Hiring is a topic I’m passionate about because I like to work with bright, enthusiastic people who challenge me every day. I’ve spent the last decade building teams (most recently a product organization that includes designers, researchers, and product owners), and I’ve learned a number of lessons in that time. Let’s focus specifically on product ownership — a role that many gravitate toward, but few do well. I’ve seen many different types of people find success as product owners — from former developers, English majors, designers, and project managers, all the way to former CEOs and small business owners. (I prefer the term “product owner” to the more well-known “product manager” because managers manage and owners own, and building great products demands ownership.) I want people who are technical enough to dig deep with the development team and at the same time enjoy interacting with customers to discover value. Finding the right person with the right combination of customer focus, consensus building, and technical savvy isn’t easy, so I’ve put together a few things to look for during the interviewing process.
Things to avoid
Here are a few traits that are guaranteed non-starters.
- Poor listening. You know those interviewees who start rattling off their answer before they’ve really had a chance to listen to the question? In the same category are people who answer the question they want to answer, even if it’s not exactly what we asked. In our team-based environments, these personalities haven’t been successful. Besides, one of the key characteristics of a great product owner is listening to customers and not letting their own egos drown out the needs of our users.
- Inability to connect the dots. I look for people who have been active in all aspects of product development from the idea, concept, and research stages, all the way through to execution and optimization with wins under their belt. When a candidate points to a different department and says, “The research team would talk to customers and tell me what to do,” or “I would hand off the specs to the development team,” I perceive this as a gap in their skill set.
- Unclear communication. One of the most effective attributes of a great product owner is the ability to distill a complex idea into a few concise statements. Simply put, the ability to deconstruct complex subjects into clear, simple statements of value is a requirement of great product owners. Whether talking to developers or evangelizing to stakeholders, the gift of simple communication is one that is necessary to perform the job at a high level.
- Pirates not politicians. I recently asked a candidate what makes a great boss and he replied, “You scratch my back and I scratch yours,” which didn’t sit well with me. How can you lead a group of innovators having learned all too well how to “play the game?” Your team will recognize when you speak from the heart versus when you’re just scratching someone’s back and lose trust in you over time. Immediately, I knew this candidate was from a big, slow organization and would have to unlearn some bad habits in order to be successful in our product organization.
Things we love
Here are a few qualities that will get you back for a second interview, even if you don’t necessarily have the domain knowledge.
- Being the customer. I appreciate product owners who can empathize with customers and dig deep in research by conducting face-to-face interviews with real users. This pseud-method acting is a positive skill for product owners who want to excel, especially those without deep domain knowledge. If you’re building a product for photographers but have very little domain knowledge, we better hear how you can’t wait to buy a camera and start learning the craft. Fast Company has a great article about this topic here.
- Going deep technically. It’s perfectly OK if you aren’t a great developer. What I look for is curiosity. If you’re a learner, you’ll figure out what you need to study in order to have a mutually beneficial conversation with your team and technical stakeholders. Different types of products will require different levels of technical depth, but generally, being willing and able to learn is the important part. More on this topic here.
- Ownership/Attitude. It’s good to see evidence of perseverance. You’ll see this in people who have started their own company, candidates with an aura of “unstoppability”, or those who have shown the stick-to-it-ive-ness to solve tough problems. This is a cornerstone of great product people. There will be a million reasons why something can’t be done, but those product owners who are unlikely to give up, those who push through tough problems and those who actually enjoy the process of doing so are the ones who stand out.
I want to work with the best and be challenged every day. Recruiting top talent is the most important part of building a great company. Take it personally, don’t let recruiters do all the work on your behalf, and make sure that the employees doing the interviewing are the ones you’d like more of. Anytime I feel like recruiting is difficult, typically because I’m struggling to find the right talent, I check out a quote or post from Paul English to remind myself how important it is to wait for the right person to fill these roles.
Do you have what it takes? If so, sign up. We have stuff to build.