Poornima Vijayashanker

How to Hire Product Managers


To build a product, you need a team of engineers, designers, and the glue that keeps them together: product managers!

The role of the product manager has dramatically changed over the past decade, and because it’s still a relatively new field that’s in flux, companies often struggle to find candidates, which in turn makes it hard for candidates to understand what companies are looking for.

So all this month, we’re going to focus on a number of best practices for sourcing, hiring, interviewing, and retaining product managers.

In today’s episode, we’ll focus on giving you a lay of the land, starting with how product management is evolving and how to go about sourcing candidates for a product manager position at your company.

To help us out, I’ve invited Jeana Alayaay, the Director of Internal Products and Services at Pivotal.

This episode is chock full of helpful best practices for both product managers and those looking to hire them. As you watch, you’ll learn the following:

  • How product management has evolved over the years
  • Why you need to think about the type of product manager you are looking for (hint: there is more than one persona!)
  • How to communicate the key criteria you are looking for in a candidate
  • How to build a pipeline of candidates
  • How to train recruiters to help screen candidates
  • How to stop hiring out of desperation
  • Why it’s actually helpful to give candidates a quick “no”

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

How to Hire Product Managers Transcript (Raw)

Poornima Vijayashanker: I know I’d love to just wave a magic wand and find top technical talent. But I’ve learned over the years that it takes a lot of effort to source, interview, hire, and retain that talent. It’s become even more challenging in a new field like product management where company criteria changes as well as the skill sets that candidates have. So if you’re struggling to find those product managers that are going to be the right fit for your company, stay tuned because we’ll share a number of best practices in today’s episode on sourcing candidates.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to Build, brought to you by PivotalTracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode of Build, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies and your career in tech. When you got a lot going on it’s very tempting to want to take short cuts to hire candidates. But those shortcuts can often backfire causing you to hire somebody that may not be a good fit for your team. And when it comes to a role like a product manager where they’re going to be interfacing with a lot of different people as well as teams, you want to make sure you got the right fit and you may need to put in a little extra effort to make sure you get that candidate.

Best practices for sourcing product managers

Poornima Vijayashanker: In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about some best practices when it comes to sourcing product managers as candidates for your company. And to help us out I’ve invited Jeana Alayaay, who leads product management and design for Pivotal in their IT group. Thanks for joining us today, Jeana.

Jeana Alayaay: Thanks, Poornima.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Jeana Alayaay: Good to chat with you.

The evolution of product management and the role of the product manager

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you. So you’ve been a product manager for quite a while now and you’ve seen it evolve as a role, so walk us through the evolution that you’ve seen and why it’s come about?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, so I think to answer your question about how product management has changed, think about how the market’s changed. So there’s a lot of touch points with technology and consumers and businesses and so the expectations for what quality and user experience look like are increasing, increasing, increasing. So in order to accomplish that like product teams have to do a lot of cross-discipline collaboration in order to create and maintain that experience. It’s actually this one big people problem. One of the main jobs of product management is really to manage that people problem. So the folks who are both good at that and who want to do that work are really sought after.

Jeana Alayaay: Before, when we think about product management we think more about project management which is like who’s managing deliver in the backlog. And now we’re thinking more about like who’s managing people ecosystems within a product organization?

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. So that means inside of the company, not people as in users.

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah.

Types of product managers

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Now you and I both know there’s also a lot of personas out there when it comes to product managers. There’s the growth hacker, the workflow warrior, the community, the creator or connector and then somebody that manages platform, data or just mobile. Do we need all these personas? What’s kind of the…Are there a lot of differences and nuances between them?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah. That’s a great question. I love personas because it gives you a sense of who to look for out in the wild but I don’t know that a persona is going to solve the problem of the modern product. So I think what we’re looking at is products are these big spaces now. They’re multi-part, they’re multi-platform. They have a lot of different pieces and components themselves can be considered to be products. When you’re thinking about managing that you should really be thinking about managing a team. Not having specific people on specific verticals and I’ll tell you why.

