This Is Why I Never Hire Product Managers

Editor’s Note: The following post is republished from David Cancel, CEO of Drift. You can read the original post here. Also be sure to listen to David’s podcast on hiring product managers below. 

When I first got into tech and startups, the most valuable and sought after asset was experience. And when it came to product management, every product manager wanted to leave their current job to go out and get a business degree.

Business skills were super valuable, while product management sat at the bottom of the totem pole in most organizations. Because of that, a lot of people were trying to escape from product management.

Today, the power balance has completely shifted. How often do you seen startups on Product Hunt or coming out of YC boasting that they have “business-driven co-founders.” Never.

That’s because today, product and design are the differentiators for most modern companies — not business. As a result, having business experience has gone out of style, and instead, all those “business” types want to become product managers.

This has been obvious for a while now, but it really hit me a few weeks ago while I was speaking at Harvard Business School.

Back in the day, all of the product managers at my companies wanted to leave to go get their MBA. Today, everyone wants to go to business school to leave and become a product manager.

“What do you look for when hiring a product manager?” Is one of the questions I get the most, so I thought I’d share my process for hiring product managers:

I try to never hire someone who has been a product manager before.

This might seem counterintuitive — especially considering that hiring is one of the hardest parts of a startup, but stick with me. Here’s why:

Experience rarely matters.

I’ve never seen a correlation with past experience and future success when it comes to product managers.


Our world — especially in the technology space — has changed and continues to change at a rapidly increasing rate.

We value people who are learning machines and are highly adaptable (antifragile) over people who only bring experience.

There’s very little overlap.

Product management is a role that is very unique to a specific company. If you meet five product managers from five different companies, then you’ve truly met five different product managers. There will be very little overlap. The PM role is different at every company. Sometimes it’s a true product owner. Sometimes they are really just project managers. Sometimes they are product marketers. Sometimes they are a little of each.

Sometimes they report to a VP of Product. Sometimes they report to a VP of Engineering. Sometimes to the CTO (outside of core engineering which the VP of Engineering runs). Sometimes in small companies they work directly for the CEO. Sometimes they report to Marketing — and I’ve even seen a few PMs that report into Sales.

See a problem here? Throughout my career I’ve seen countless definitions for what a PM is, what they do and who they report into (and I’m sure you’ve seen the same thing, just think about the PMs that you know and what they do).

Our special sauce has always been product.

The companies that I’ve started have all been product-driven companies. Product has been our special sauce.

And if your special sauce is product (like it is for most modern companies) then you’re better off growing your product team from within. Hire from other groups. Hire the people that already share your “DNA.”

Why? Because you have a playbook that is your competitive advantage.

Even if you can find a PM externally who happens to meet your definition of a great PM, the experience they bring is something that you’ll most likely want to retrain/untrain them of. You want them to use your special sauce, your differentiator.

Think about what your special sauce is and hire experienced people with playbooks in areas that aren’t your special sauce area. For me that’s been in HR, Sales and Finance. Those are the areas where I really value the experience that an outsider can bring. And this goes for any area, not only Product. Say your special sauce is Marketing. Then you probably should grow your marketing talent vs. acquire it.

Now, all of that said, there are a set of patterns and heuristics that we look for specifically when hiring product managers. Here are the things that I’ve found to be helpful.

What I Look For When Hiring Product Managers

Here’s the quick hit list of things to think about when talking to potential PMs for your startup.

Are they truly a product junkie? Do they geek out on new products? Is Product Hunt one of the first sites they read every day? Are they the first to be playing around with new products? Are they telling me about some product I don’t know about? Do they know about more products than me? And do they have passion around this. I love to have candidates show me their phone or desktop to see which apps they are using, which new products they are testing. It’s easy to tell if someone genuinely geeks out over new products. This one’s tough to fake.

Are they curious? Look for the curious ones. Are the settling for yes or questioning for why? Do they want to learn from others? Too many people try to re-invent the wheel instead of finding familiar patterns from other companies and innovating.

How would they make existing products better? What ideas do they have for products? How would they make them better? Pick a product on the spot and ask them to show you how they use it, what they’d change and how they would improve it.

How do they work everyday? Find out what they use from a process standpoint. Do they use Trello? Evernote? ProdPad? The best PM’s are always trying new things and finding ways to improve when it comes to process and organization.

Do they have a customer-driven mindset? It’s the PMs job to understand the customer better than nearly everyone else. PMs should be talking to the customer the most at your company other than support (most likely). Do they live and breathe customers? Can they help engineering and design get closer to the customer? This is the most glamorous part of being a PM. The point of business is to sustain and generate customers, and in the SaaS world, the PM is the closest person to that customer. The right fit for a PM role gets excited about this.

Two things that don’t matter:

  1. Technical ability. You do not need to be very technical. That is a common misconception.
  2. Dashboards and strategy. Someone who is more interested in being a BD or strategy person will be the wrong fit. This role should be customer-driven first. Product management is not about dashboards, slide decks and Excel. Looking at data all day is not what being a PM is about. Keep an eye out for candidates that want these things.

At the end of the day, here’s what matters the most:

Think about your secret sauce, especially when it comes to hiring PMs. If it’s product, then look outside the box to find PM’s that you can mold and grow.

Want more from David on hiring product managers? Be sure to listen to his podcast.

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the above podcast featuring David Cancel and David Gerhardt. It has been edited for clarity. 

David Gerhardt: All right, so topic for today is about hiring. So there’s two . . . okay, the hottest job that everybody wants, everybody wants to work at a startup. That’s number one, so we got that out of the way. Second part of that, like if you go down, the thing that everybody wants, so first they want to get a job at a startup, and then the thing that everybody wants to do at a startup is, all of a sudden, everybody wants to be a product manager.

David Cancel: Amen, I found that out recently when I gave a talk at HBS. So back in the day when my product managers that I used to work with wanted to leave product management they would go to HBS. Now, I’m going to HBS and people want to leave HBS and become product managers.

DG: So people go to business school and they come out being product managers.

DC: Yes.

DG: The question that everybody asks you a lot is: How do you hire PMs? What do you look for in hiring PMs? And you have a really I-don’t-really-care take on this.

DC: Yeah, yeah, no, I care deeply.

DG: Yeah, you care deeply, but you have a criteria that’s the opposite of what people are going to think.

DC: Yeah, I think I have a different perspective. They usually ask me what qualities you need to be a PM, and how much does experience play in, how technical do you have to be, and I say, number one, I almost never hire someone to be a PM who’s been a PM before. And then their mouth drops.

DG: Okay, so let’s go in on that. So that seems counterintuitive because, I listen to everybody, and what does everybody say about startups? The hardest thing is the people and hiring. You’ve got to get those things right. But you’re saying, don’t hire somebody who has experience for what you want.

DC: Yeah, and it’s for a couple reasons. One, PM is a role that is very specific to a company and if you meet PMs from 5 different companies, you’ve met 5 different roles that almost have very little overlap. Then the second is the companies that I’ve started or have been a part of have been product-driven companies. Therefore, product is our special sauce. Right? And depending on your company and depending on what your special sauce is, for my companies it’s been product, and if that’s our special sauce, then we can grow people better internally than we can hire external PMs.

DG: So a good example, so at Drift we have, Matt is our product manager and you guys hired him right out of college. He’s our only product manager right now. So you’d rather do that, right, where you can have somebody and mold them than take somebody who’s been at Google for 10 years and then have to retrain them to this way?

DC: Exactly, because when we mold them and they rise internally, they have our DNA, right?

DG: But is there a skillset for product managers or can you take anybody and have them become a product manager?

DC: I would say there are not specific skill sets, not specific rules for hiring a product manager. I think there’s heuristics. There’s things that we look for that we think are patterns. I think people who are naturally obviously curious about the types of products that we’re building. People, today, who are really product junkies, really geek out on, whether it’s product talent or new products that are being released, they’re the ones that are testing new gadgets and new things all the time.

DG: So you still want someone who is playing around with products all the time, but maybe not someone who’s gone super deep on one and that’s the only thing that they can think about.

DC: Exactly.

DG: Okay, so this secret sauce thing is interesting. So if product is your secret sauce, you’d think that you can almost train anybody to be a product manager. That’s specific to us. Let’s maybe give some more general advice for other companies based on their secret sauce. What’s your kind of theory on who you hire . . . so the firs thing is, what’s your secret sauce?

