Recap: Product Panel: How to build a customer-driven product team

Originally posted to Alpha UX Blog (written by Nis Frome) and reblogging to further share the great evening we had discussing the Future of Product Management and Product Career Development (Finding / Hiring / Recruiting).


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As organizations recognize the value of customer-centricity as a mindset and discipline, they’ve begun to invest in a dedicated product organization. But finding and recruiting talent remains a pressing challenge. On the flip side, there is considerable interest in entering a product role from employees within other departments, from marketing to client success. But the prerequisites to landing a product management job are often ambiguous or seemingly unattainable. As is the case for most product management processes, having empathy is the key when it comes to making a match.

Alpha teamed up with AC Lion, Product School, and The Product Group to host a dinner and event on the topic of product management recruiting. Two panels focused on employer and candidate perspectives, respectively, featuring product leaders from Informa, New York Public Radio, YieldMo, XO Group, AC Lion, Product School, Wade & Wendy, and Swyft Media. They provided insight into best practices from sourcing candidates to interviewing.

Most important qualities that employers should look for in candidates

Panelists focused on four key areas when evaluating candidates: experience shipping, an emphasis on collaboration, customer-first perspective, and the absence of an obsession with product or technology.

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A history of shipping indicates that a candidate can navigate the many obstacles that often stand in the way.

“Huge bonus if you’ve done a product for internal use,” Josh Wexler, VP of Product at YieldMo, noted, alluding to the particularly difficult process of simultaneously navigating internal politics to deliver a solution to internal stakeholders.

Further, candidates show that they are team players when they give credit to others. Product management isn’t a solo effort and candidates would be wise to acknowledge how they aligned and relied on key players to get the job done.

“Don’t say you want to be in product because it’s flashy,” said Ambreen Hussain, Senior Product Manager at Swyft Media. “Product management is not glamorous. It’s very diplomatic and political. You’re executing on goals decided by someone else with no one reporting beneath you.”

It’s also a big red flag if a candidate can’t point to any difficulties they’ve had, since it’s virtually unthinkable for nothing to go wrong during the product development lifecycle.

“Acknowledge you’ve made mistakes. Don’t say everything has worked out and you’ve never had an argument,” said Jeremy Horn, the founder of The Product Group and the VP of Product at Wade & Wendy. “That’s why we put required years experience on the job description – it’s to assess how much you’ve overcome.”

When asked whether having domain expertise in the employer’s industry is a requirement, panelists took a surprising stance. Dan Storms, Senior Director of Product at XO Group, is responsible for wedding planning websites such as The Knotbut cleverly pointed out that he’s “been married [but] never been a bride.”

“You just need to prove that you are aware of your blind spots and can pick up on industry nuance,” he added.

While Marty Schecter, Head of Product Management at Ovum, noted that “the best ideas come from people without [an industry] background,” he does “try to make sure there’s a good balance.” Other panelists weren’t as welcoming.

“It’s really difficult to work with someone who has so much experience in industry,” said Wexler. “They wear blinders.”

Domain expertise simply isn’t as important as an “insatiable curiosity,” in the words of Nathaniel Laundau, Chief Digital Officer at New York Public Radio.

Optimizing the interview process

To test many of the above criteria, it’s become common for employers to give candidates ‘take home’ assignments. Such projects vary greatly, but there are some striking similarities, such as a final presentation.

Storms said that a presentation illustrates whether or not a candidate “can collaborate and influence” stakeholders, which, after all, is what the job is all about.

According to Schecter, “the best people do their homework – they read our 10K, understand our strategy, explain how they can help us make our numbers.”

The project that Schecter’s team at Ovum gives to candidates received praise from other panelists. His team asks candidates to walk through how they would compete against a certain product if they were to create a startup.

But the presentation isn’t the only step of the interview process. Candidates should consider not only how they answer interview questions, but also how they maintain the pace.

“I almost want [candidates] to run the meeting for me,” said Storms. “If I’m interrogating you, there’s something wrong.”

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When it comes to candidates asking questions of the employer, Rick Aronstein, VP and Head of Product Recruitment at AC Lion, pressed candidates to have the appropriate mindset.

“The interview is really dating, you should enjoy the process,” he said. “You should feel like you have great exposure to the company.”

Aronstein has worked with hundreds of product management candidates to place them at leading brands across New York. He believes that there are a number of benefits to working with a recruiter during a job hunt.

“You get much better two way communication,” he said. Because he can reach out to an employer after an initial interview on behalf of a candidate, he can “have a lot of candid conversations with [the] candidate [to help them] ace the next interview.”

Candidates should tailor their resumes to the position

Panelists shared differing perspectives with regard to crafting a résumé, but they all agreed: one size does not fit all.

“Product management is defined in so many different ways,” Hussain argued. “Cater your résumé once you do research about the company.”