Jeana Alayaay: So when you hire specific people on specific verticals what you get is a bunch of individual contributors doing their own thing and that team is unable to elevate the bigger product or offering right at the higher level. So you just sort of miss the mark on that I think.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. OK so kind of keep the skillset in mind for each of these but think a little bit more higher level.

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah.

Take stock of the skill set you need from a product manager for the long term

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now this is the second PM team that you’re managing and building at Pivotal. What did you learn from your first experience that you’re applying now?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, so I think the thing that I was talking about earlier was really think about the makeup of the team like the skillset, and figure out how to compliment the skillset and build it out very intentionally. So I think when I first started as a hiring manager so to speak or a team leader, practice manager, I thought, “Yeah I’m going to hire a person to do this and hire a person to do that and hire a person to do that.” But the job itself is so cross-functional that no one actually really works in isolation. So really you need a bunch of people who can pair up and actually combine skills in different scenarios.

Jeana Alayaay: And so thinking about that, I think OK what do I need in three months, what do I need in a year? What should this team look like, rather than what do I need now. And I think that’s counterintuitive because by the time you have a wreck open there’s a little bit of desperation there because you need somebody to cut wood in hot water. You can fall into the trap of hiring somebody that you need today but not necessarily the person you need tomorrow, if that makes sense.

How to uncover and communicate the key criteria you’re looking for in a product manager

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, especially if your product evolves or the strategy evolves or if the market evolves as well. That’s actually a great segue into my next question which we got engineering, that’s become very nuanced. There’s front end there’s back end and then there’s specialization within that for the same kind of thing with a product manager, how do I determine my needs and set up the sourcing criteria for my team?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the best thing to do is actually look to your team for that information. So I think as hiring managers, we’re sort of set up into the system to make the decision in isolation but I think you can’t actually know all the things that your team is experiencing on the day to day. So having your team do that gap analysis is really important. And having explicit conversations about what’s working, what’s not working, were we missing. Were you missing the mark? What kind of people do we need? Having that conversation is super important because I don’t know that it is most that…Sorry let me back up. Most of the time the problem is not actually hard skills so to speak it’s hard and soft skills. And so the thing that your team is missing is not somebody who can do really awesome data analysis or code or whatever, it’s usually who’s going to manage the most hostile, fiscal stakeholder group that you can think of.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So what are those conversations look like or how do you bubble that criteria up?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, so I think my team prefers more structure so we usually actually do a work session where we sort of dump and sort what those needs are, what problems we’re solving for. And really what I think my job is is to make sure that we’re looking, again, three months, six months, a year, even two years out and we’re not just solving for we have a super painful thing right now but where’s the team going? How do we see the organization’s needs changing, how is the team going to have to shift its responsibilities to meet those needs? And have that be a very, very explicit conversation.

How to source product managers

Poornima Vijayashanker: So once you got that criteria, the next challenge is where do you find people that meet this criteria? What have been your watering holes?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, so unfortunately I don’t have a magical answer to this but for me it’s been referrals. And even like intercompany transfers. So I like to keep the profiles of the next three hires in my head with me and I sort of talk about them out loud, to my network, both inside of the company, outside of the company. So I think there’s a lot about just letting the universe know that you’re looking and then folks will come. I think the other part of that is to always be looking. So I think if you get to the point where you’re looking and you need to fill a pipeline you’re probably already too far behind.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah that makes sense. So then creating that pipeline so that you have a constant list of potential candidates, how have you gone about doing that aside from the two techniques you just mentioned?

Jeana Alayaay: I think it should be part of a hiring manager’s weekly workflow. So I don’t think this is a thing that you do in fits and spurts. I think it’s a thing that’s like every week you look at your list. You’re trying to build out 20, you’re trying to build up a list of people to talk to. You’re going through resumes, you’re sending out emails just saying like, “Hey, I would love to be introed to anybody who’s going to be interested in product management sometime in the next year.”

