The Biggest Risk in Hiring Product People

The biggest risk in hiring product people is… THE UNKNOWN.

  • What if we hire this person and they aren’t able to execute?
  • What if they can’t negotiate with our engineers?
  • What if they can’t operate under conditions of uncertainty?
  • What if they worry over every little detail until they’ve totally missed the big picture?
  • What if they just say “yes” to everything so we lose our focus?
  • What if they blithely accept our broken processes and bad habits so that we keep making the same mistakes?

In the past month, I’ve spent quite a bit of time being the interviewee, the interviewer, and the resume mentor. And the biggest mistake that I’ve made myself and seen others make is in being too neutral.

You don’t want to make a bad first impression. You don’t want to come across as someone argumentative and difficult to work with. You want to make it clear that you’re flexible and adaptable.

And that leads you into exchanges like this:

Interviewer: “Which development methodology do you prefer working with?”
PM Candidate: “I’ve worked in companies where we did waterfall, as well as agile, as well as daily releases, and I’ve been able to be effective in all of them.”

The interviewer thinks: If you were working closely with engineers and customers, you’d have directly felt the pain of what didn’t work. Either you were pretty hands-off (bad) or you don’t reflect on your work and process to see how you can drive improvement (also bad).

Interviewer: “Tell me about a time when you’ve dealt with conflict between product management and engineering/design/sales.”
PM Candidate: “I believe in working very closely with other teams and keeping the lines of communication open so we can avoid conflict.”

The interviewer thinks: Seriously? There are always differences of opinion and conflicting priorities. Either you just say “yes” to everything (bad), or you are oblivious to the fact that sales hates you (also bad), or your upper management takes all decisions out of your hands (maybe not your fault, but doesn’t make me want to hire you).

Interviewer: “What type of difficulties do you foresee in working with our product/culture/customers/distribution model?”
PM Candidate:“I’ve worked with X before, so I’m very confident that I’ll be able to handle the job here. Here’s an example of a related awesome thing I’ve done in the past.”

The interviewer thinks: If you are a good candidate, this isn’t your only job option. You should be critically thinking about the “cons” of this job and why you might not want it. If you haven’t, that’s a warning sign. If you have, but you’re not comfortable articulating them, how are you going to handle day-to-day communication and negotiation here?

It’s true that expressing your opinion may lose you a potential job. If you’ve eloquently detailed how you advocate user-centered design and incorporating customer research into the development process, the company where engineers call all the shots, is not going to offer you a job.

This is not a bad thing. You wouldn’t do great work at that job anyways — and how are you going to land your next job with a bank of mediocre work and no positive references? Better to dodge that bullet now.

If you have work experience, you have opinions. As a hiring manager, I want to hear them — as well as the context that you formed them in and how you arrived at them. Maybe you dislike a certain process because you’ve been burned by it in the past but you can see how it could be beneficial… or maybe you’re just closed-minded and resistant to change.

No one worries that you’ll be flat-out incompetent — if you were, it’d be blatantly obvious after a couple weeks, your manager could document your flaws and have you out in no time. But an employer is petrified that you’re going to be not-quite-right in more subtle, insidious ways that won’t be noticeable until it’s too late and you’ve botched a product release or customer relationship.

The tricky thing about product managers is that every candidate is different, and every past environment is different. Just because the last product you managed was a runaway success doesn’t guarantee that you were the reason why — maybe it was “right place at the right time”, maybe your boss made all the decisions, maybe it succeeded in spite of you. Same thing with product flops — maybe the market tanked, maybe your boss made all the (wrong) decisions despite your recommendations, maybe there was an engineering disaster. So your resume doesn’t really set the hiring manager’s mind at ease.

It’s your job as a candidate to make the hiring manager feel better about those risks. And how do you do that? By being opinionated. Give examples. Explain the “why” and “what I learned”. Write Medium posts. Answer questions on Quora. The less of a “black box” you can be, the better candidate you’ll be.