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Hiring Product Managers: 5 Things to Look for
07.26.11

A friend of mine just emailed me -- his startup is looking to hire its first PM and he was asking what are some qualities that I look for in a product manager / level of experience I prefer. Quick background on me: I was a product manager at amazon.com and was the PM for the first version of the Reports section in AdWords (which I did in my 20% time.) Here are 5 things I look for -- in order of importance:

1. Project Manager
Broadly and simplistically, there are 2 types of PMs: project managers and product managers. Sometimes we say that in a derogatory sense, but at the core, every product manager does have to be a project manager. After all, they're managing a project. What you want out of a product manager in this sense is no different than what you want out of say, an event planner, or a general contractor. This person needs to be able to manage a large, cross-functional team, where they may not necessarily have direct management oversight (i.e. they know how to use soft power not hard power), hit deadlines, and get a good product out the door. Lots of people can do this. Typically, when I see PMs transfer from other organizations within a company (as opposed to starting in product management and working their way up) -- they typically turn into competent project managers. They're someone you can trust with even very large and expensive projects. They're likely not going to be a product visionary in any sort of way -- but frankly, most companies aren't looking for that person. They're looking for people who can execute on someone else's vision.

2. Good Intuition
A PM has to makes hundreds of decisions. Sometimes they have to make that many decisions in the space of a very small time period -- a day or two -- this is especially true around launch. They don't have the luxury of asking someone else for their thoughts (e.g. their boss), researching the decision, or even spending a lot of time to think about it. They have to have good intuition and the self-confidence to make that decision and move on. Some of these decisions are mundane (e.g. where should this box go or what color should Y be), other times they're substantive but maybe somewhat invisible to the powers that be (e.g. what languages should we translate the product into?), and still other times, they're massive (e.g. what should we call the product or how do we market the rollout?) Sometimes they have to know when it's a decision that doesn't take 5 seconds but is something to escalate. Does whoever you're hiring have good intuition? In my interviews, I spend quite a bit of time in this area -- just asking about other products, what they would do, how they would position something -- all of it leads back to intuition.

3. Technical
Some companies are really dogmatic about this (e.g. PMs need CS degrees.) Others basically have no requirements at all. I think the place you want to be is, "Will my engineers find this person acceptable to work with?" That's pretty much it. If they're technical and an asshole -- engineers won't like working with them. If they're non-technical but hungry, willing to learn, and respectful -- I see that situation work out all the time. There's some component of "How technical is your product" -- that figures into here, but I would say that's a little overblown. As long as they have enough technical aptitude to learn, they should be fine. 

4. Ships / Bias for Action
It's hard to ship a product -- especially within larger organizations where there's a lot of bureaucracy and lots of people "own" things. Good PMs overcome these obstacles in a multitude of ways -- sometimes it's by building relationships, sometimes it's by bulldozing their way through. The way to test for this is to look at their resume -- both in terms of accomplishments and how they describe it. You're looking for people who have concrete things that have been shipped (even if they weren't a PM -- anything when they were the point person and there's a tangible output) and what they talk about -- are they talking about the people they managed and their areas of responsibility or are they talking about all the new things that exist directly because they worked on it?

5. Product Ideas / Vision
This is often the #1 thing that people look for in PMs. They'll be asked for new ideas on an existing product -- in other words, "Show us how smart you are via product vision." Don't get me wrong -- good product people have ideas about everything -- whether it's about DropBox or the table sitting in their kitchen. That's just how they're wired. That being said, I know tons of people with lots of great ideas who don't get anything done. Or who are a nightmare to work with. In a startup, you (or someone else) is still CEO and you're still most likely to be handing down the product ideas that people will execute on. So what these companies need is someone to competently execute on direction. However, this area, even though it's #5 -- really separates the good from great product managers. I don't think you can get to great without having great product ideas / vision. These people also need room to run and not be micro-managed (or even, necessarily, given broad direction sometimes.) However, that's not what every company needs.

I'm sure some folks are reading this and thinking, "What about business intuition, marketing, MBA candidates, etc.?" All this is important and I frequently test for this in interviews depending on how the interview is going (i.e. if I feel like the candidate might be weak in an area, I'll test for it.) I don't emphasize it as much because at a certain point -- if you look for all the qualities in a PM, you're essentially hiring a junior GM (general manager) who has great product instincts. This is fantastic -- if you can find it. But let's not forget about what the main purpose of the job is -- manage a product. Scope it out and get it launched. Besides, if they have all the above qualities, it's relatively rare they'll be clueless (or can't learn) about more traditional business areas -- so I'm just less concerned about those areas.

In terms of experience, I broadly look for 0-3 years of experience with a technical background (preferably CS.) The main reasons I look for this background include: cheaper, often hungrier, none of the entitlement issues that often plague MBA candidates (not always; I know many great MBAs, but I know far too many mediocre MBAs who think they're owed things because they have an MBA), and can not only learn a company's culture from the ground up, but also can learn product management from the ground up (no bad habits to break.)

In a future post, I'll also go into when a company should think about hiring its first PM -- and I typically think it's later than when a company wants to hire a PM.

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