How to Recruit Product Managers in 2016

Blake Bartlett, Partner by

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series covering best practices for building a great product & engineering team featuring advice from Yoav Shapira and Craig Daniel. You can read Part I here.

This summer I sat down with Facebook’s Yoav Shapira and Craig Daniel of join.me to discuss product & engineering best practices. Over the course of their careers, they’ve built and led product teams at companies like HubSpot, CarGurus and LogMeIn. But, regardless of the company, one challenge they faced throughout was recruiting and retaining high-performing product managers. Here, Shapira and Daniel provide insights on how to find, develop and motivate top talent.

Recruiting vs. Developing Talent

Put simply, “Recruiting product managers is hard,” says Craig Daniel. “We’ve had better luck starting with internal team members who are either developers or Scrum Masters who show an interest in the product owner or manager role.”

While interest is a good first signal, Daniel must identify the qualities of a successful product manager before anyone can step into the position.

“From a DNA standpoint, you need someone who is super smart with the ability to consume a ton of information. They need to take data from so many different stakeholders – the customer, the boss, the CEO – and distill that down and use their judgment to figure out the next priority.” That, Daniel notes, is precisely why it’s so hard to recruit them.

“The unique skillset required for a successful product manager is hard to assess in an interview. You have to look through their history and walk through real-world scenarios,” he adds. “That’s why I find it a little easier to go through this process internally if you already have really great people on your team. The product manager role is a unique one that is different in each organization. So, even if someone has done it before somewhere else, they might not be a perfect fit at your company.”

Daniel’s ‘grow from within philosophy’ is one that’s becoming increasingly popular. In fact, Drift’s David Cancel no longer recruits product managers for the precise reasons Daniel points out. Cancel goes one step further saying that, “Even if you can find [someone] externally who happens to meet your definition of a great product manager, the experience they bring is something that you’ll most likely want to retrain/untrain them of. You want them to use your special sauce, your differentiator.”

Another controversial point Cancel brings up is whether or not product managers need MBAs. “Back in the day, all of the product managers at my companies wanted to leave to go get their MBA. Today, everyone wants to go to business school to leave and become a product manager.”

But, Daniel has his own ideas when it comes to evaluating the usefulness of a professional degree. “I don’t have an MBA, but we have a couple of people on our team who do and they’re incredibly helpful for modeling and forecasting, he says. “So maybe at a startup you don’t need to do this as much, but at a public company like LogMeIn, the product manager needs to be able to say, ‘The reason we’re doing item A instead of item B is because it’s forecasted to bring in $1 million next year based on all these mechanics.’ I don’t need an MBA to do that, but it certainly helps when you’re going to the Board and executive team and discussing these points.”

“That being said,” Daniel adds, “I tend to value creative thinker-types who can make decisions and iterate and move the ball down the field.” But, like most things, he also points out that there’s simply no silver bullet when it comes to finding the perfect product manager. “It’s a grind. It’s all about due diligence and organization and focus and prioritization and continuing to knock things out.”

The Right Time to Recruit

Yoav Shapira is on the same page as Daniel when it comes to recruiting product managers, especially as it relates to younger talent that hasn’t necessarily come up through the rank and file. Today, there are many fresh-out-of-college grads looking for product manager jobs. They’re no longer looking to work at Goldman Sachs, but instead are hoping to land product manager positions at startups and tech companies. So, how does Shapira feel about this influx of interest and talent?

“I haven’t hired a product manager out of school ever, not because of a philosophical opposition to it. The bar is just so high to be a good product manager. Many of the skills that Craig mentioned take years to develop and communication skills are a huge part of any product manager’s success. You need to be able to explain not just to engineers what to do next, but also to salespeople. You’ve got to show them you understand how product decisions impact sales and other stakeholders. That takes a lot of time. I haven’t seen people out of school who can do it.”

The role is simply one that is too hard for recent graduates to grasp. “The product manager role is a parallel function to engineering. They don’t usually manage engineers, they help to decide what to do, but they don’t actually manage them and do their reviews. That’s a really hard position for a young person, not that it’s impossible, but it’s hard. Like Craig, I much prefer that they have functional expertise.”

And as for hiring new grads with huge aspirations, Shapira says, “If I get a whiff of someone who thinks they’re Steve Jobs and has that kind of ego or they want to be a product manager because they mistakenly think product managers make all the decisions and manage everyone, we stop the interview process cold.”

The argument Shapira makes is a classic nature versus nurture scenario – not a lot of people will come out of the womb knowing how to do all of the complex prioritization required of a product manager. You might have the DNA, but there is a lot of maturity that you learn on the job a younger employee would lack.

And Daniel agrees. “It seems like a glamorous job because blogs might write about a hot new product or something, but it’s not very glamorous. If you want to go be a junior product manager at Slack right now, you’d be working on really boring things.” He imagines that role might entail choosing the next ten emojis for the company’s emoji library. “It’s just not really sexy,” he adds.

But do Shapira and Daniel have advice for younger employees determined to make it into product manager roles? Sure, patience is key. “I generally advise younger people to go deep before going broad,” says Shapira. “It just helps so much. They end up adding so much more value. The younger you are, the less you know what your career trajectory is going to be. So, don’t bucket yourself to only be a product manager.” Explore all of your options first, work your way up and one day you might just be that elusive silver bullet we’re all searching for.

In the next post, we’ll cover best practices for organizational design. Have your own recruiting tips for Product Managers? Share them in the comments below.

  • Linda Herzog

    I just completed a “deep ” search for a Product Manager. I have been doing staffing and recruiting for too many years and this one beat them ALL! My friend was Boolean…I changed it out every which way. Studied the job description (brand new position for the company) and the resume, every line of each. Wasn’t sure that the job description was the best tool, because it was very broad, it’s what I had to work with…so each person I screened by phone, my questions were detailed with the verbiage and specific to their experiences, I listened! Analyzing the fit for company and experience, what would they bring to the table. Does that match with what the company was requesting. I have to say my years of doing this, really assisted. Instinct, ability to analyze the resume and job description, read between the lines and the VP of Marketing and Public Relations partnered with me! WE ended up being a great team!