How to Hire a Great Product Manager

By BrainStation April 8, 2019

The position of Product Manager has been one of the fastest-growing roles in tech in recent years, with a 30 percent growth in job openings year over year. LinkedIn even recently ranked it as one of the most promising jobs – in all industries.

Clearly, companies are seeing the value in hiring product gurus who can oversee and guide a product’s life development from ideation to market, all while efficiently managing teams of drastically diverse backgrounds and developing a sound distribution plan.

The trouble is, candidates who possess the varied skill set needed for Product Management are elusive and highly sought-after. Here are some tips on how to hire the Product Manager (PM) who will be the perfect fit for your team.

Do Some Soul-Searching

Before posting the job, talk to your fellow stakeholders about what your dream Product Manager’s role will look like.

“Product Management is fundamentally a white space role, so the skills you need will depend on what skills you already have and what your company does,” advised Jackie Bavaro, Head of Product Management at Asana. “It’s best to do this with the people who will be working with the PM and interviewing the PM, so that they’ll all be aligned.

“PMs do best when the team they’re joining really wants them there.”

Perhaps you need someone with an uncanny design eye, or razor-sharp technical skills, or deep experience in analytics?

You’d probably love to find all of those qualities in the same candidate, but there aren’t too many of those people around.

The Personality Test

With some roles, especially in tech, so-called “soft skills” are often regarded as just one of many factors to consider when evaluating a job candidate. With Product Managers, however, people skills are paramount.

The mini-CEO of your product will need to communicate effectively and efficiently with such a diverse group of people – Engineers, Designers, Analysts, senior business leaders, Distributors, and sales teams – that the candidate’s personality is one of the most important considerations in the hiring process.

And given the categorically collaborative nature of the job, it should be a red flag if your would-be Product Manager takes full credit for all of their past successes.

In fact, Jim Patterson, former Chief Product Officer at Yammer and now CEO of cannabis tech startup Eaze, even counts the number of times Product Management candidates use the word “I” in their interviews.

“People can’t help it,” he said. “I’ve been in interviews where someone says ‘I’ 50 times – ‘I did this, I did that.’ They came from a big company. There’s no way they did all of that alone.”

The issue isn’t just that this candidate might be taking undue ownership of other people’s work – although that isn’t a good sign. But a good Product Manager will know how to empower a broadly skilled team, and that won’t happen if your PM is trying to do everything on their own.

“When you’re younger, you want so much to be the hero of the product, and you care deeply about your product. But what can happen is that you take too much on yourself, and you don’t realize the value that other people can bring to the table,” said Julie Cabinaw, former VP of Sales & Marketing Technology & Innovation at Scentsy, now Chief Reinvention Officer with the state of North Dakota.

“You think you have to do it all yourself. You’re not inclusive enough, and in the end, you don’t create a product that is as good as you could have created, had you allowed those people to be a part of it. It’s often a matter of ego.

“What ends up happening is that you prove you can build something pretty good all by yourself,” she added, “but you could have created something much bigger and much better if you had some other input.”

And product management is a role where a bit of persuasive ability goes a long way.

“I look for charisma in PM candidates, the genuine sort that a person has when they are good at communicating (both speaking and listening), make the people around them look good, and have a high degree of empathy for the users of their product,” said Nick Nguyen, Vice-President of Product Strategy with Mozilla.

“Not coincidentally, these are the people that others root for, admire, and wish to succeed.”

What Skills to Look For

We recently explored the skills a Product Manager needs to be successful, but it’s possible your organization might not need someone who checks quite all those boxes.

Some skills, let’s say, are pretty much required across the board for Product Managers. Your PM, for example, should possess a strong understanding of Scrum, the Agile methodology, and project management frameworks, they should know how to define a Minimum Viable Product, perform market assessments, and understand how to present a product solution to stakeholders.

Beyond that, Todd Jackson, Founder in Residence at First Round Capital and former VP of Product and Design at Dropbox, separates Product Management skills into three categories: must-have, good-to-have, and “bonus.” He has four qualities in the must-have column: outstanding intellect, excellent communication, demonstrated leadership, and collaboration skills within the company culture.

