Hiring Product Managers at Scale

In this post, I summarize a process that I recommend for hiring product managers at a midsize or growth company, adapted for a distributed hiring environment (most applicable to a company that will hire multiple product managers).

I’ve hired and trained over 40 product managers over the course of my career, and this draws on my experience as a product hiring manager and team lead.

Internal buy in and scope of role

When hiring product managers (PMs) at a mid size company the most important thing is to have internal support from the executives and the design and engineering partners. There should be a strong desire to hire PMs to help build better products in a better way and to bring in more structure and systems to the product development process.

Once there is buy-in from these stakeholders, organize the teams into sensible working groups (e.g. by user journey such as onboarding/growth or by key metrics such as conversion/retention or by product line).

I prefer a matrix structure (although has tradeoffs) where PMs ‘own’ each of these areas in partnership with a design and engineering lead (with around 5-10 engineers per PM, depending on the project). I also suggest that engineers and designers report into their own functional leads and PMs direct the scope and priorities of the projects.

Hiring process

It’s essential to have a clear hiring process and system both for the sake of your internal team and for the candidates. Most companies are incredibly disorganized about hiring, but a little bit of work can save a lot of time in the future, especially when hiring many folks for the same role.

Internal Team 

  • Recruiter: There should be a consistent point of contact for the candidate during their application process – ideally a recruiter. The recruiter communicates with the candidate, lays out the hiring process clearly, and moves them through the process. They act as a liaison between the hiring manager(s) and the candidate. They often do the initial resume screens and have an essential input into hiring because they get to know the candidate so well. 
  • Hiring Manager: The hiring manager is the person that is hiring for the role. They are the person who ultimately makes the decision to recommend the candidate as a ‘hire’ or ’no-hire’. This is typically a senior product leader.
  • Interviewers: Each interviewer should have a clear set of criteria that they use to evaluate the candidate. The interviewers should be excellent at the functional areas that they are evaluating candidates and hold the quality standard for the organization. The best people should be involved in late-stage interviews and this should be a core part of their job description.

Hiring Process

  • Resume screen: Internal and external candidates should submit a Resume / LinkedIn profile which should be screened upfront (recruiter + hiring manager). Candidates who pass this phase should move to a conversation with the recruiter, followed by the hiring manager.
  • Interviews: Interviews should consist of a standard set of, very well calibrated questions that can be asked by a variety of interviewers representing the different development functions (e.g. design, engineering, product, marketing). A structured hiring guide improves consistency and calibration, and can reduce bias from the hiring process
  • Central Tool/ATS: Interview feedback should be stored in a central place/tool (e.g. Greenhouse or Lever) and each interviewer’s feedback captured clearly (with a hiring recommendation). This allows us to both evaluate interviewers and the candidates – e.g. some interviewers bias towards higher or lower scores.
  • Written Exercise: If you are hiring in a distributed environment, try to find candidates with strong communication skills (particularly written skills) and clarity of thought. All candidates should complete a written exercise as part of their recruitment process which could include:
    • Break down a product you love – what you like, what you don’t like, how you would make it better (1 page)?
    • What is your favorite technological shift and why?
    • Write a ‘product spec’ to address a specific problem that the company has (better if it is a real problem).
  • Trial: If possible, ask the candidate if they would be open to a two-way trial (which is compensated) where they try and solve a real problem and collaborate with an internal team. This is time consuming (20-40hrs for the candidate, 5-10 hours internally) so very few candidates should go through this process if you decide to incorporate trials. You may filter out some good candidates because of the time commitment, but candidates who join are more likely to be successful.
  • References: I think that final candidates should be referenced checked by the hiring manager, especially if there are open questions. Backchannel references are the best (but avoid people at their current company) otherwise, ask the candidate for references. Here are some questions that I like:
    • How do you know the person? (gauge depth of relationship)
    • What are their strengths?
    • What are their areas for development?
    • What percentile would you put them in relative to similar folks in their position?
    • Would you hire them again?
  • Decision: For borderline candidates, the panel of interviewers should have a sync or async discussion – e.g. a private recruiting slack channel for hiring. The hiring manager is ultimately the decision maker. From start to finish, try and keep this process fast (e.g. under one month, and track the throughput).

Candidate experience

Candidates should have a great experience, understand how they are being evaluated and have consistent clear communication through the process.

  • Hiring Criteria: Candidates should understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated and the steps in your hiring process – this should be a templated email or a public blog post that you can send to product candidates.
  • Point of Contact: Candidates should have a clear point of contact (ideally the recruiter), to ask any questions about timelines and next steps.
  • Acceleration: If a candidate performs very well in early interviews or comes in through a trusted referral, they should be bumped up to the top of the queue or potentially skip steps so you don’t lose great people because of slow process.

