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DNA of Great Product Manager

Things to look for when hiring top Product Management talent.

This is totally opinionated through the lens of my own experience and does not cover the “how” of hiring for such candidates. Which will be the topic for another article in future.

Setting context

Firstly, let’s constrain the context of this article a bit as “product” and “management” can be anything in this world. Here, we assume:

  • a customer centric software business (SaaS, apps, games etc)
  • small size (<1000 ppl) company
  • agile / iterative process driven software development

Secondly, let’s introduce whom we would call a “product manager” generically:

Product Manager is a leader, equipped with knowledge, skills and abilities to: analyze and explore customer data and problem space; create compelling, rationalized and inspiring product vision; successfully align stakeholders around the vision and its rationales; create strategy, actionable plan and backlog (roadmap); lead cross functional team(s) executing the plan; manage changes, risks, dependencies, while keeping stakeholders in the know; “ship” quality products to the end customer’s delight.

The above sounds like asking a lot (a “superhero” description), but in fact, this is what the job is about if we hope to deliver successful products to customers in the modern competitive reality.

Now the definition above does not mention the specifics (such as which knowledge and skills they would possess? what techniques they would use to build a vision? create a backlog? how would they manage dependencies and risks? which work systems they would use to run the production cycle etc), cause I personally think all that might be…secondary to the core things we would want to see in the hire first.

The Core Competencies:

Customer Focus

Product development should be driven by customer context and data. A product manager has to have passion for their customer — willingly able to jump into the customer's shoes, chat with them directly, build relationship and learn to gain important insights. When you pay for product management you definitely want to get a true expert of your company’s customer context.

Vision and Change Leader

Building something requires a direction. The best way to see such direction for all stakeholders is through a clear and tangible vision of how that new to-be-built product is used by customer in future and what key outcomes it can drive for them. Ability to formulate that vision with set goals and drive/lead changes to make that future today’s reality is a must have for any product leader.

Business Sense

To balance their ambition with vision one must have a clear sense of reality in terms of available resources and time available to realize such vision. Product manager does not need to have full blown financial background, but you want someone able to operate successfully with given resources and constraints and be very comfortable with things like return on investments (ROI) or understanding company’s P&L and business basics.

Master of Communication and Alignment

Day to day activity of product managers is active collaboration and communication with others. There is a constant need to engage various people, solve concerns, provide transparency etc. You want to have a product manager who is able to communicate clearly, concisely and constantly ensure everybody is on the same page — aligned with the status quo and decision making.

Decisive Decision Maker

Timely decision making is at the core of a great product manager. Considering the amount of issues, contexts they operate with — analysis paralysis is a very common problem in product management. You want to pay to someone who has mental capacity to “zoom out” from all the issues and drive action — make the most optimal calculated decisions even when we lack full understanding.

Leading and Influencing Others

Creating software products requires a product leader to work across teams and functions. Modern agile software development makes it impractical to form direct reporting lines for product managers, so in most cases they are expected to lead efforts of a large group of people and teams through their influence rather than through top-down commanding authority. Ability to work with people and lead them with vision, knowledge, trust, clarity and inspiration is what we want to see in product managers as their core trait.

Planning & Strategy

Shipping software requires good deal of planning activities. Planning in modern software company happens across multiple levels: strategic planning, team-level planning, intraday planning, etc and having a product manager incapable to plan effectively is not an option. Ability to effectively plan for delivery and all sorts of contingencies (plan B, plan C) as well as optimal path to get to the set vision and goals (the strategy) is what can be day and night difference for the software project.

Adept of Execution Excellence

Since things rarely go according to the initial plan, we want to see proactive reaction to things going wrong: kick-in plan B, mitigate unforeseen risk based on pre-cooked recipe, reach out and manage expectations with the dependent party, re-assessment of previously made assumptions when new knowledge surfaces etc. All the activities that no matter what allow a product manager to stick to the deadlines (if possible) and avoid quality compromises.

Driver for Results and Quality

Finally, you want a product manager that actually delivers results. Not someone who was there when delivery happened, but someone who “shaped” and materialized the reality in such a way that the intended product shipped and customers got something of quality that solves their problem or delights them (or maybe even exceeds their expectations).

Beyond the core:

Very often we see that a job description would feature particular frameworks knowledge as a requirement for a product manager (“should be able to write user stories”), I personally do not think it is that important for a product manager with a great “core” to be experienced in a particular tool— frameworks just like any other tools are just instruments, they come and go, the world changes fast and knowing which tools, how and when to use — can be learned on the job if such specific knowledge is missing (and if a framework is so complex that it takes months and years to master it — do you really need such a tool?)

The exception for me is the domain specific knowledge and skills. As we grow our companies we start to see certain highly specialized areas, where a product manager with experience and background in that particular area can be twice as productive as the one without such background knowledge due.

Domain knowledge is something that should be added on top of the core when it comes to hiring as it can yield very practical benefits for your business.

Product Manager’s Core in a Software Company

Summing It Up:

So what Product Manager I would want to hire for my own company in future?

I would hire a passionate customer focused, visionary leader with a good business sense, communication and alignment skills, who is a decisive, influencing leader, excellent strategist and planner, and who effectively navigates challenges during execution phases, drives real results and quality for their customer.

This is definitely a high bar and we often have to make hiring comprimises, but the above is my guiding star on what I want to see in the candidates if not with experience, then with the trajectory!

Thank you as I appreciate your time spent reading this article


Tech enthusiast and product leader (Amazon PM Tech, ex Riot Games, ex Microsoft, Nokia), author of something awesome in the future;)

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