So much to do, and so little time to do it all. It’s a cliche we’ve heard time and time again. For many product managers, it’s a familiar sentiment. At some point, it becomes apparent that you need more hands on deck in order to get it all done. When it comes time to scale your product management team, you’ll likely find yourself looking to hire a junior product manager.
Unfortunately, hiring a product manager (a good one at least) takes a little more work than simply posting a job on Linkedin and picking the best resume. Any product manager you hire becomes part of your product management team, and is therefore an extension of you. They’ll have the opportunity to screw up in a number of ways that can jeopardize working relationships, anger customers, and cost your company money—but, they can also be extremely helpful, too. So choose wisely.
If you’re ready to dive into the murky waters of expanding your product management team with a junior product manager hire, here’s some guidance:
When to Hire a 2nd Product Manager
We all know that a product manager should be one of the first hires at any company, but figuring out when to hire product manager No. 2 (or three or four) isn’t always so obvious.
There are plenty of logical points in a company’s growth and maturity where one could make a case for hiring a new product manager, such as launching a new product line, landing a new round of funding, or when the existing product manager(s) simply have more on their plate than they will ever complete.
A frequent driver for growing the product management team is when it’s discovered that specific expertise is needed that can’t be found among the current members. For example, product infrastructure may eventually need a dedicated product manager as the user base grows or the company expands its offering as a platform for third parties. In this case, you need a product manager who really understands those technologies and can have intelligent exchanges with the engineering side of the house.
Vertical expansion is another example where adding new expertise to the team makes sense; if a product that was focused on consumers or SMBs is suddenly jumping into the government sector or healthcare, bringing on someone with real-world experience in those highly specialized verticals might be the right call.
Specialization, of course, is part of your company’s natural growth and maturity, so there’s no surprise that it would come into play when growing your product management team. This is essentially when you move from hiring all-around athletes as product managers to bringing on people that are only suited for a specific product management role.
Before you post that job listing and start reviewing candidates, it’s essential that you figure out what the new product hire is going to do when they start. If you cannot come up with both a job description and a list of ongoing tasks and responsibilities, you might be jumping the gun–maybe you just need an intern.
Product Management Skills to Look for
There’s no perfect recipe or one-size-fits-all blueprint for a good product manager. Product managers come from many different backgrounds, and two people with the same exact resume could end up being wildly different in practice based on their personalities, people skills and motivations.
Rags Srinivasan of Western Digital conducted a survey to see what was most sought by those trying to hire product managers, and influence skills topped the list. “While the product manager is the CEO of the product she does not run rest of the organization needed to make the product a success,” Srinivasan says.
“The key quality required in a product manager to meet all the sales and profit goals they have set for the product depends on their influence skills – getting others to adopt the product manager’s priorities and do things necessary to help the product succeed.” -Rags Srinivasan
Many technology companies believe product managers must be technical.
“Product managers with technical backgrounds will have more success conveying product requirements to engineers and relaying complicated details to non-technical colleagues and customers. That said, there are pitfalls you need to avoid,” says Ken Norton of Google Ventures, “Most importantly, a PM who’s a former engineer needs to realize that he or she is just that – a former engineer. PMs who come from engineering and still try to take charge of technical decisions and implementation details will crash spectacularly. For that reason, I like hiring technical people who’ve already made the move to product management at a previous job.”
But for others, the best product management candidates have a little bit of everything, since that’s the role they will be filling at the company.
“I have a strong bias to look for the ‘naturally athletic’ — the smart, adaptable, agile PM.” – Eran Aloni
“Even if you need a PM for a very specific skill set or domain expertise, I would not compromise here, especially in an early stage startup. You need your product managers to be able to lead through constant change, learn and adapt quickly” says product strategy advisor, Eran Aloni.
At a minimum, a product manager should have the following:
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal
- Authenticity and conviction
- Natural curiosity and resourcefulness
- Self-motivation and common sense prioritization skills
- Attention to detail while still being able to see the big picture
- The intellectual horsepower to learn and synthesize new things
Where to Recruit a Jr. Product Manager
There are three primary sources of junior product managers:
- A junior product manager from another company
- Someone who wants to make the transition from a technical role to product management
- Someone who wants to make the transition from a sales and marketing role to product management
- Someone fresh out of school
Hiring an “experienced” junior product manager may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but there are plenty of valid reasons why a product manager with a year or two of experience might be looking for something new. The advantage of this type of hire is that they should already know some of the basics, they’ve already made mistakes and learned from them, and they won’t require as much remedial training. The downside may be that they will be looking for a promotion or added responsibilities faster than you can offer it, so you should be sure they are OK with the offered role for at least a year or two.
Engineers and QA types sometimes want to “come over to the dark side” and become a product manager. There are some great advantages to these folks since they should also bring excellent technical backgrounds that can be very useful. But, they are also people who started down one career path (technical) and now want to change directions. Ensuring that they understand being a product manager is far more complex than a technical role is essential because their limited perspective may have created a vision of product management that is just about telling engineers what to build. You should also focus on their business acumen and instincts during the interviewing process.
Sales and marketing staff may also see product management as an attractive career path, but these candidates’ motivations and understanding of the role should also be fully vetted. Assuming they have the capacity to hold their own on technical topics with engineering, they can be great additions to the team since they are already market and customer-focused.