Beyond creating multiple variations of a résumé dependent on the employer, panelists talked at length about positioning.

“You really have to prepare your background and LinkedIn like SEO,” said Carlos González de Villaumbrosia, the CEO of Product School. “So if someone sees it they’ll want to give this person a chance to tell [them] more about themselves. Be employer-centric.”

And being employer-centric is important whether or not the candidate already has past experience as a product manager.

“Every line on your resume should talk about the business value you delivered for each role and responsibility,” said Horn. “Even if you’re a developer or project manager – it doesn’t matter – show that you can think about the business.”

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The Benefits of Being Virtually There

netconnect A Virtual Office is just not the right fit for every company and every management team. Often, companies, when approaching the topic and considering a Virtual Office establishment for themselves tend to look at one half of the associated characteristics. Most frequently, I speak with companies that are either looking at only the positive, hopeful outcomes without consideration of the negatives and other elements that are red flags for incompatibility with respect to their current circumstances. Then, there are the other companies that only see the negatives and reasons to not move forward without seeing how the positives, for them, may actually outweigh the less than ideal accompaniments.

For now, I wish to briefly touch upon the benefits that can be gained through the successful implementation of a Virtual Office.

As with many large undertakings it is important to make sure your set of expectations are properly aligned with the reality of what a Virtual Office can deliver, and remember to…

…Expect good things.

There are clear cost savings to be had by…

  • Not having a physical need for office space. Large savings can be had, especially in a metropolitan area (e.g. NYC) where cost per square foot of space can get very, very expensive.
  • Not being limited to any specific geographic location for recruitment. Being able to recruit from places where the skills and the PRICE (employee salaries) align ideally with your own can also add up in the company’s favor.

One of the primary drivers, on the business-side, for a Virtual Office is cost savings. Through a Virtual Office you do not have to limit your recruiting search to a single geographic area, but can reach out to people, where ever you find those with the target matching skill-set. The cost savings benefit can often be best understood when evaluated in contrast to the non-virtual alternative. For example, in a city, or large metropolitan region, the business will assuredly pay a premium to hire local talent, where the cost of living is highest. Through the leveraging of a Virtual Office, the business can hire individuals with the same skills (or better) than the local candidates at a fraction of the price. The savings can add up fast; especially when hiring for high-skilled jobs like developers, where the salary difference between regions can be as great as $30k or more! Of course there are new and different costs associated with setting up a Virtual Office, phones, home Internet connections, etc., but they have negligible impact on the savings that will be gained through the cost savings of the reduced salary expenses, as well as the elimination of commercial office space fees.

Time and availability take on a unique meaning and provide special value through…

  • Flexibility of work hours and schedule that, with the right people hired, lead to significantly positive morale and dedication to the company’s work and goals.
  • Increased work hours resulting from the employees ability to optimally configure their work environment, as well as the aforementioned enhanced employee morale.
  • Expanded availability for the occasions where the critical deadline needs to be met or a critical emergency needs to be immediately addressed — it is much more convenient for the employee of a Virtual Office to have everything at their fingertips and work an extra hour or walk into the next room to address the immediate challenge at hand.

Engagement. Keeping employees engaged and focused is a challenge in any office setting. A typical employee situation that I have experienced and observed across multiple companies is that you will find the Virtual Office employee is a good deal more engaged with their work. There are no concerns about commute time or appearance. The employees are both more available to the company and, equally important, to their family. The Virtual Office employee can setup their office environment to suit their needs and optimize their environment to empower themselves to produce their best work. In start-ups the type of focus and extra hours generated from the more intense engagement are invaluable.

When structured and run well, a well connected Virtual Office further facilitates the engagement and the ensuing team spirit that develops; lowering the bar for putting in extra hours, when needed, or being available for support or emergencies. More time, more engagement, more accessibility — great things for all companies, even more valuable when resources are lean as is common in a start-up environment.

Sounds great. Let’s get started!

Remember, the Virtual Office isn’t for everyone. I have only painted about half of the picture so far. Becoming aligned with the rosier expectations associated with this model of a Virtual Office is the easier half of the equation to evaluate.

Today, take away from this part of the conversation…

  • The Virtual Office is not for everyone, and might not be the best thing for ‘us,’ the company,
  • And, the positive expectations may align well with the desired goals, but the need exists to equally weigh and honestly assess the negatives and challenges associated with the successfully executed Virtual Office.

Those downsides, and further guidance in assessing whether or not a Virtual Office is for you I reserve for separate, future The Product Guy blog posts.

So, for now, read, understand, internalize, and come back for to learn more about the experiences that I can share regarding Virtual Offices, many of the common challenges and their solutions. To make sure you don’t miss those posts, and other posts by The Product Guy, you can subscribe to The Product Guy by following this link: http://feeds.feedburner.com/tpgblog

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy