Product Manager (PM) is a very difficult role to hire for, especially when you’re an extremely fast-growing startup and you’re hiring your initial product manager (and have no prior experience of hiring one)!
We’ve made our fair share of mistakes in hiring for this role and ultimately corrected those mistakes to hire a fantastic product manager. In this blog, I’ll be writing about my learnings from these experiences. I hope that you’ll find some really useful insights from this blog post on what to look for when hiring a Product Manager!
Cogno AI is a tech startup in the B2B space, hence what I write here might be more relevant to similar companies. And the insights about hiring a B2B Product Manager that I’m writing here can be assumed to be for the type of PM who would make products that can be sold to large enterprises. Let’s start now!
What does a B2B Product Manager do?
When we started to look for hiring a PM, we weren’t sure of the exact responsibilities of a B2B PM. We had a vague idea, but not exactly (we were a really small team back then with literally zero experience of hiring a PM). Eventually, we figured it out.
So basically, a PM has to work on multiple things - talking to the business teams and clients to gather requirements and feedback on the product, working with the Designer to make sure that the screens are designed as they were envisioned, writing feature specifications to be given to the Engineers, coordinating with the Engineers for development of the new features (we don’t have separate Engineering Managers for the same), making sure that the testing of the newly developed features is done well by the QA Testers. These are some broad things a PM works on.
So as you can see, a Product Manager literally “manages” the development of a product by coordinating with various stakeholders.
One important thing to note here is that in B2B product companies, especially the ones like ours who work with our customers directly, the clients often give requirements for new features when the product is in the early stage. A lot of co-creation often happens with the customers with them giving direct feedback and we incorporating it in a manner that would solve the pain-point for multiple customers of similar type.
B2B Product Managers and B2C Product Managers work differently
This was a very important learning for us.
In B2C products, often a lot of product development happens by looking at the data of how the customers are using the product. B2C products should be very simple to use ideally; so simple that you should not need to see a product tour to use them. And if somewhere a user is stuck, he/she may just drop off without giving direct feedback to the product creator. So tracking what your customers do with your product, when, and for how long, is really important to be observed on all the screens of your product. Seeing product usage patterns would help the B2C PM to gauge customer engagement and accordingly take decisions to make modifications in the product because direct feedback from customers is difficult to get.
In B2B kind of products, things are different. Since B2B products, especially the ones made for enterprises, are more high-touch than B2C products, direct feedback is given to the company’s SPOC from the customer, which in turn flows back to the PM. So for a B2B PM, seeing as exhaustive product usage data as a B2C PM would need to see is not really required. On the other hand, the B2B PM should be able to deliver the requirements of the customer in as short a time as possible because enterprise clients are not very patient at times :)
Looking for a Product Manager with Technical Background
Since we don’t have separate Engineering Managers, we realized that an ideal PM for a company like ours should have a solid technical background so that she/he is able to talk to the Engineers in their language and also be able to understand code-level things, if required. So we prefer hiring Product Managers who have some past coding experience.
A PM with a technical background and an understanding of the product’s code and architecture can envision features in a manner that can be easily developed. She/he would also be able to understand technical limitations, which can be taken care of while envisioning the new features. Also, since the PM would have a high-level understanding of the product’s codebase, she/he can also get a sense of what corner-cases should be taken care of while developing the new features, which then the PM can mention in the feature specification document so that these corner-cases are taken care of during development.
Some Important Attributes that your Product Manager should have
Extremely High Attention to Detail
This is a totally non-negotiable point. Excellent Product Managers have great attention to detail. A great product is a culmination of several small features that are made in an excellent manner - both from the perspective of functionality and design. As I always say - Things cannot be perfect, but they can be near-perfect :)
The problem with hiring a PM who doesn’t have very high attention to detail is that they shall miss out on multiple small things, and just create something average. If some basic things are overlooked just because of a lack of attention to detail, it is unacceptable. Hence, we’re very particular about hiring PMs with high attention to detail.
Some ways to identify if a person has a high attention to detail:
- Ask them to write in detail about something. Observe their writing style and if they’re making any errors with basic grammar and punctuations. See the formatting of the document. A person with high attention to detail will have all these things on-point.
- Check their resume for any errors in grammar or poor formatting. A resume is a highly professional document and is the first step towards a person being shortlisted or not for an interview. If they’re not paying attention to the details in their resume, they won’t pay attention to details of their work too (if hired).
- Ask them about your company. See how well they know about your company. People with high attention to detail often do their research work beforehand.