He categorizes technical skills, an analytical background, and an entrepreneurial spirit as “good to have,” while the ability to write code or run a quantitative analysis is merely a bonus.

“I’ve never seen a truly great Product Manager that did not have all four qualities in the must-have column,” he said. “It’s important to look for diverse experiences and backgrounds. Your users and customers are likely a diverse set of people, so your employees should be too. This can actually be a big competitive advantage over other companies that think too rigidly or homogeneously about their hiring.”

Indeed, according to BrainStation’s 2019 Digital Skills Survey, 88 percent of Product Managers polled began their careers in a different field, a number higher than any other discipline.

So it does make sense to keep an open mind about your Product Manager’s background. In fact, Patterson even argued that chefs and soldiers make the best Product Managers because of their ability to work under pressure.

In those scenarios – and even with seasoned Product Managers – an ongoing commitment to education is another thing to look for. In BrainStation’s survey, 71 percent of Product Managers reported participating in workshops, roughly 65 percent in both online and in-person courses, and 55 percent in webinars.

“A lot of the processes and specific skills of PMing can be taught to someone with the right potential. It’s easy to teach factual information and tools,” Bavaro said. “On the other hand, I don’t think mindsets and what types of information you notice can be picked up quickly on the job.

“On this list, I put: customer empathy, awareness of good design, product intuition, product mindset, learning mindset, perseverance, collaborating well with people, effective communication, detail oriented, and grasping complex concepts quickly.”

Interview Questions

Since Product Management sits at the nexus of technology, business, and user experience, you should be sure to include questions that probe your would-be PM’s understanding of each. Here are some examples:

  • What’s a product that you think features excellent design, and why do you appreciate its design?
  • Tell me about a time when there was a disagreement between Engineers and Designers on a product you were working on, and how did you resolve it?
  • What area of product management do you feel you’re weakest in?
  • How do you communicate a product requirement for your engineering team?
  • What’s your method for validating ideas with customers?
  • Here’s a hypothetical scenario: you have a product you strongly believe in that simply isn’t finding any success. What do you do?

Bavaro says her team at Asana likes to use take-home assignments early in the process, but she acknowledges that they have lost candidates who didn’t want to complete them. Jackson, meanwhile, recommends bringing candidates in for a panel presentation.

Trying to gather a sense of a candidate’s soft skills can be a little tricky, but Bavaro has an interesting strategy: she makes sure to inject a little bit of friction into the interview to see how her Product Manager handles it.

“Make sure that you push back on at least one idea of theirs during design questions,” she said. “Ask why they wouldn’t design it a different way and see how open they are to your suggestion.”

Closing the Deal

Given the aforementioned worldwide demand for Product Managers, it’s probably obvious that you won’t be able to lure a top-flight candidate without a solid salary; Hired’s 2017 Global State of Tech Salaries survey found that Product Managers’ average salary of $138,000 was the very highest of any tech role.

But the competitive market for Product Management talent makes it necessary to go above-and-beyond in other ways, too.

“While you’re interviewing the PM, remember they’re also interviewing you to see if they’d want to work at your company,” Bavaro pointed out. “Treat your candidate experience like a product and look for ways to make it easy and enjoyable.

“One tip I’ve learned for selling candidates on the role – first ask them what they’re looking for in their next role, then focus your pitch on the things they care about.”

Indeed, the best way to find your ideal Product Manager might be to think like a Product Manager.

“I like to think about the reward centers in the PM brain,” Jackson said. “There are several big ones I can think of: having impact, delighting users, sense of purpose/mission, having autonomy, getting recognition, financial outcomes, learning/growth, etc. In my experience, more than other disciplines, PMs tend to care most about impact and autonomy.

“If you can honestly describe to them how they’ll get the reward they want most, you’ll close some great candidates. Just make sure you deliver on whatever you promised. The only thing more important than hiring the best PMs is keeping them.”

Find out more about product management certificate courses at BrainStation.