How to get a superstar product person for your team?

For the past couple of months, I have spoken to maybe 10-20 different companies ranging from startups to grown-ups about their product people needs. Quite frankly I am not very impressed. Almost none of them could even define the future role well, let alone attract the right person. So, here are my two cents on how to catch the eye of superstar product people.

Disclaimer: I exclude everybody who has the word “product” in their title but actually does not create or work on products apart from the occasional report or marketing PowerPoint shipped to a distributor/reseller / (fill in the gap).

  1. Define the role, so you know who you are looking for

There are different types of product people you can actually have, depending on your needs. So here they are (according to Marty Cagan whom I agree with):

  • Someone that can escalate every issue and decision up to the CEO / Product Director / (fill in the gap). In this model, the product manager is really a backlog administrator. Lots of product people around are in this model and it’s not working. If you think the product manager job is what’s described in a Certified Scrum Product Owner class, you almost certainly fall into this category.
  • Someone that can call a meeting with all the stakeholders in the room and then just let them fight it out – this is “design by committee”. This is very common in large companies, and in this model, the product manager is really a project manager and roadmap administrator.
  • Someone that understands the business strategy and landscape the company operates in, is diplomatic enough not to piss off the developers, is down-to-earth and pragmatic to his CEO about what is possible, can steer a group of stakeholders ranging from Klingons to Borg drones, and survive to tell the story.

Quite frankly, if I was looking for any of the first two, I would rewrite my job ad to reflect this. There is nothing more annoying than an inflated job ad that describes Elon Musk but the company wants to hire just a regular Scrum Master. You will also avoid the rumor spreading amongst the product community that you have no clue what you are talking about.

2. Sell your vision to change the world, not the need to solve software bugs

More often than not, when I ask what the company needs a product person for there are various answers ranging from “we cannot figure out what product to build” to “someone needs to gather requirements and tell us what to build” to “we have implemented so many redundant features, we have no clue what to do”. That is not very inspiring. It’s like telling a software developer that you are hiring him/her to deal with all your crappy, legacy code.

A rock star product person is very skilled in business strategy/marketing, is inspired by technology, loves to challenge the tech team, and knows how to start the product factory going (in other words, freakin gets stuff shipped). Maybe you can sell him/her on how you want to change the world, the super tech that you will be using, the great team you are willing to contribute, the freedom to build the greatest product in your industry? I would certainly be impressed.

3. Be active, get on the radar

We no longer live in a world in which a rock start product person needs to convince any company on why he/she should be hired. Quite on the contrary, you should be the one giving the arguments on why this person should work with you on your product. Just like in the case of the top software developers, you should go out there and be actively selling to all the product people. Organize an unconference, invite Product Tank in your company, share your product success metrics on social media (like Swipes or Kanbanize), send a free trial of your product, and ask for feedback, there are hundred more ways. But the best tip is – get out there right now!

4. Some key questions that will help you spot a super product person (and probably catch their attention as well)

  • What is your favorite product and why? What is the worst product you have seen? What can you improve in your favorite product?
  • Which product have you actually shipped? What went well / wrong? How did you manage?
  • Where do you think our industry is going to be in 5-10 years? How can you give our company a head start now? What business model should we use?
  • How many airplanes are landing in Europe right now? (good, old management consulting questions are a great way to find out if the person can drill down to the real issue behind a problem).
  • Who do you think is the target persona(s) of this product? What is the need that the product solves for them? What is their journey while using this product?
  • What is the best team to actually build our product in your opinion? What skills and attitude do you think we need to cultivate?
  • What is the best presentation you have given, and what impact it created? What was the target audience? How did you prepare for this?
  • How do you prioritize what gets build when? How would you go about saying “No” to a client? How would you go about saying “No” to your team?
  • How do you celebrate success?

So, finally – the million-dollar question: where do you find these people?

There are a lot of different schools of thought. Many companies think that all you need is someone with a marketing background. Not sure this works well. You lose the whole tech aspect of a great product person. Marketing people are rarely passionate about code / DBs / testing / etc. in my opinion.

Another way is to get a software developer that wants to transition to a new role. You win a good tech understanding but you still need to cultivate business sense, soft skills, good communication skills, presentation skills, customer empathy, product passion. Personally, I think that this can be a long and difficult journey.

My favorite way is to look for people that are absolutely motivated to ace the questions described above and then use training, an informal mentoring program, and/or a formal employee development program to develop these people into strong product managers.