- Observe their answers to your questions - do they explain things just from a high-level view or are explaining things in detail?
A Great Sense of Design
I know what you might be thinking - Design is the designer’s job, isn’t it? Why is a PM supposed to know how to Design? Well, I’m not saying that the PM should know how to “make designs” for the screens of the product, but she/he should definitely be able to identify if the design is great, good, or horrible.
I observed this thing that many times the candidates I’ve interviewed for the PM role weren’t able to identify if a design is excellent, or can be improved. I feel this often happens when the PM isn’t much exposed to greatly designed products in the past or hasn’t read much about designing a product (I know, a Designer should read books on designing a product. But I feel that an excellent PM should also read some books on design to get a flavor of what a greatly designed product should be like).
Some ways to identify if a person has a great sense of design:
- Ask her/him questions on what is the best and worst designed product that she/he has ever seen, and why is it so.
- Pick up any product of your choice and ask the person what can be improved in terms of design in the product. Sometimes the person may not be able to exactly pin-point the solutions as to how the design can be improved, that’s still okay. Focus more on what things they’re pointing out to which they feel are a bit “off” when it comes to its design.
- Ask them if they know any design principles.
- Ask them to make a presentation on some topic. By seeing the presentation you’ll get an idea of the design sense of the person.
The work of a PM requires them to be able to think really deeply about the features that they’re envisioning. They should be able to understand how the customer will benefit from the new feature that they’re envisioning, how the customer will use it, what things can go wrong when a customer uses the feature, and several other factors. A person who is not able to think from all these perspectives may not be able to do the work of a PM as well as expected.
Some ways to identify if a person has a deep-thinking ability:
- Give them a vague problem statement. See how many questions they’re asking and what kind of questions they are asking.
- Are they trying to understand everything in detail first to be able to come up with some solution once they have a full understanding of the scenario? How well-thought is their solution?
- Ask the person about some learning from any past experience. How deeply did the person analyze that incident to derive learning out of it?
- Ask the person how many books do they read in a month on average, and which books are they currently reading. Often, deep-thinkers are avid readers.
Good Communication Skills
Since a PM has to coordinate with multiple different types of stakeholders, it’s important for the PM to be able to communicate effectively. Often the PM has to convince the customer as to why the requirement doesn’t make sense, or if there’s a better solution to the problem than the customer is suggesting. You need to have really good communication skills to be able to put forth your points in a persuasive way. This is just one example, there can be several others too.
Some ways to identify if a person has good communication skills:
- Ask the person about some previous work experience. See how well they’re able to articulate the same.
- Observe how well the person is able to articulate the answers to your questions.
Great Problem-Solving Skills
A PM’s role is often compared to that of a CEO. The PM is the CEO of the product. As a CEO, you have to solve a lot of problems that come while running a business. These problems, more often than not, do not have any templatized solution and are very specific to the business. The CEO should have amazing problem-solving skills to be able to overcome these problems such that the business runs smoothly. Similarly, a PM should have amazing problem-solving skills such that she/he is able to envision a product that solves the problems of the customers.
Some ways to identify if a person has great problem-solving skills:
- Give a really challenging problem statement to the person (mostly about a product that they’ve used in the past). See their approach.
- Are they trying to find the root cause of the problem statement without directly jumping to the solution with half-knowledge, or not? How much information they’re trying to gather about the problem statement? Are they thinking about the solution from the perspective of the customer? Are they thinking of all the corner cases?
- Ask some questions around estimation and quantitative aptitude. Often, people having good problem-solving skills are really comfortable with numbers.
Thoughtfulness and Curiosity
A curious person can go a long way as a PM. I’ve often seen people who are genuinely curious about things are very thoughtful as well - they tend to think deeply about things - which is very important for a PM. A PM should be curious about what challenges are the customers facing. If the PM is genuinely curious about this, she/he will be able to understand the customer’s pain points very naturally. Only when the PM gets a feel of the customer’s challenges, they can solve them effectively.
Some ways to identify if a person is curious by nature:
- Ask about the past companies the person has worked in. How much detail does the person know about how those companies operate, what’s their business model, what teams are there, etc? A naturally curious person always wants to know how the world around her/him works.
- What does the person know about your company?
I really hope that this helps you get some insights about what to look for when hiring a PM.
In case we are meeting for the first time - Hello, this is Harshita Srivastava, Co-founder, and CTO of Cogno AI. At Cogno AI, we help Businesses with an Omnichannel Contact Center for Sales and Customer Support. We work with several Large Enterprise clients as well as Startups.