When hiring a product manager what skills do you look for?

38 Replies

This is a classic article I refer to whenever I am interviewing product managers. https://www.kennorton.com/essays/productmanager.html

My top 4

  • Creative thinking and problem solving skills
  • History of actually shipping
  • Knows how to work with a variety of people
  • Owns past mistakes and learns from them

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.

Right now I myself am looking for my next director-level product management role, but when I'm hiring, I follow the advice of Buckingham and Coffman in First, Break All the Rules. I hire for talent over skills and experience. So the question becomes, "What talents do great product managers possess, and how can we know when a candidate possesses them?"

I've observed the best product managers having these talents:

Acquisitive and emergent learner. The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes. Researcher Martin Rayala distinguishes among four types of learning: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence. The most talented product managers don't rely on learning through instruction (transmission) or on learning through experience (accretion).

Principled. Great product managers align activities and details with larger goals and principles. Acquiring market knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making sound product decisions. A great product manager is relentless in applying timeless marketing principles (which are often counter-intuitive) and in asking how activities and decisions help the company and the customer.

Disciplined. Great product managers impose structure on work and life. They aren't satisfied with "unconnected dots" and, in their professional lives, are constantly striving to make sense of market data and synthesize it into a coherent overarching model and strategy. This characteristic is closely tied to emergent learning.

Adaptable. Great product managers adjust beliefs and actions in response to new information. While relentless in adhering to principles, they know market realities determine product success, and they recognize that up-front hypotheses about the market require testing through build-measure-learn feedback loops.

Facilitative. Great product managers recognize, cultivate, and activate talents and opportunities. They exhibit leadership by identifying and activating the talents in team members. They uncover challenges that prospects face, recognize opportunities, and facilitate the people and processes to nurture and pursue them.

To evaluate candidates during interviews, I probe their real-life passions and how the candidates handle real-life situations. What life experience was the most positively impactful in the past six months, and what made it positive for them? What happened? What actions did they take to make it happen? What did they enjoy about it? Look for signs of the talents listed above in their answers.

For more details, see Talents of Great Product Managers.

Great lists. I agree with Roger and Buckingham that talent trumps skills for a successful managers (product and people). I add the following product manager attributes when hiring:

Team Captain -- Combines elements of being a team player and ability to lead without positional authority. Both are extremely important talents for product managers. Great product managers will have examples of where they exhibit this behavior both inside and outside of work. They just can't help themselves. :)

Grit - Willing to stick with it and continuously improve themselves, their product and strategy.

Pragmatic Optimism - Maintain faith that their product will win while confronting the harsh reality of the key barriers that must be overcome for success.

Business Acumen - Not the financial analyst, but needs to think and act like the CEO of their product to produce business results.

Technical Acumen - Doesn't mean developer, but needs to be able to quickly learn and communicate customer technical challenges to the development team.

Domain Expertise? - In my experience, the importance of domain expertise depends on team makeup and if the goal is to maintain status quo or create innovation and growth. If innovation is the goal and there is sufficient domain expertise in the team, an inquisitive product manager new to the industry can be a stronger contributor. This is because thought diversity and willingness to challenge the status quo often leads to innovation.

I think you are missing 2 attributes

  • Credability - People need to beleive in the changes they are trying to implement and what they are trying to achomplish
  • Results Focused - They need to drive through the new product features
  • The product features they drive need to be based off user input and metrics

OK, I'm going to throw a couple of Molotov Cocktails in here. A lot of good answers in the responses below, but I want to add a few I didn't see especially touched on. To give some context, I'm the VP of Product at my company, I've taught Intro to Product Management at General Assembly in Chicago, I've been doing product in a variety of context for a number of years. That all said, your mileage may vary.

  1. Is able to understand the context in which they work. Optimal product strategies purely guided by theory and taken without the context of the strategy or situation of the organization are nearly meaningless. When we hire a PM we're hiring them to lead, but not to break the organization. They can only take their development teams as far as the organization is ready to go. If the organization is prioritizing nearer-term revenue over longer-term growth, the PM needs to recognize this and work within those constraints.
  2. Dives in when they don't see motion. This ties into the point above. They're able to read that the organization needs guidance in an area and they are willing to help guide it. They use a lot of phrases like, "Have you ever thought about..." or "That's interesting, but have we ever tried..." They acknowledge and shift when appropriate.
  3. Provide extreme transparency. They recognize that they can't do everything, and sometimes not every idea is going to get looked into. Sometimes things get prioritized over other things at the cost of a salesperson's commissions. They provide the view into why all these things happen to the relevant stakeholders and they do so while being pleasant and patient. In the ideal world we never give everyone everything they want, but they walk away saying "at least it was fair."

I have a bunch more, but these are a couple of key ones that currently come to mind.

I fully endorse the concept of hiring for aptitude over lengthy track record

A good product manager is able to lead a product team to win - beat company's metrics, and produce market-successful products to win over customers. She is eager, determined and resourceful to make things better and different.

Hey Jonathon, I've really got to second that comment on diving in "when they don't see motion". As a product manager, it's not your job to be the expert in every area of the organization, BUT you are often the initiator of improvements and you need to have an eye for seeing opportunities and asking probing questions.

