Scott Williamson: Hiring the Best Product People in Five Steps, Why the Best PMs are Writers | E1118

Scott Williamson: Hiring the Best Product People in Five Steps, Why the Best PMs are Writers | E1118

Intro (00:00:00)

Background (00:00:52)

  • Scott started his tech career in sales but transitioned to product management after realizing his passion for the field.
  • He obtained an MBA with a specialization in Management of Technology to enhance his credentials for product management roles.
  • Despite the challenges of entering the field during the tech downturn in 2003, he eventually secured a product management position after working closely with product teams in an alliances role.

Is MBA Still Worth it Today? (00:02:31)

  • Scott believes an MBA may not be necessary to become a successful product manager, as the required skills can be learned through focused training, mentorship, and hands-on experience.
  • However, for those aspiring to become CPOs or VPs and bridge the gap between product and other company functions, an MBA can provide long-term benefits.

Product as Art or Science (00:03:35)

  • Product development involves a balance of art and science.
  • Systematic data collection and analysis are essential for informed decision-making.
  • Translating data into user experiences that solve problems and drive business outcomes requires creativity and artistry.
  • The data-to-art ratio varies depending on the role and stage of the company.

Balancing Science & Art in Leadership (00:05:32)

  • Exceptional product leaders excel at both the scientific and artistic aspects of product development.
  • The speaker's career has focused on bringing scientific rigor to product management to improve team performance.
  • Early-stage founders rely more on intuition and creativity due to limited data.

Transitioning to Science Mode (00:06:20)

  • Founders should adopt a more scientific approach when they have found repeatable product-market fit.
  • This involves breaking down the product experience and assigning individual ownership to PMs, designers, and engineering managers.
  • Structured processes become necessary as the team grows to ensure consistent performance and minimize variance.

Defining the Role of Product Manager (00:07:40)

  • PM is a hub function between the external world (market, customers, competitors, technology changes) and the internal company (engineers, marketers, salespeople).
  • PM sets direction, makes priority calls, and decides on the user experience.
  • Progressive teams give PMs more time to be customer-facing, start with the problem rather than the solution, and connect product work to business outcomes.

When to Hire the First PM (00:09:47)

  • The right time to hire the first PM is when the company has shifted into "science mode," meaning when there is repeatable product-market fit, decent retention, and a repeatable ability to acquire the target customer.
  • Hiring a PM before this point can be problematic because critical decisions about the ICP, prioritization, and core user experience need to be made by someone with deep context and understanding of the company.
  • Consider hiring a junior PM for day-to-day backlog management, but nothing more, until repeatable product-market fit is achieved.

Structuring the Hiring Process (00:11:35)

  • Five interviews in total:
    • 30-minute recruiter or hiring manager screen.
    • One-hour hiring manager interview to assess core PM competencies.
    • One-hour engineering manager interview to test domain knowledge and technical skills.
    • One peer interview, preferably hands-on, conducted by another PM.
    • Finalist interview with the hiring manager or a bar raiser to evaluate the candidate's ability to handle case questions.

Core Competencies of PMs (00:12:59)

  • Four core competencies for PMs:
    • Validation: Gathering insights through customer interviews and product usage data.
    • Build: Collaborating effectively with engineering, making tradeoffs, and breaking down tasks into actionable steps.
    • Business: Understanding key performance indicators (KPIs) and linking activities to potential outcomes.
    • Communication: Communicating effectively with executives, customers, and engineers, adapting language and tone to each audience.

Effective Peer Interviews (00:14:18)

  • Example of an effective peer interview exercise from GitLab:
    • "Think big, think small" exercise:
    • PM and candidate collaborate on a topic relevant to the interview.
    • Candidate writes down a vision for the topic and an iterative plan to achieve it.
    • This exercise tests:
    • Ability to think on a large scale and break down ideas into actionable steps.
    • Verbal and written communication skills.

Importance of Writing Skills for PMs (00:15:42)

  • Writing is a crucial skill for PMs, especially in remote work environments.
  • Verbal agility is helpful, but written artifacts are essential for driving alignment.
  • Two essential written artifacts used at Stripe and GitLab:
    • Opportunity canvas: a one-pager outlining the concept to be built.
    • Six-pager: a longer strategy document inspired by Amazon's approach.

