it's pretty evident when you speak with the candidate. I want someone who is constantly thinking about how and why, not just what.
- Looking at products from the standpoint of how they impact a customer's life/business. I like to ask them to tell me about a product or service that they like, then ask what they like about it. Do they describe features or how it changes their life?
- View from customer experience: do they understand and empathize with the typical user? Or do they view the world through the eyes of a tech-savvy power user?
- Understanding of technology. I don't need them to write code, but they need to command the respect of the development team.
intellectual curiosity, analytical skills, communications skills, energy, flexibility, empathy
Here are some of the high-level questions I go after in the early stages of screening product managers:
- Give me a day-in-the-life snapshot.
- Do you manage multiple product managers?
- Describe your work environment and relationship with product managers, development teams, design teams, etc.
- Tell me about the culture that you create for your product managers, designers and developers.
- When's the last time you rewarded your team?
- Where do you sit?
- What role does Agile play?
- Tell me how you handle timelines and meeting dates.
- What's your interaction like w/ other stakeholders outside your teams?
- Tell me about how you create your product roadmaps and define your strategy.
- What makes a successful product manager?
- What makes a successful dev team?
- How do you gauge a successful product?
- How do you measure customer experience?
- Why are you interested in <This Company>?
Proven abiltiy to generate a product market strategy, work with development, and soft skills.
- Negotiation skills
- Management skills
The Hard Skills of a Product Manager. Product managers are often described by their soft skills: leadership, influence, persuasion, innovation, creativity, etc. Butproduct insight — the ideas that inform your direction and prioritization — alsorequire knowledge and skill that PMs develop over time.