Finally, there’s the newly minted graduate who wants to begin their career as a product manager. Depending on what they studied, these individuals can make great junior product managers, but you should be sure that what you’re expecting from them is within their capability set and they won’t be learning how to use PowerPoint and spreadsheets on the job. There are mixed opinions on MBAs joining the product management ranks, but if they’re enthusiastic for the role and understand their junior standing, they bring a great toolbox or product management skills to the company.
A Note on Internal Candidates:
Recruiting a product manager from within your company is an option, and it comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. If your new junior product manager was already working at your company in a different capacity, then they probably weren’t going to have any actual product management experience, which means you will be on the hook for teaching them a lot of Product Management 101-type fundamentals. On the flip side, they will already be familiar with your product and organization, so they’ll have a minimal learning curve on those items.
When hiring internally, it’s really important to make sure the internal candidate truly wants to be a product manager and understands what the role is. It’s not uncommon to find sales, marketing, or engineering junior staff thinking product management is a shortcut to a higher salary and more responsibility, and they may not truly have a passion for the multi-tasking craziness that comes with the job title of product manager.
Jr. Product Manager Interview Questions
When interviewing a product management candidate, the interviewer should feel like they’re answering most of the questions. If a candidate isn’t asking questions (and I mean good, insightful questions, not just inquiring about free lunch and vacation time), then they’re doing it wrong. Interviewees should be asking about the product, the market, internal processes, sales tactics and channels, margins…the list goes on….and you should be answering their questions the best you can.
If a candidate isn’t coming out firing questions at you, prime the pump with questions of your own such as:
What would you do in your first month to learn about our product?
This gives you a sense of how they would navigate the organization, and if they don’t mention talking to customers or customer-facing staff and only plan on talking to engineering, then you can give them a big check-minus out of the gate.
What was your experience using our product?
This, first of all, checks that they bothered to try the product out before the interview, and then gives you a peek into their analytical skills and prioritization capabilities. This question obviously doesn’t apply to products that they didn’t have a chance to use beforehand.
What do you think a product manager does?
This allows the candidate to explain their expectations without impacting preconceptions. It’s a great way to see if they actually understand the role in general and if they will actually be happy with the job as it is construed at your company.
“I’ll take a wickedly smart, inexperienced PM over one of average intellect and years of experience any day.” -Ken Norton
“Product management is fundamentally about thinking on your feet, staying one step ahead of your competitors, and being able to project yourself into the minds of your colleagues and your customers,” says Ken Norton of Google Ventures, “I usually ask an interview candidate a series of analytical questions to gauge intelligence and problem-solving ability. Generally I’ll ask questions until I’m sure the candidate is smarter than me.”
Most junior product manager candidates have not actually been product managers before, so it is important that the interviewing process gives you a chance to see if they’ve got what it takes. Some of this will come from the questions you ask them, but it can also be divined by making them actually DO something.
Give Them Some Homework
There are two approaches to a task-based product management interview exercise; you can lock them in a room and ask them to do something in a set period of time, or you can ask them to go home and prepare something for you and either send it in or come back and present it. While the former approach may give you an indication of how quickly they respond under pressure, the latter will probably give you a more accurate sense of their capabilities, as well as their overall desire for the job.
If they are annoyed or uninterested in “doing their homework,” then they likely won’t make a great junior product manager. The opportunity to research, produce, and iterate on something is one any enthusiastic aspiring junior product manager should jump at, if not for the opportunity, for the practice and chance to receive feedback.
On that note, you should provide feedback. Even if you’re not going to hire a candidate; you asked them to spend time creating something and you spent your time reviewing it–the least you can do is give them some constructive criticism.
Letting candidates actually come back into the office and present a project is another valuable opportunity for both parties. You’ll get to see the candidate’s presentation skills, be able to challenge them on points to see how they think on their feet, and get a far better sense of their interactions with other members of the interviewing team.
Some potential “homework assignments” include:
- Identify a new market for our product and justify why we should enter it
- Identify a new feature for our product and explain why we should prioritize it
- Review our user experience and identify opportunities for improvement
- Perform a competitive analysis
Boundaries should be placed on the assignment that are respectful of their time–and don’t turn it into a free labor exercise for your company.
The Divide-and-Conquer Interview Approach
Andy Jagoe of Venturegrit recommends that the product management interview process be very structured, with four interviewers meeting separately with candidates and asking them about entirely different things:
- A Product Management Case Study
- Analytic & Cognitive Skills
- Leadership & Communication Skills
- Most Significant Accomplishments/Resume Review
“It is simply not possible to address everything needed to excel in a product management role in one 45-60 minute interview. It’s also not realistic to subject candidates to extremely long interview processes. In a tight job market for top talent, great candidates won’t have the patience,” says Jagoe, “The coordinated team approach we recommend allows each candidate decision to be made with up to 4 times as much data. It also ensures balanced coverage across all key areas.”
This approach reduces redundancy and allows companies a far broader picture of what a candidate has to offer. It does, however, require a lot of planning and coordination on the hiring company’s part, as well as a deep-dive debrief meeting after the interviews to form a 360-degree view of the candidate.
Now Go Hire an Awesome Product Manager!
With the advice in this article, you should be prepared to start searching for your team’s next hire, now go get em! I’d love to hear about any other hiring “best practices” your product team follows when hiring jr. product managers. Tell me about them in the comments!