How to Assess

When hiring, it’s important to be explicit about the skills you are looking for, and get a sense for where candidates are truly exceptional.

Here are the dimensions that I think you should use to assess candidates in the interview process:

  • Analytical Ability: AB Testing, Interpreting metrics, Data-informed decision making.
  • Product Judgment: System design, UX design to solve user / business problems.
  • Leadership: Inspiration, Influence, Empathy, Communication.
  • Execution: Prioritization, Getting things done when you say you will.
  • Technical Ability: Earn trust and respect from engineers as partners. Some roles will have a higher technical bar than others.

Each person on the interview team (3-5 people) should be responsible for evaluating the candidate along a subset of the interview criteria to create a balanced view. Ideally interviewers would ask the same questions to each candidate to calibrate their answers. I suggest that each interviewer test at least 2 dimensions of the list.

I suggest looking for candidates with an exceptional ‘A’ level strength, particularly in harder to learn skills like analytical ability and product judgement. I much prefer ABC candidates over BBB candidates because it’s possible to design complementary teams with AAA skills in aggregate.

Candidates should also demonstrate strong domain knowledge, and passion for the product, company and the customer. If they have prepared, it goes a long way (and it’s surprising how many candidates are ill prepared). If a candidate teaches me something new, or helps me challenge my own assumptions, that is wonderful. 


Appendix: Other resources

Google Criteria

  • Product Design: User experience, Design driven problem solving.
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, Using data to drive product decisions, dashboard design.
  • Technical ability: Understand technology and fundamental computer science principles.
  • Strategy: Go to market, Competitive analysis.
  • Culture: Googliness, Kindness, Leadership, Empathy.

Facebook Criteria

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self-starting, Motivation, Persistence.
  • Execution: Goals, Metrics, Prioritization. Understand, Identify, Execute.
  • Product Sense: A design exercise to solve a specific user or business problem.
  • Engineering fit: Do engineers want to work with you?

Product Manager Articles

Here are a few articles about product management as an appendix, in case they are useful.

Hiring your First Product Manager

When you’re running a small startup, you may ask yourself when to hire your first product manager and what you should look for in the candidate. This is a question I get from founders fairly often.

Startup founders in technology companies usually are great at least one of the following things; making stuff and selling stuff. Few individual founders are great at both, but most successful founding teams are excellent at both.

In the early stages of your startup, when you are trying to find product-market fit, you do not need a product manager. As founders (at least one of) you should be the product people at the company – obsess about the product, spend time with customers, drive the product roadmap, etc.

When you have found product/market fit and you are starting to scale, is when you should hire your first product manager. This person can run the day to day product development and allow you (as the founder) to step back and focus on fundraising, product strategy, hiring, and important partnerships. This person should bring you significant leverage. 

Many founders think they need a ‘Head of Product’ first – I don’t think that is right. I would not hire a super experienced product person who expects high compensation, owning the entire product vision and strategy or brings in ‘this is how we do things’ from their background.

Instead, I would look for an early/mid stage in their career, who is a strong executor and is high potential and can grow with the company. This person should be passionate about your product, users and you should be excited about mentoring and working closely with them (as founder/CEO). 

If this person ends up doing a great job at the execution, they can take on more product strategy from you as you build mutual trust and respect. If they are not able to scale in this role, you can bring in more experienced folks to lead the organization. Replacing a product manager is much easier and less expensive than a head of product.

Product Roadmaps

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking about how to design a lightweight framework for product development that fits in with different ‘product cultures’ and scales from a few teams of a few people to up to 50 people.

My current ‘best guess’ of this is a modified version of the Now/Next/Later framework that Noah Weiss nicely laid out here. For each product line I’d recommend a separate roadmap of this otherwise it gets pretty unwieldy. You can always roll up specific projects into a higher level company level view, if needed.


Principles

Here are some principles that I suggest for your roadmap:

  1. The product roadmap needs to be publicly visible and easily accessible to folks in the whole organization.
  2. It needs to be easy for folks outside the immediate executing team to add ideas or requests to the ‘New’ section for triaging.
  3. Ideas should be tracked from ideation to completion without duplication of work to update projects by lots of unconnected tools.
  4. The tool you choose is not important, as long as everyone uses it. I’ve enjoyed using Asana in the past (although they don’t integrate super well with other services).

NEW/NOW/NEXT/LATER

New (Inbox) : This is where all new items start to be prioritized. Items could be anything from large feature ideas, bugs or feature modifications. There should be a clear owner for prioritizing these items, usually the product lead, or on call engineer depending on the type of issue. Large projects should be broken up into milestones and prioritized. Try and keep this section at ‘Inbox Zero’.

Now (In Development) : This is what the team is actively working on right now, in order of priority. These tasks should be assigned to individuals on the team and usually correspond the the current sprint. Tasks in ‘Now’ are granular and well defined and have a clearly scoped deliverable and timeline. If you want more granular ordering or filtering in this list, I suggest tagging tasks by priority (e.g. P1, P2, P3).

