Product Hiring: Finding the Person behind the Skillset

by | Mar 25, 2020 | Startup World

6 min read

When “what” you’re looking for is actually “who” you’re looking for

Wait, yet another article on hiring Product people? While there are admittedly a bevy of articles out there on how to hire good POs and what qualities to look for (or not to look for), the reality of product management life at a venture portfolio builder like Stryber means that the qualities that we look for end up being slightly different from other companies. Over the past year and a half, we’ve grown quite quickly, interviewing scores of candidates and assessing hundreds of CVs. Here’s a short list of what we’ve learned to avoid, and what we seek out instead (hint, it’s the person not the skillset):

“Credentials” are overrated

In many organizations, POs can often be seen simply as “the tech guy who can talk to people” resulting in an overemphasis on technical skills during hiring, or even shutting out candidates without tech backgrounds altogether. Furthermore, many candidates try to use all manner of certifications to demonstrate that they are qualified. It’s easy to use qualifications like a technical degree or other certifications to winnow down the applicant pile, but great talent is determined less by sheets of paper, and far more by experience and, above all, motivation.

Has someone demonstrated a keen interest in something and followed up on it? Does their professional or academic path look a bit out of the ordinary? While none of these are guarantors of a good hire, looking out for these types of candidates helps us hire for intellectual and experiential diversity — a boon for any organization trying to solve user problems. POs at Stryber come from a plethora of backgrounds including law, business, art, philosophy, and even fashion (and yes, also computer science). All our POs have made it through our rigorous interview process and have continued to prove themselves in the role.

Flexibility and Versatility

To be effective, a PO must be well-versed in many areas that touch on business, technology, customers, design, usability, and even ethics. While many POs are generalists, they also tend to be focused on one specific area in their organization, which is itself generally focused on one industry. As a PO at a portfolio builder however, you can start the year building a FinTech product, switch to an E-commerce platform over the summer, and go into Christmas working on a Digital Health app (true story!). Since we’re constantly working not only on different products, but also industries, the POs we hire must be willing and able to adapt to the changing requirements of each venture.

This means that rather than candidates who have spent lots of time honing their craft in a specific area, those with a variety of experiences in different industries and roles might be equipped best to thrive. Additionally, while domain expertise can be helpful, previous knowledge can also mean established biases about how things are “supposed” to work. Strategically hiring someone new to the industry may be crucial to viewing your product and processes from a fresh angle.

Growing vs. Knowing

As Product Management is still a relatively young discipline, “no one knows what they’re doing” — or rather, we’re all still figuring it out. Since no one can possibly have all the answers to everything, we are wary of candidates who demonstrate a “my way or the highway” approach. As our culture is based on failing quickly to accelerate learning and avoid future mistakes, anyone who has never made a mistake, or toils forever to get to the “right” answer from the get-go may have trouble adjusting.

Instead, we look for people who are not only self-aware enough to be able to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, but who are mature enough to know that their current knowledge and skills don’t define them. We much prefer that a question is answered honestly with “I don’t know but I will find out” over a mass of jumbled jargon cobbled together to save face. Someone who is open minded enough to admit failure and learn from their mistakes and shortcomings is far more valuable than someone who takes failure personally and is resistant to changing their ways and methods.

EQ vs. IQ

Possessing the hard skills and intellect to be a good PO is, of course, extremely important, but given the everyday tasks of a product person, it may be even more important to be emotionally intelligent. Empathy has become quite a popular buzzword lately, and while it may be an important quality for POs to have, EQ is far broader than just empathy. Two studies from Google, Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle recently shocked everyone (or no one) when the results showed that the top traits for successful managers and teams were actually soft skills as opposed to hard technical skills. POs are tasked with bringing people with varying interests and focuses to come together to work towards a common goal, which requires being able to listen closely, understanding others’ needs, communicating properly, and knowing when to get involved and when to take a step back — all qualities highlighted in the Google studies. Ego has no place, no matter how experienced or skilled you are.

Instead, we look for people who are not only self-aware enough to be able to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, but who are mature enough to know that their current knowledge and skills don’t define them. We much prefer that a question is answered honestly with “I don’t know but I will find out” over a mass of jumbled jargon cobbled together to save face. Someone who is open minded enough to admit failure and learn from their mistakes and shortcomings is far more valuable than someone who takes failure personally and is resistant to changing their ways and methods.

Persistence and Perseverance

Finally, while the opportunity to work on ventures in different areas can often bring with it the excitement of novelty and a chance to expand your skill set, it also means being stretched in new, and unforeseen ways. Take, for example, our use of e-commerce platforms and no-code tools — which can be both a blessing and a curse. While these platforms give you most of the basic functionality out-of-the-box and can help get things set up in days or weeks instead of months, you may also become dependent on plug-ins or other add-ons that (surprise!) do not work entirely in the manner you intended.

The trial and error and subsequent frustration this may lead to, infuriating as it may be, must be overcome in order to push through and deliver can help build character. As such, anyone who has difficulty in recounting a time when they pushed through hardship or overcame a challenge, may be ill-equipped to succeed in this kind of environment. The obstacles that a candidate has faced need not be within a professional context, but they should be able to demonstrate an ability to face unexpected difficulties and the determination to push through and deliver a quality product in a timely manner.

In Short

Many of these may feel like no-brainers but they can, as with many things in life, get lost when hiring gets hectic, or you become desperate to find the right candidates. Just remember: people can always learn skills, but it’s much harder to teach motivation, grit, and simple humanity.

Written by Clyde Choi (Former Product Owner)

 

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