DC: First, it’s identify your secret sauce. So let’s say it’s another company and their secret sauce happens to be sales. I think in that company, they should probably hire product managers who have experience, they should probably hire marketers who have experience, they probably should hire finance and HR that bring a wealth of experience, but they probably shouldn’t hire lots of experience when it comes to sales, because sales is their secret sauce.

DG: Right. And so, in the product-driven scenario, you’re looking for on the outside people who . . . the non-secret-sauce thing is very specific in finance, HR, or just other roles that don’t support the product.

DC: Exactly. I think for us, those roles, let’s say they’re finance, HR, hire experience all day long. I’m going to look for people who are going to teach us something there, but in product, we’re teaching people about product. In growth and marketing, I’d say that’s a secret sauce area for us too, and so we’re doing more teaching than we are necessarily learning from someone who’s just had 20 years of experience in a company.

DG: Why do you think everybody wants to be . . . so you speak at a lot of these things and they’re really specific, and everybody asks you to speak on product management because product management is like the product thing. It’s either you’re an engineer, designer, or product manager. Why does everybody want to be a product manager? And maybe talk about how that role has changed, because don’t you feel like, if it was the same role as it was 15 years ago, nobody would want to do it?

DC: I think the power balance has shifted. So when I first started doing startups, what was valued was experience. Having a business degree, whether it’s an MBA or not, was highly valued, so it was all about business. What was sort of valued was engineering and product management. I’d say engineering for sure. Product management was way below engineering. So in that scenario, many people wanted to escape being a product manager, because they were kind of low on the totem pole.

DG: And it was more project management.

DC: Yeah, it was more project management stuff, it wasn’t exciting, it was more waterfall and agile kind of stuff, so it was a certain kind of person, and it wasn’t really seen as a leadership opportunity. I think what’s changed now is that having that business background and having that experience has gone out of vogue, right? Engineering and product are the differentiating aspects and design with most modern companies, and so now all of a sudden people are looking at those areas and saying, “How do I be one of those people?” And with engineering and design, that’s not something that you can easily graduate graduate school or an MBA program or undergrad and just get into.

DG: Or it’s pretty specific. You have one of those skills, right? You know how to design, you’re an engineer.

DC: Yeah, so now people graduating are like, there’s no room for business development person. That used to be the thing that everybody wanted to be, right? Strategy, business development, whatever, and they saw that as the quickest path to leading their own company and to becoming the CEO. Now they’re looking and saying, “I want to be in product, I want to be close to the things that we’re building. I want to be close to engineering and design, because that’s my quickest path to leadership.”

DG: What makes a product manager good? Like how do you know?

DC: That’s a good question, a complicated question.

DG: It’s both.

DC: Yeah, it’s both. It’s all. It’s complicated because, one, it depends on each type of company and two, it’s kind of squishier to measure. It’s almost like engineering, it’s a little squishy to measure. I’d say everything in product, design, engineering, and being a PM, are kind of, there’s a little bit of subjectivity there. Versus sales and marketing, very easier to measure.

So for me what’s a successful product manager is, one, they are the number one customer advocate for the product that they are building, right? That’s because we’ve tended to this kind of customer-driven mindset, and so they’re not a project manager, because they don’t have much value for that, they’re the one that kind of understands the customer the most, is probably talking to the customer the most outside of support, almost as much as, let’s say sales or marketing is talking to the customer, they’re living, breathing with the customer, and they are the ones who are helping engineering and design get closer to the customer.

DG: Yeah, so the product manager is like the voice of the customer internally.

DC: Yes.

DG: But it’s interesting because you don’t ever hear anybody speak up and say, “That’s why I want to be a product manager.”

DC: Nope.

DG: Rarely.

DC: Rarely, but that is the most glamorous thing, right? Because that is the closest . . . the point of a business is to sustain and generate a customer, and the closest point to the customer, at least in the businesses that we work on, is being that product manager, so that is the closest to the customer, so they should be excited about that.

