Diamonds in the Rough

By Colin Millerchip May 14, 2014

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 11 Issue 2

FOR MANY ROLES, it’s quite straightforward to test a candidate’s ability. Want to hire a tester? Get them to test a piece of software. A software engineer? Get them to code something. Testing someone’s suitability for product management is trickier. Get this wrong and hire the wrong person into the role—and you might just break your company

One approach is obvious: Hire someone who’s already in product management. As with all hiring, it’s still a bit of a lottery, but at least you have a track record to explore and maybe even evidence of their effectiveness in the role.

But I’m reminded of a brilliant essay on recruitment of product managers by Kenneth Norton. As he states: The most important thing we’re looking for in a product manager is raw intellect. And if you limit your pool of candidates to existing product management, you’re turning your back on all those super-smart candidates with no past product-management experience.

But of course, raw intellect still isn’t enough. We do want experience, but I don’t believe it needs to be product-management experience. Some time ago, one of the cofounders of Red Gate Software Ltd. penned a paragraph that captures not only the importance of experience in a product manager, but some of the key benefits that come from it:

“Great product managers are experienced; experienced in something. It almost doesn’t matter what, as long as they have maturity, good taste and sound judgment. They need to see shades of grey, be open minded, discover good answers to difficult, ill-posed questions, and not just defend their corners and win their arguments. That’s something that, I think, comes with age.”

So here’s the rub: How do you find the candidates with the potential to become product managers, without drowning in fruitless interviews? How do you find the diamonds in the rough?

Incoming! 

Let’s assume that in principle you’re willing to consider candidates without formal product-management experience. You put up the job ad, and even after HR’s preliminary sift, a load of resumes land on your desk, each from someone with bags of potential … on paper. What next?

Traditionally, you’d also do a pretty savage paper sift, to cut down the time spent in first interviews. But we know we’re looking for hen’s teeth here, so while I do carry out a further paper sift, I plan to talk to quite a few candidates at this stage.

I introduced a telephone screening into our recruitment process for exactly this purpose. In 20 minutes, we rattle through a set of questions that primarily test a candidate’s critical thinking skills in both the technical and commercial realms. Think Edward de Bono (the “father of lateral thinking”) meets Enrico Fermi (physicist renowned for his fiendish problem-solving skills), and you’re getting the idea as to the type of questions we ask.

For many candidates, you know after the first question whether it’s worth asking a second. And we’ve now adopted this same telephone screening into the recruitment process for experienced candidates, owing to the fact that a scarily high proportion of experienced product managers blow out at this stage as well.

Inside the Garden Wall

At this point, let me say a few words about internal candidates. We’ve found several great product-management candidates masquerading as software engineers and marketers inside the building. But be wary of unduly lowering the bar just because someone is a known quantity. After innumerable unqualified external applicants, and with pressure building to fill the vacancy, this may become very tempting. We irrationally assume that, just because they’re great at their current job, they would be great in product management as well. The siren song of “we’ll make it a trial, and they can always go back to their old role if it doesn’t work out” only makes the temptation stronger.

But resistance is not futile! Remember the consequences of below-par product management, and keep that bar set high. And if candidates show strong potential, but not quite enough to completely convince you, then consider an interim position, such as business analyst or product owner to test them in a role that’s a step toward product management.

The Survivors

So they aced the telephone screening, now what?

You’ll have the normal list of things to check, such as cultural fit, communication skills, technical chops, yada yada. And that’s the problem: It’s fairly easy for someone to “yada yada” about the role, even if they’ve never done it before. While it’s valuable to check that they can talk credibly about the role, it’s critical to check they can do the role. We want someone who can “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.”

Here’s the approach we’ve taken in the past:

First face-to-face interview: 

  • Check on “talk the talk” across pretty much all aspects of the role. 
  • Check soft skills and cultural fit.
  • Do a first test that they can “walk the walk” with a mini-product exercise.

Second face-to-face interview:

  • Get them to prepare a presentation to show they can “walk the walk” on a bigger product exercise.

While the “talk the talk” portion is barely more than a warm-up exercise for an experienced product manager, it’s a more interesting discussion with our potential diamonds in the rough. If they’re serious about a career in product management, I expect them to have done sufficient background research to understand the role on paper (for example, as described in the Pragmatic Institute Framework). They should also dig below the surface and find out some of the practical issues.

As for “walk the walk,” remember how we ask a tester to test something and a software engineer to code something? We want to see them doing the job, and the same applies for product management.

We do a smaller product exercise in the first face-to-face interview, which requires no pre-interview preparation. We give them 15 minutes to prepare and 5 minutes to present back to us. In the past, we’ve used questions like: Should Apple launch an iPhone Nano? And how would you increase adoption of the electric car?

If they get through to the second face-to-face interview, then we give them a bigger exercise that requires some preparation time. Make sure that both sides are clear on expectations here: The candidates need to understand that we’re asking them to do the research, and not just prepare a meta-level presentation on how they’d go about doing the research. And the interview panel members need to know to judge the presentation in light of the limited time available to prepare.

In terms of topics, I’d suggest you pick one in an area that you know a reasonable amount about, but that isn’t at the heart of your business. This means you will have enough insight into the topic to be able to judge the credibility of the presentation, but hopefully not so much that you fall prey to the temptation to measure it against your own deep insight.

On and On

There are, of course, lots of other issues to bear in mind, which are covered in numerous other articles and blog posts. I’ll pick up just a couple that I see as critical.

If you’ve any doubt at all, it’s a no. Definitely. 100 percent. I can’t tell you the number of candidates who were a really close call, but then another candidate came along who showed us what great really looks like. The role is too important for a merely good candidate.

Assuming you find your diamonds, make sure that you give them a piece of work that will truly test them out in their probation period.

And finally, if you’re a candidate about to be interviewed by me, and you’ve found this article in your pre-interview research, well done! Now, ask yourself this: In light of the previous sentence, what do you think this means about the interview process you’re about to engage in?

Happy hiring!

Colin Millerchip

Colin Millerchip

Colin Millerchip is the head of product management at Red Gate Software Ltd. He has more than 20 years’ experience working in information technology in Cambridge, United Kingdom. His product-management experience includes enterprise-level strategic software for telecommunications companies and mass-market B2B software. He is the founder of the Cambridge Product Management Network. He can be reached at colin.millerchip@red-gate.com.

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