How to build a pipeline of product managers

Poornima Vijayashanker: That brings up another question of if you were looking to hire two or three candidates at the end of an interview round or maybe over the next few months, what’s your magical starting number? What does the funnel look like? Is it one x, two x, 10 x, how many?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah our team’s lucky to have a very high conversion rate but I think conversion rate is different company, company, team to team. So think about that and then think OK so how many people do I need to actually interview in order to get to that number and then well the pipeline should be three times that size. So, if you need 20 interviews to get to the one then you need 60 people in the pipeline.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow, so that’s 20 first-time interviews.

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah.

How to train recruiters to help screen product managers

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, got it. And what are some other steps you would recommend people do as they’re considering sourcing candidates so prior to the interview phase?

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, so I think there’s a big disconnect between usually recruiting and the hiring team. So I think having a lot more thoughtful conversations about what you’re looking for is really important and it’s where I’ve been successful. So I think even having a recruiter sit in on an interview with you so they better understand what sort of questions you’re asking, what you’re trying to get at and then actually having a debrief and sitting down with them and saying, “This is what I liked about the candidate. This is what I think was not a good fit. This was a red flag.” Things like that so that when they’re doing the initial screening in the future they have a better sense of where are you going to land with this person.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it, so iterate and give them that feedback as you’re in the midst of the interview and make sure that that goes out back to the sourcing step. Is there anything you would recommend in terms of job descriptions? Because I know that can also be a real challenge for the people writing them as well as the candidates reading them and there’s usually a mismatch that happens.

What to include in a job description and screening process for product managers

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah. I wish I had something more to say about this. I think there’s a problem which is that the job descriptions as you seen are super generic. And I think part of that is because they’re sort of part of a company’s marketing collateral. So what you’re never going to get in a job description is looking for a PM to walk into a super hard conversation. They all sort of read the same. And so thinking about that initial screening process is the place that I chosen to fight the battle around because I’ve tried to fight the job listing battle but it’s not worth it and for some of those reasons are good reasons, right. And so thinking about OK let’s say they get to the recruiter, what does a recruiter going to say to them what’s that conversation going to look like and put a lot of effort into that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it, so prepare them but yes the job description maybe a little bit more vague and then make it more specific as it goes down the pipeline so as you have that initial recruiter call and then maybe the initial phone screen.

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah, and I think one of the things I like to tell recruiters, which they know but it’s good to say it out loud, is like let’s all try to be respectful of each other’s time so it’s like they’re looking, we’re looking. We shouldn’t move people through the pipeline that we’re not actually interested in. And the first step to making sure that that happens is let’s not move people through the pipeline who are obviously not good fits.

Why it’s actually helpful to give candidates a quick “no”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah that’s a good point, and I think I’ve certainly experienced that challenge first hand is getting that quick no is often better than waiting months and months to discover, “Oh, maybe you weren’t the right fit.” Or they changed their requirements or changed their company’s strategy so candidates are much more thankful when you just say no in a couple of days and save them time so they can go on to the next set of interviews.

Jeana Alayaay: Yeah exactly. And it’s like now might not be the right time but that doesn’t mean that candidate’s not a good fit in the future so I think just thinking about it as partially a networking exercise where it’s like you don’t know when they’re going to come back around. You’re going to encounter them in another company so just being super respectful within the process I think is really important.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you so much for sharing how you think about product managers and how to go about sourcing them.

Jeana Alayaay: Thanks for having me, Poornima.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and I can’t wait until next week where we’re going to dive into some of the interview techniques. And for all of you out there, Jeana and I now want to know what are some of the product manager personas that your company thinks about and what are some techniques that you’ve employed to sourcing candidates? Let us know in the comments below this video and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode where Jeana and I will be sharing some of the best practices when it comes to interviewing product managers. Ciao for now.

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