Next (On Deck): These are the tasks/features that the team will work on in the next 1-2 development sprints. Tasks in this section should be in rough order of priority and have some definition around them, but may be broken up into more specific tasks when they move into the ‘Now’ bucket.

Later (Icebox): These are items that are unprioritized, but you know you want to get to them at some point. They could be bugs, loosely defined features, or feature modifications which should be tagged for clarity. The order or specificity around these is less important (especially for features) as you will prioritize and add more definition when the time comes.

Not Doing (Pit of Despair) : This bucket of tasks is usually hidden but is a list of ideas that you have explicitly decided that you are not doing. I suggest adding in a comment into the task to articulate the reason why you are not doing it, before moving it to this ‘Not Doing’ bucket.

In addition to the execution priority, it’s also useful to include some way to show the relative importance of tasks, so you can clearly see what tasks in the sprint can not drop. I suggest a Priority and Project Size tag like I’ve shown below.

This is an example of what a product roadmap could look in Asana:


In an ideal world, the tool is easily used and accessible by everyone in the organization and tightly integrates with other product development tools you use – e.g. Figma, Github, Google docs. Asana does not do a great job here and it’s hard to get information out of Asana if they whole company does not use it (which probably improves their retention, but makes it a worse tool overall).


Central Teams

These principles don’t just apply to user facing product development teams but would be also useful for ‘central teams’ like data/analytics or platform teams who are working cross functionally with folks across the organization. These teams often have ‘requestors’ of their time and expertise. It allows for better visibility into work and timelines, and also provides a structured system to ask for help or request reprioritization of work which hopefully leads to better visibility and trust between ‘central’ teams and ‘product’ teams.


Every company is different and each team may have different norms, but having a set of common principles, common tools and a shared language can improve visibility and reduce the switching costs for managers who oversee lots of projects and individual contributors moving between teams.

A few Management Frameworks

As a manager or manager of managers of product development teams, it can be hard to focus on the right things and to make sure that you’re making progress on your ever growing list.

To help others overcome the same challenges, I am sharing a few of my personal frameworks that have helped me focus better and be more productive over my career:

1. Understand Product and Team Health

I wrote a separate post about this here but one of the most important things you can do when managing lots of products/teams is to understand the health of both the products and the corresponding teams. I do this by asking the following three questions and tracking this over time.

  • What do the metrics say? Metrics are impartial measures of how the product is performing on an absolute basis and trending. Having valid, high quality data sources is essential.
  • What does the team say? Most of your insight will be from the team lead, but make sure and also talk to team members from time to time so you can further validate (or invalidate) the insight from the lead.
  • What do our customers say? Talk to customers, talk to customer support, get structured data on customer pain points.

Combining the insight from these three sources has helped me improve judgement around what we should build and also help with designing better teams.

2. Segment your work

I segment all of my work into three buckets:

  1. (10-20%) Set of things that only I can do (or want to do) myself
  2. (60-70%) Set of things I can structure and review
  3. (10-20%) Set of things that need zero oversight or someone else can do better

This allows me to spend time on the areas that I can have the most impact while making sure that I don’t drop the ball on all the jobs that need to be done by the organization.

Over time, if your objective is to make yourself redundant you should aim to move more and more tasks from category 2 to category 3. This is also a good sign of a team that both well assembled and performing well.

3. Track your time

Each quarter I write up my personal goals (Primary focus, Secondary focus, Observing) and share them with folks I work with very closely.

As part of this exercise, I reflect back on the previous quarter and break down my allocation of time and highlight anything in my list of goals that did not get done.

I then take all the tasks that I don’t think should be on my plate going forward (not the right priority, or someone can do better) and plan to transfer them to someone else for the next quarter as part of my personal planning process.

This has helped me be more deliberate and focus on the things that matter.

4. Get buy in for projects

People are the most important asset in any product development organization and high performers do not like to be told what to work on. One of the most important things that managers of product development teams have to do is get buy in from their teams on the projects they work on.

In the ideal situation a specific job to be done matches both the interest of a team/person and their capabilities. In other situations you’ll need to get buy in from teams to take on projects, and the best outcomes are always situations the team is motivated to work on the project (ideally it’s even their idea).

Depending on the person or team and their preferences, it’s important to phrase the project in the right terms:

  1. Do it for the Company: This project the most impactful thing you can do for the company’s growth – logic and long term thinking.
  2. Do it for your Team: This is the most impactful thing you can do for your peers or your team – community and selflessness.
  3. Do it for Yourself – This is the most impactful thing you can do for your development/career – drive and growth.
  4. Do it for Me: This is something I need you to do for me – strength of the personal relationship. This line should be used sparingly, because it can be relationship damaging and/or selfish.

