Innovators

How to build a world-class product team: The product manager spec for interviews

Mike Iampietro Director of Product Management @ Mixpanel

Hi, I’m Mike and I’m a product manager. The product I manage? Product managers.

As Director of Product Management at Mixpanel, an important part of my role is hiring and developing a world-class team of product managers and ensuring that we’re empowering those people to be the best product managers they can be.

If you, too, are responsible for your company’s product managers, the start of the new year might represent a chance to renew and strengthen your team. In this post, I’ll take you through my approach to creating a world-class product manager roster (I’ll talk about development in a later post). I hope you find this info both thought-provoking and useful.


You already know this: To build a great product you have to have a good spec. In this case, the spec is the job description plus the profile of the ideal person for the job. Get these documents/expectations straight before you do anything else.

Because not all product managers have the same focus. Some are more customer facing, some work more on internal things, and some are more like B2B product managers. Here are the elements of the product manager spec that I rely on when hiring for our team at Mixpanel.

  1. Customer focus. Since everything starts with the customer, the most valuable experience a PM can have is experience solving problems for customers (or users).  Many candidates with the title of Product Manager actually spend their time solving problems primarily for their employer or business. I look for candidates with a track record of delivering direct value to customers or users and of actually delighting them.
  2. Job history. Of course, we’d all love to hire people with deep experience at Microsoft and Amazon and Google–but just because a person worked at one of those places doesn’t mean that they were delighting customers. If someone has worked for a smaller company and successfully delivered a product that’s proved to be valuable to customers, I definitely look closely at them. In addition, candidates from smaller companies often have a great scrappy/entrepreneurial quality that you’re less likely to find in candidates from larger companies.
  3. Experience. The more experience you require, the fewer qualified candidates are in your pool, so at some point you need to do the cost/benefit analysis: is it better to hire less experienced people and invest the time and effort to develop their potential, or can you afford to wait the nine months it takes to find that highly qualified senior candidate  with six years of experience? 
  4. Education. This might surprise you, but I don’t think an MBA is a requirement for a product manager. I’d rather hire somebody with the real-world experience of delighting customers than a fresh-out-of-school MBA. An MBA provides a solid understanding of how to run a business, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a good PM. Experience in shipping products that customers love? That’s a better indicator. The same goes for an engineering degree. A product manager has to be technically smart enough to gain the trust of the engineers and to engage in technical conversations with them–but that doesn’t mean an engineering degree is required.
  5. Data proficiency. Bottom line: successful PMs must be data driven. A good PM must be able to work with data and analysis tools and make sense of what the data is telling them.
  6. Communication skills. Product managers have to translate customer feedback so that everyone on the team can understand the problem and the importance of solving it. Excellent written and verbal communication skills are crucial. 
  7. Leadership. Product management has been described as a job where everyone works for you but no one reports to you. A PM has to build consensus and get everyone aligned on the same goals. A product manager is like a diplomat; they act as the go-between for engineering, design, marketing, and sales. If any of these aren’t aligned it’s up to the product manager to get everyone to agree on how to build something that customers are going to love. That’s why a product manager has to have relatability, empathy and the ability to really listen to people. Rather than presenting a done deal, a successful PM takes the team through the entire thought process–what the problem is, what customers are saying, what the relative strengths and weaknesses of possible solutions are and gives everyone the chance to be  heard.
  8. Domain Expertise: It’s natural to want to hire PMs who are already familiar with your product, market or technology.  But I’ve learned that it’s much more important to look for candidates with the PM skills described above. It’s much easier to teach a good PM about your domain than it is to teach a domain expert how to be a good PM.
  9. Alternate paths. Folks in other roles can become great PMs. Sometimes engineers or designers want to be PMs, but I’ve had great success recruiting PMs from Support. First of all, Support professionals know your product inside and out. They have the technical chops, but they also have a lot of customer empathy. They spend all day helping customers solve problems, learn how to use the product, or deal with the fact that the product is not working for them. In fact, two or three years in tech support is almost like a boot camp for being a product manager.

Finding good candidates is only part of the job. To find the best candidate, you also need a well- organized interview process. 

  1. It’s a team effort Since product management is a cross-functional role, candidates should be vetted by representatives of their different stakeholders. At a minimum, the interview panels should include a PM, a designer, a developer and a marketer.
  2. Good specs (again): To ensure an effective interview process, I give each member of the panel an interview guide with a specific set of interview questions or exercises that correspond with their role (e.g., the designer should ask design-related questions). This guide also includes follow-up questions and guidance on what good answers look like. Questions are a mix of behavioral questions (“Tell me about a time you….”)  and product sense exercises (“If you were PM for X, how would you make it better?”).
  3. Set a high bar: My goal is to hire people who are better than at least half of the team that we currently have. That means that, with every hire, we’re raising the level of our team. 
  4. No hung juries: After the interviews are done, assemble the entire panel to debrief their interviews. Every interview should vote on whether the candidate meets the bar. If it’s not a unanimous “Yes,” you probably don’t want to hire that candidate.
  5. Quit when you’re ahead: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you might find someone even better if you keep searching. As soon as you find a candidate who meets the bar, make them an offer. (That said, don’t stop your search until the candidate actually accepts.)  

Okay, so that’s how I hire the best product managers in the world. YMMV, of course. The key to a successful search is to know who you’re looking for, and why. I hope that learning more about my approach helps you secure the world-class team you’re looking for. In my next blog post, we’ll talk about how to develop your team to help them reach their full potential.

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