The three jobs inside Product Management, and what matters to the CPO

100 applications, 90 irrelevant, for 1 hire

Every time I recruit for a PM position I receive too many irrelevant applications.

I waste time sifting through 100 resumes, to only spot ten relevant candidates, among which I’ll select three for a next step, and hopefully one is hired. My problem is the 90% of irrelevant applications.

I try to keep job postings clean and simple because the list of “tasks and assignments” for PMs would be endless anyway (but I haven’t reach the platinum level of Impala’s job postings. If you have a secret passion for writing job postings, check out Impala.).

One title to rule them all

The problem is that a PM job is not just one job. Under one label, you need three very different actual roles. Most often candidates believe they can get the job because they see, and likely excel, in one of the roles.

1. Building the product

This is the most obvious part of the job, the one that most outsiders can witness and aspire to perform. This is about features, user stories, mock-ups, designs, tests, sprints, demos, retros, getting things done, and coordinating the creation and delivery cycle of all the people who actually make the product.

Many people can see themselves playing this role

Many people can see themselves playing this role: designers who have designed products and want to play a more pivotal role; developers who have developed products and have a desire for being closer to customers; sales specialists or support staff who work on the existing products, and see themselves shaping future products; project managers who have coordinated tasks and teams, and want to focus on a long term vision.

Most of the applicants have a good understanding of this role, they’ve probably been part of a team and observed a PM in action, or have read sufficient literature about agile methodologies, or have watched all the YouTube videos about becoming a PM. So this is the easy part.

80% of candidates demonstrate they can do this. Thus, this is not differentiating.

2. Deciding what to build next

The PM role in this area is focused on business intelligence and decision making.

How do we evaluate the potential impact of the decision to build the next feature? How do we evaluate the effort (investment) required to build it and to support it during its life cycle? How do we define a path (roadmap) of problems to tackle? How do we decide how much time to invest in the decision making process itself?

And there are more specific questions: which data/inputs do we need? Where is the data for decision making coming from? Is it reliable? Which tools should we use to collect and track data? Who are the reliable people who can give us the right customer insights when we don’t have data?

Deciding what to build next is an investment decision: the company will invest people’s scarce and irreversible time, and their related cost, in order to maximize product impact. In some cases the returns can be quickly and easily quantifiable (as for conversion rate optimization goals), in other cases we need to work with proxy/leading metrics somehow linked to customer value. Sometimes we need to make educated guesses, and sometimes just bets based on collective intelligence.

Most of the would-be PMs fall short on decision making

Most of the would-be PMs fall short on decision making aspects. They don’t see why a product is built. They build more, because it’s their job to build. Some think they could be good PMs because they have lots of ideas.

About 20% of PM candidates can demonstrate decision making skills. This is a good differentiator, but it’s not enough.

3. Aligning interests (or, politics)

Yeah… politics.

There are two types of companies: those with toxic politics, and those with politics. Someone once said “the moment you put two people in a room, you get politics”.

In simpler terms, politics are just the expression of people’s interests – and it’s perfectly natural for people to have different interests, or goals. In particular, in any business you’ll have people intrinsically motivated or extrinsically incentivized to do different things: sales folks need to close deals and meet quotas; finance and HR teams need to meet legal and regulatory constraints; tech teams want to build new and brilliant tech that they can show off at the next dev conference.

All of this is perfectly normal. There is nothing wrong – and there is no mythical workplace without politics, unless you’re alone.

Someone… must know how to listen with empathy to diverse feedback, dig deep to understand the profound source of the information, and extract meaningful insights. Someone… must be able to talk to all people in their own lingo, and to present concepts that will resonate with them. Someone… must motivate everyone to contribute their best to the product and to the team.

This is the hidden part of a PM’s job.

This is the hidden part of a PM’s job. Most candidates don’t know how to handle interests and neglect or even avoid this topic. They shouldn’t. Aligning interests and getting the best contribution from everyone involved is not only key to the product success, but also the best way to a healthy and balanced PM life – away from burnout, frustration, and demotivation.

Only 10% of candidates can somehow demonstrate they can handle interests. This is what makes the difference. This is the 10% of candidates that I’d like to start with.

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