These are a small subset of tools that I’ve found personally helpful as I’ve worked with product development teams over the last decade and hope you do as well!

Getting into Product Management

I get asked frequently for advice from folks who are looking to get into product management and often send them slightly customized versions of the same thing. I decided to write something a little more comprehensive and share it broadly. 

There are a few phases of work for folks looking to get into product management:

  1. Start by learning about product management and what product managers do
  2. Figure out where you want to work and make a list of companies that are exciting to you
  3. Prepare for your PM interviews, and learn how you’ll be evaluated

1. Learn about product management

Product management is different from company to company. It’s worth learning about the different perspectives of product people at different companies, and here is a short selection:

2. Figure out where you want to work

An important part of the process is generating a list of companies you may want to work at by evaluating company size, quality of mentors, your connection to the product etc. Product management varies significantly by product, vertical (ecommerce vs. autonomous car PMs do different things) and individual company so it’s useful to spend time upfront here.

I recommend going somewhere where you think you’ll get good mentorship from people who are both experienced and very strong product managers. I also recommend joining a company which is growing, as a lot of opportunities can arise from growth.

Companies like Google and Facebook have very well respected product management practices, but it can be difficult to get an interview or get through their process without prior product management experience (unless you are earlier in your career where they have great rotational Associate Product Manager programs).

Some good resources:

3. Prepare for your interviews

Read and Learn: There are a few foundational books that will help you prepare for your PM interview and generally help you becoming a better product person:

  • Read the lean startup
  • Read design of everyday things to teach you how to think about user experience
  • If you are a ponderer and not a doer I would recommend making things happen
  • If you want to learn how to run a product development process I suggest reading agile product management which can be a bit dogmatic and dry, but it’s useful to know these foundational elements
  • If you don’t have a technical background, I’d spend some time learning how technical systems work and some of the foundational elements of programming. The best way to learn is to read/watch videos (good resource) and take a Codeacademy class (javascript or python)
  • Cracking the PM interview is a really good book by a former Googler, and I’d start by watching her youtube video
  • Practice questions on the PM interview – it autogenerates a bunch of questions and you can go through them

Analyze products: Spend time breaking down products you like/don’t like – most ‘product people’ naturally do this, and enjoy this type of exercise. I like to break down my analysis into 1) Why does this product exist, what user need is it solving? 2) What do I like about the product? 3) What would I change and how would I change it? 

Learn how you’ll be evaluated: Companies hire somewhat differently so make sure that you ask your recruiter or hiring manager about how you’ll be evaluated as part of the interview process. Here are a few dimensions from my experience that I’ve used, and seen used in the past. 

My Interview Criteria: There are a few key skills that, I believe, PMs need to be successful and I use them to assess product management candidates. It’s important to have at least one area where you feel like you are excellent and can get that across during the interview process.

  • Analytical Ability: Run AB Tests, interpret metrics, data informed decisions
  • Product Sense: System design, uX design
  • Leadership: Inspire, influence, build loyalty, have empathy
  • Project management: Prioritize, get things done, make tradeoffs, unblock
  • Technical ability: Ask the right questions, build trust/respect

Google Interview Criteria:

  • Product Design: User experience and design
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, product metrics
  • Technical ability: System design, algorithms – earn respect from engineers
  • Strategy: Business turnaround, go to market
  • Culture: Googliness, kindness, leadership

Facebook Interview Criteria:

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self starter, influence teams
  • Execution: Goals, metrics, prioritization, process
  • Product Sense: Design, understanding users
  • Engineering fit interview: Not a technical one like Google, more of a fit interview

Being a product manager is fun, challenging and a great fit for people who like to make things, and like making things in a better way.

Best of luck in your journey and thanks for reading!

Get insight from independent sources

In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of product and general management is drawing insight from the right sources to determine ‘product health’ to identify where to focus, especially when managing multiple product lines.

In my experience I try pull data from three independant, uncorrelated sources to inform where I should focus my effort – the data, the team, and the users:

  • Data: Design dashboards that give you the metrics at the right level of detail on a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly basis. Be able to translate data into concrete hypotheses and insights. 
  • Team: The general manager (GM) or product lead of the business is your main source of information, but make sure to spend time with team members and other functional leads as well, so you can validate/invalidate what you hear from the GM. The broader team is also an incredibly strong resource for ideas for new features. 
  • Users & Customer Service (CS): It’s important to maintain empathy/understanding of your customers, even when you’re a step removed from the product.
    • On a regular cadence (e.g. weekly), spend time reading user reviews, blogs, forum posts etc.
    • Get quantitative and qualitative information from the CS team about what users are saying about your products over customer service channels, either through a short meeting, or a list of top 5-10 issues each week.
    • Spend time actually interacting with customers, and responding to them (directly or on forums for example).