Fellow Chicagoan here (Sox fan... glad that's out of the way)- I've actually considered enrolling in General Assembly's PM training. Can product management really be taught in a classroom? I'm finding that I'm learning so much just by taking on PM related responsibilities in my current role. What are your thoughts?

It's particularly hard hiring product managers for technology products outside of Silicon Valley and the other big hubs. It's such a nebulous concept that it's understood through example and practice, not definition. It's even harder for those of us that run technology-based educational companies since our product managers need to not just integrate business planning, market needs analysis, competitive analysis, and all the technology/feasibility and management areas, we need product managers that can ensure that our ideas and designs are high on several sometimes incompatible design concepts:

  • instructional design and impact
  • game design and engagement
  • ease of use for students and teachers on both web and mobile devices
  • compliance and universal design issues required by schools

If you know anyone, we could give them a happy challenging home from which they can change the word. Our new big frontier might be writing products! John, Mayor, VocabularySpellingCity.com

Great answer. Thanks so much for sharing. I am a recruiter with NetBrain Technologies, in the midst of a very active search for our new Senior Product Manager to join our team. This first point of acquisitive and emergent learner is great '"The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes." Now the challenge in finding a way to identify that skill from a search or profile or resume....

A Product Manager needs to be well versed in 4 main areas I call pillars:

  1. Soft skills
  2. Business acumen
  3. Technical skills (including UX)
  4. 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:

  1. Technical background
  2. Domain expertise
  3. Communication skills

There are a few things that will help you learn more about product management:

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.

As a young product manager just starting out, I find the most critically important skills for a product manager to have do not have to revolve around the product itself. In my experiences, these skills helped me to start contributing to my team right away:

  1. Problem solving - if someone can solve a generic problem, that process can be applied to solve similar problems or problems of the same structure.
  2. Adaptability - the PM world is fast paced and constantly changing. Those who can adapt quickly are more productive on a project early on. This is critical for things like addressing the competitive landscape.
  3. Perspective - as a PM, i try to view the product from a variety of perspectives. How would a large customer view the product? A small customer? How does my support team view the product? How does this align with broader initiatives within the company? How do my developers view the product? Being able to see and recognize different perspectives is an important part of communicating as a PM.

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

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

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

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

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."

Steve, do you see these areas of expertise as criteria for evaluating a product manager candidate, or more as expertise we expect the product manager to acquire and share after we hire her?

It seems to me that we want to hire a person who is exceptionally talented at acquiring (and sharing) these forms of expertise, but not necessarily someone who already has them. According to Buckingham and Coffman and what the "world's greatest managers do differently", hiring managers in general (not just people hiring product managers) overemphasize skills and prior experience relative to talents.

The answers here are all very helpful and are consistent with conversations I've been having recently. I'm considering a career pivot toward product management and have been investigating potential paths and my transferable skills.

I've worked in software sales and marketing for 17 years. I've regularly worked hand-in-hand with customers, product management, product marketing and engineering, representing go-to-market on enhancing, positioning and introducing products. I've also had opportunities to be a primary business stakeholder on internal development projects.

I believe I have many of the qualities and expertise areas mentioned above. However, I'm getting feedback in line with Roger Cauvin's comments on prior experience vs. talents. The biggest things I haven't done include: a) Building and managing product roadmaps and b)Taking "x" number of products to launch and/or full lifecycle. Especially in early-stage companies, lack of these is a showstopper. Can I learn this? Absolutely and quickly. But I've yet to find companies who are willing to invest in developing. End of the day, I certainly understand the urgency to be able to get fast results.

However, as a hiring manager, I prefer to hire the person and not just the skills and pedigree. Experience is important, but there are always tradeoffs there. Sometimes the right attitude or fresh perspective makes all the difference in hiring good people.

When it comes to a role as broad as Product Manager, I must believe it's hard to find the "unicorn" with a complete balance of all the experience.

And as the investment ad disclaimer says... "Past results are not indicative of future performance!"

Thanks for the great insights. Glad I found this community!

Expertise requires constant education. Many hiring managers look for "purple squirrels" who already have all areas of expertise--and are willing to work for peanuts. I typically look for a strong expertise in one of these areas and then train for the remaining areas. The best product managers know how to learn and how to get stuff done.

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

  • Empathy
  • 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
  • Observant
  • Patient

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 completely agree to your point, Product Managers are evolved in an organization, its an ability of an organization also to select such candidate and then groom. Noone has a correct blend of art and science of product Management it evolves over time and with experience or Passion that is killer instinct....

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 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.

The role of PM is multi-faceted. Some of the things, I find extremely valuable are (in no particular order):

  1. Commitment to succeed no matter what
  2. Highly Inquisitive
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Handling Pressure from every corner
  5. Big Picture Mentality
  6. Great Communication Skills
  7. Pragmatist
  8. Business Acumen
  9. Humble
  10. 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:

  1. Product management experience
  2. Market domain knowledge
  3. 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>?

Above all else, passion for working in product and passion for your product. You can teach skills. You can teach the industry. But someone that is passionate about what they do will always give you their best.

Proven abiltiy to generate a product market strategy, work with development, and soft skills.

Thought this would complement this former question: https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/08/tech-skills-benefit-product-manager/

  • Negotiation skills
  • Management skills
  • Ownership