As organizations recognize the value of customer-centricity as a mindset and discipline, they’ve begun to invest in a dedicated product organization. But finding and recruiting talent remains a pressing challenge. On the flip side, there is considerable interest in entering a product role from employees within other departments, from marketing to client success. But the prerequisites to landing a product management job are often ambiguous or seemingly unattainable. As is the case for most product management processes, having empathy is the key when it comes to making a match.
Alpha teamed up with AC Lion, Product School, and The Product Group to host a dinner and event on the topic of product management recruiting. Two panels focused on employer and candidate perspectives, respectively, featuring product leaders from Informa, New York Public Radio, YieldMo, XO Group, AC Lion, Product School, Wade & Wendy, and Swyft Media. They provided insight into best practices from sourcing candidates to interviewing.
Most important qualities that employers should look for in candidates
Panelists focused on four key areas when evaluating candidates: experience shipping, an emphasis on collaboration, customer-first perspective, and the absence of an obsession with product or technology.
A history of shipping indicates that a candidate can navigate the many obstacles that often stand in the way.
“Huge bonus if you’ve done a product for internal use,” Josh Wexler, VP of Product at YieldMo, noted, alluding to the particularly difficult process of simultaneously navigating internal politics to deliver a solution to internal stakeholders.
Further, candidates show that they are team players when they give credit to others. Product management isn’t a solo effort and candidates would be wise to acknowledge how they aligned and relied on key players to get the job done.
“Don’t say you want to be in product because it’s flashy,” said Ambreen Hussain, Senior Product Manager at Swyft Media. “Product management is not glamorous. It’s very diplomatic and political. You’re executing on goals decided by someone else with no one reporting beneath you.”
It’s also a big red flag if a candidate can’t point to any difficulties they’ve had, since it’s virtually unthinkable for nothing to go wrong during the product development lifecycle.
“Acknowledge you’ve made mistakes. Don’t say everything has worked out and you’ve never had an argument,” said Jeremy Horn, the founder of The Product Group and the VP of Product at Wade & Wendy. “That’s why we put required years experience on the job description – it’s to assess how much you’ve overcome.”
When asked whether having domain expertise in the employer’s industry is a requirement, panelists took a surprising stance. Dan Storms, Senior Director of Product at XO Group, is responsible for wedding planning websites such as The Knotbut cleverly pointed out that he’s “been married [but] never been a bride.”
“You just need to prove that you are aware of your blind spots and can pick up on industry nuance,” he added.
While Marty Schecter, Head of Product Management at Ovum, noted that “the best ideas come from people without [an industry] background,” he does “try to make sure there’s a good balance.” Other panelists weren’t as welcoming.
“It’s really difficult to work with someone who has so much experience in industry,” said Wexler. “They wear blinders.”
Domain expertise simply isn’t as important as an “insatiable curiosity,” in the words of Nathaniel Laundau, Chief Digital Officer at New York Public Radio.
Optimizing the interview process
To test many of the above criteria, it’s become common for employers to give candidates ‘take home’ assignments. Such projects vary greatly, but there are some striking similarities, such as a final presentation.
Storms said that a presentation illustrates whether or not a candidate “can collaborate and influence” stakeholders, which, after all, is what the job is all about.
According to Schecter, “the best people do their homework – they read our 10K, understand our strategy, explain how they can help us make our numbers.”
The project that Schecter’s team at Ovum gives to candidates received praise from other panelists. His team asks candidates to walk through how they would compete against a certain product if they were to create a startup.
But the presentation isn’t the only step of the interview process. Candidates should consider not only how they answer interview questions, but also how they maintain the pace.
“I almost want [candidates] to run the meeting for me,” said Storms. “If I’m interrogating you, there’s something wrong.”
When it comes to candidates asking questions of the employer, Rick Aronstein, VP and Head of Product Recruitment at AC Lion, pressed candidates to have the appropriate mindset.
“The interview is really dating, you should enjoy the process,” he said. “You should feel like you have great exposure to the company.”
Aronstein has worked with hundreds of product management candidates to place them at leading brands across New York. He believes that there are a number of benefits to working with a recruiter during a job hunt.
“You get much better two way communication,” he said. Because he can reach out to an employer after an initial interview on behalf of a candidate, he can “have a lot of candid conversations with [the] candidate [to help them] ace the next interview.”
Candidates should tailor their resumes to the position
Panelists shared differing perspectives with regard to crafting a résumé, but they all agreed: one size does not fit all.
“Product management is defined in so many different ways,” Hussain argued. “Cater your résumé once you do research about the company.”
Beyond creating multiple variations of a résumé dependent on the employer, panelists talked at length about positioning.
“You really have to prepare your background and LinkedIn like SEO,” said Carlos González de Villaumbrosia, the CEO of Product School. “So if someone sees it they’ll want to give this person a chance to tell [them] more about themselves. Be employer-centric.”
And being employer-centric is important whether or not the candidate already has past experience as a product manager.
“Every line on your resume should talk about the business value you delivered for each role and responsibility,” said Horn. “Even if you’re a developer or project manager – it doesn’t matter – show that you can think about the business.”