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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
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
- 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.
- 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.
- Read good product manager bad product manager, and good group product manager and bad group product manager by Ben Horowitz. It was written a long time ago, but most of the principles hold true
- What does a product manager do?– by Brent Tworetzky (VP Product at Invision)
- How to be a great product leader? – by Adam Nash (VP Product Dropbox)
- Principles of product management by Brandon Chu (VP Product at Shopify)
- What makes a good Product Manager? By Andy Johns (FB, Twitter, Wealthfront)