DG: Yeah, we’ll do a whole one on the value of talking to customers versus looking at data, but it’s like the product manager is the owner of that. It’s like, cool, we can look at dashboards all you want. I think the trend is, you might go to business schools and hear people that want to be product managers, and they want to fire up all the dashboards and all the Excel sheets, but the real good ones are going to be like, “I’m going to spend my entire day out of the office or just answering e-mails with customers.”

DC: I think you nailed it. When I get asked about being a product manager, I think one of the first questions is, “How technical do I have to be?” And I say, “Not very.” And then, two, when we talk some more about what they’re thinking a product manager is, they are definitely thinking the same thing as being that BD or that strategy person, which is Excel, PowerPoints, spreadsheets, this, just looking at data all day, and looking at data all day is not a product manager.

DG: No, there’s actually more roles for . . . that’s more like growth today, right? Like you want somebody, I’d love to have somebody super analytical working with me, like, okay, you can own all that stuff if that’s what you want to do.

All right let’s leave people with some, like a little bit actionable stuff, maybe you’ll share a secret or two. So, knowing all this, how do you interview, so if you’re a founder listening or you’re hiring somebody and you’re listening to this, what is the interview question, or maybe it’s not a question, maybe it’s scenarios, what do you want to get out of an interview for product manager?

DC: Yeah, I want them . . . so there are scenarios and then there are things that I ask. I’m looking for people who are . . . I geek out on product, right, that’s always been my thing, and so I want someone who can keep up with me or is telling me about some product that I don’t know about.

DG: So you want that person that is on every new app. You drive me insane because every screenshot I get from you, there’s 15 new toolbars or apps or something like that.

DC: That’s what I’m looking for.

DG: Yeah, but you want that, and that’s just the curiosity. Is that because they’re doing it because they want to see how other people are doing it?

DC: Yeah, they want to learn from others, and more importantly, they’re doing it because they have passion around it, right? No one is paying them to go look at a bunch of apps. And so I want to see that, I want to look at their phone if I can, I want to look at their desktop. I want to see what it is, what they’re actually using, and then I want to talk about products.

I may pick a random example product that I love and see if, one, do they even know what I’m talking about. Two, can they appreciate it? Are they geeking out? It’s like, whatever you’re into. Like you’re into crossfit, so if you talk to someone who is into crossfit, you can geek out in seconds and if they’re not into it, you can tell that they’re not into it.

DG: Right, so that’s a really important point. So that really gets at the core of, do you want to be a product manager because you want that job or do you love products so much and you’re not an engineer and you’re not a designer and that’s what you want to do.

DC: Exactly, and then we talk about ideas that they have for products. Another red flag: they have no ideas for products. And just things that they want to do, and then how do they work each day? So that is also looking at the tools. So, how do you work each day? Do you use Evernote or do you use some other notepad? Or, what do you use? From a process standpoint, the best product managers are always trying new things and new processes.

DG: Do you ask them specific things? Do you say, hey how would you, like right now Twitter is the one that everybody likes talking about. Hey give me, come to this interview with three ideas on how you would grow Twitter.

DC: Yeah, I don’t ask them beforehand because I don’t like people to be rehearsed, so I may ask that question on the cuff, right? How are we going to fix Twitter? Or show me how you use Twitter. Or show me your account.

DG: Yeah, that’s a good point, because anybody can prep for that, right? You want the genuine catch you at 7 o’clock on a Friday drinking a beer talking about products, or coffee, or whatever.

DC: Exactly, and same goes for any other discipline. If marketing is the secret sauce then you want someone who can show you and demonstrate that they are passionate about that area, that they have delivered results before. Like, for a product manager, we’re not hiring someone who comes from that background, but if you were, you’re looking at results, you’re looking at past behavior.

DG: Cool, so takeaway is, think about your secret sauce. Especially if you’re hiring product managers, if you’re special sauce is product, hiring a classically trained product manager probably isn’t the best thing.

DC: Exactly.

David Cancel
David Cancel

David Cancel is the founder and CEO of Drift, a Boston-based startup that is making it easier for businesses to talk to their customers. David is a five-time founder and two-time CEO. David served on the executive team at HubSpot, where he led the product team as Chief Product Officer after HubSpot's acquisition of David's previous company Performable.
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