What Employers Look for in Product Managers

A blog post last month by veteran product manager Rich Mironov examined what hiring managers actually look for in product managers. The anecdotal results aren’t pretty.

Line of MenMironov’s research concludes that hiring managers think about the openings very narrowly, which means most are looking for candidates in the wrong places. They’re putting too much emphasis on technical market knowledge and not enough on what makes for a great product manager.

Mironov and his researcher examined 41 job postings at American tech companies, evenly split between B2B and B2C. Among the criteria they looked at were years of experience and tech skills. They found that most of the employers sought people with an average of three years previous experience, even for entry-level jobs. However, there were only two openings that a recent college graduate would qualify for, one from HP and one from IBM.

Speaking of college grads, 93 percent of Mironov’s sample required a bachelor’s degree, most of them in computer science or electrical engineering. A third wanted an MBA. Mironov doesn’t like this emphasis.

I would give more weight to face-to-face ability and being able to talk cogently about product failures, organizational issues, passion, communication and working with teams. Otherwise, a company will get someone who not only has an MBA, but acts like an MBA.

I completely agree with him. Having worked with dozens, if not hundreds, of product managers over the course of decades, I’ve found that the successful ones are those that can go beyond the spreadsheet and communicate across engineering, marketing and product teams and demonstrate the right balance.

What Good Managers Know

Mironov disagrees with the focus on market-sector experience that many postings require. “I believe that strong product managers can quickly learn a new product space, but hiring managers say they want the perfect candidate [who knows their market segment intimately.]”

“Good product managers will learn their market/tech quickly, and rapid shifts in markets/needs/competition mean that you may change your product focus soon, anyway,” he told me via email. “So if you hire based on specific market knowledge, you may have to replace that person soon.”

Too bad the perfect candidate doesn’t really exist. “Perfect candidates are slightly less rare than unicorns… but you’ll need to check most of these boxes to get through an external resumé screen,” he said.

Don’t Waste Time on Certifications

None of the positions mentioned any certifications whatsoever. Clearly, the market doesn’t value any of these, and Mironov advises candidates not to waste any time trying to obtain one, at least for their first job. “It’s incumbent on educators and certifiers to show that we add value.”

So what if you don’t fit the profile and still want to work as a product manager? Says Mironov:

The external recruiting cycle isn’t your friend. I still see most product managers get their first PM job via internal transfers: sales engineers or business analysts or developers who already know their company’s market and technology, find a mentor within the product management team, demonstrate product skills, and campaign within their company for the opportunity.

To fill their positions, he adds, companies should be looking internally, especially since current employees “already know the corporate culture and product set.”

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