Hiring great product managers: everything you need to know

Hiring great product managers: everything you need to know

Building a cool product from the ground-up is rewarding, but does it mean anything if you can’t get anyone to use it or buy it? If you answered no to this question, you inherently understand why product managers are key to your success as a startup. These are typically some of your first hires when you begin to scale, and for good reason — a well-defined and orchestrated product development process can make or break your time-to-market and your ability to be profitable.

For a more in-depth guide including compensation/equity benchmarks, tips for optimizing outreach to product manager candidates, and step-by-step advice for setting up an interview loop, download our Hiring Guide for Product Managers.

What is product management, and why do you need a product manager?

Product management brings your vision of the product to life. A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that your product will fulfill,, articulates what success looks like, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.

A good product manager must be experienced in at least one, passionate about all three, and conversant with practitioners in all.

They’re part marketer, part researcher, part designer, part project manager, and part people person.

So what does that entail?

  • They partner with your engineering team to align on the roadmap, set deadlines, manage deliverables, and figure out what to prioritize
  • They deeply understand your different buyer personas and user needs
  • They monitor the market and perform competitive analyses
  • Align teams around a project to ensure alignment in messaging, marketing, bugs, and launch

Essentially, they’re there to manage time and set goals, while creating a shared brain across larger teams to empower independent decision-making.

When should I hire my first product manager?

This table, pulled from Lenny’s Newsletter (a popular Substack created by Lenny Rachitsky, an angel investor and former PM at Airbnb) finds that the first PM is generally hired as the 15th - 100th employee, and 2 - 4 years after founding. From our internal data, we find that the majority of companies hire a PM at the 10-19 employee mark, or the 100+ employee mark.

Obviously, each company is different, but three factors seem to contribute to waiting longer to hire your first full-time PM:

  1. Founders with deep product sense (e.g. Shopify)
  2. Building a product that isn’t primarily user-facing (e.g. Stripe)
  3. Long early beta period (e.g. Airtable)
Source: Lenny's Newsletter


Where can I find great product managers?

General Job Boards:

Job boards for underrepresented groups:

What is the typical career ladder for a product manager?

  • Associate/Junior Product Manager: A Junior Product Manager may be assigned to work on a small feature or minor area of a product’s overall development, though they’ll still receive leadership from a senior product manager.
  • Product Owner: A Product Owner takes responsibility for establishing, prioritizing, and overseeing the work performed by the team to ensure the final product achieves its potential. They act as the client’s voice and collaborate with stakeholders to keep them updated on progress (and share stakeholders’ expectations/concerns with the development team).
  • Senior Product Manager: A Senior Product Manager will look after a portfolio of products, meaning they are looking after multiple products at once. Senior Product Managers are usually tasked with enhancing the value of existing products, too, maximizing the profitability of investments already out there on the market.
  • Lead Product Manager: Product Leads are responsible for the creation of fresh products, working with members of the development team to push projects towards completion. They’ll interact and liaise with employees across different departments such as marketing and research.
  • Product Director: Product Directors are less involved with the day-to-day tasks related to the development of products. Instead, they focus more on the overall strategy and leading product managers at lower levels.
  • VP of Product: The VP/Head of Product is a common fixture in bigger tech companies with a sizeable portfolio of products and several layers of management. In smaller businesses and startups, the Head of Product may have less experience but is still the most senior product-development expert. The Head of Product is similar to the Product Director role, with much of the work involving managing those other Product Managers taking a hands-on approach. The Head of Product may have a responsibility for managing the team’s overall budget and representing executives.

Public examples of PM career ladders:

  1. Intercom
  2. Optimizely
  3. Wise
  4. OpenTable
  5. XO Group
  6. Oscar
  7. Gusto
  8. GitLab

What skills and requirements should I look for?

While product managers typically have engineering or product marketing backgrounds, there are a few soft skills that will require more than one interview to suss out.

That being said, at a high-level, these are the general requirements that you’ll want to scan a resume for and ask about when assessing applications and conducting preliminary phone screens:

Core requirements

  • Experience with product development from ideation to launch
  • Effective communication/cross-functional collaboration skills
  • Exceptional writing and editing skills combined with strong presentation and public speaking skills
  • Technical experience or basic coding knowledge, especially if they come from an non-traditional background for PMs (like consulting)

The following “soft” skills are essential to a product manager’s success. You’ll want to ask them in the second remote screen, as well as throughout the onsite and final interview process. We’ve provided examples of strong and weak answers as well, so you can align everyone in your interview loop.

Collaboration

A product manager will have to function as a mediator between customers, and different departments (namely engineering). Not only will they need to be good at delegating, they’ll also need to effectively compromise and argue for various improvements in the product with various stakeholders.

Pro tip: Product designers have ascended to become the “third leg of the stool” alongside PMs and engineers. One way to evaluate design sensibility and product instincts is to include product designers in the interview loop.

Interview questions: “Tell me about a time you disagreed with an engineer on your team and how you resolved it.”

What aspect of product management do you find the least interesting?

Execution

It’s not enough to have a PM with a vision — you need someone who is capable of execution, defining deadlines and goals, as well as success metrics. Execution entails other important qualities like time-management, effective communication, and excellent people management skills.

Interview question: Pick a project you’re proud of that took 3-9 months. Walk me through it from beginning to end. I’ll ask questions along the way.

Research

Product management relies heavily on customer research to determine how you’ll plan the roadmap and pivot (if needed). Having a product manager who has an innate curiosity and willingness to go to every length to make a decision is critical to their success, and your company’s.

Interview question: Tell me about a time you did user research on a product/feature and that research had a big impact on the product.

Product sense

To put it simply, great product managers should love products. Especially as an early-stage company, product knowledge and interest is key in getting over the tough hurdles of finding product-market fit, iterating on product features, and getting different departments on board with roadmap prioritization.

Interview question: How would you improve feature X in our product? Tell me about a great product you’ve encountered recently. Why do you like it?

It can be difficult to judge product sense in an interview, but one way you can assess this at the end of a call is to see if any of the following are true (taken from Ken Horton’s viral essay How to Hire a Product Manager):

Shows creativity and imagination. If they describe a future version of a product or feature that is creative (even if it’s not necessarily plausible right now), this signals that they’re willing to take risks and innovate on outdated ideas.

Independently echoed some of your own concerns about your product .  At least some of these should be obvious to an intelligent outsider with strong product instincts. Look for that moment in the interview where you nod, and say “yeah, I know — that’s been driving us crazy too.”

Taught you something new about your product. It could be an obvious improvement that your team has never considered, a new idea for positioning against a competitor, or a problem they encountered that needs to be addressed. If you learn something from a candidate, it tells you two things: (1) they’re not afraid to speak critically, and (2) they’re smart and intuitive. Two things you definitely want in a PM.

Impact

Measuring impact in previous roles is your best signal when determining the success of a PM hire. We define some things to look out for below, but generally it’s important that they’re able to express what they’ve built in the past, and how that product or feature was successful in its target market on a qualitative and quantitative basis.

Interview question: What’s the most important or impactful product you shipped? What made it so important or impactful? Would it have been as impactful without you, and why?

Technical knowledge

PMs with technical backgrounds will have more success conveying product requirements to engineers and relaying complicated details to non-technical colleagues and customers.

Interview question: How would you define X to a non-technical person? or How would you describe X product to a five-year-old?

For more tips and best practices, download our Hiring Guide for Product Managers.