Creating Strategy Documents (00:16:53)

  • A long-form written strategy (e.g., a two to six-page document) helps align the team's focus and ensures everyone is on the same page. It should cover a longer time horizon than the typical planning cycle (e.g., one year if you plan quarterly). Internal debates and discussions on the strategy can be facilitated asynchronously using tools like GitLab's merge request feature.
  • The most common stage for blockers to arise is at the execution team level, where cross-company tradeoffs need to be made. Founders should start this process when they have more than 100 employees.
  • When a company grows and adds new employees, it can be helpful to create a separate office or room to maintain a shared context and tribal knowledge, especially for new hires.
  • An opportunity canvas is a one-page document used early in the product development process to help product managers think holistically about a product concept. It involves interviewing 5-10 ideal users to understand their pain points, workarounds, potential benefits, and alternatives. This process helps product managers consider different angles of an idea and identify potential issues or limitations before significant development efforts are invested.

Managing PM Performance (00:26:07)

  • Product managers (PMs) should have half their time available for validation work to ensure focus and velocity in product development.
  • A chaotic product development process can be identified by frequent context switching, confusion about priorities, and excessive back-and-forth between engineers and stakeholders.
  • Well-conceived projects reduce the need for back-and-forth communication, leading to faster engineering progress.

Conducting Effective Case Studies (00:28:32)

  • Non-technical case studies in product interviews help assess candidates' problem-solving skills and systematic thinking.
  • An example of a non-technical case study is asking candidates to solve a problem as a product manager for a milk product line at a food company.
  • Effective candidates demonstrate methodical problem-solving, customer-centricity, and the ability to ask good questions to unpack complex scenarios.

Common Hiring Mistakes for PMs (00:30:33)

  • Candidates fail to demonstrate that they can take inputs and derive good insights from them.
  • Candidates lack depth in their examples and don't provide evidence of working in the desired manner.
  • Candidates struggle with clear communication, either in writing or verbally, or have difficulty iterating to a good answer.
  • Candidates approach case studies haphazardly due to the lack of a structured framework.

Managing Performance & Promotions (00:33:21)

  • Hiring product managers requires a clear understanding of the role and the skills needed, such as the ability to connect work to outcomes and learn from customers.
  • Common hiring mistakes include not having a clear rubric for what a good product manager looks like and not testing for the right skills.
  • Effective onboarding involves clear communication about ownership of responsibilities, providing necessary resources, and setting expectations.
  • Bad product managers can be identified within the first week if they lack the ability to connect their work to outcomes or demonstrate a lack of systems thinking.
  • To manage PM performance effectively, use a career development framework and conduct regular check-ins to provide actionable feedback.
  • For career growth and promotion, PMs should focus on developing a strong understanding of the ideal customer and aligning their work with leadership's KPIs.
  • Scott Williamson emphasizes the importance of having a strong desire to succeed in product management and suggests separating product reviews into two categories: work in progress reviews and reviews of the product or product area as a whole.

Product Review Cycle (00:44:55)

  • The product review cycle involves regular check-ins to ensure that product priorities and actions are aligned with target metrics.
  • Reviews include assessing work in progress, such as the Incident Management feature set, using the opportunity canvas.
  • Prototypes are reviewed to ensure they address customer needs and solve the intended problem.

Codifying & Sharing Learnings (00:48:54)

  • Monthly reviews are conducted to codify and share learnings from product reviews.
  • These reviews help manage ongoing priorities related to building and iterating on products.
  • The allocation of resources between resolving technical debt and pursuing new revenue opportunities depends on the stage of the product.
  • In early stages, more resources may be allocated to new feature development, while in mature stages, more resources may be allocated to iterative improvements and technical debt.
  • At GitLab, a recommended split of 60% on net new, 30% on iterative improvements, and 10% on technical debt was suggested, but teams could propose different allocations.

Priorities: Technical Debt vs. Revenue Generation (00:49:48)

  • Balancing iterative improvements (short-term tech debt) with ongoing improvements to the current experience and engineers' ability to burn down tech debt reduces the risk of significant tech debt pileups.

Reflection on First Product Leader Position (00:51:11)

  • Scott Williamson emphasizes the importance of starting with the problem and the customer, rather than focusing solely on what large companies request.
  • He expresses concern that the centralization of budgets and tighter spending constraints may lead product managers to prioritize short-term revenue generation over long-term vision.
  • When to listen to users vs. continuing as planned: Listen to customers about their problems but generally ignore their specific solution recommendations, as they may not align with the most elegant or effective solution.
  • Biggest mistake founders make when hiring product teams: Relying on logos and pedigrees rather than actual accomplishments, and hiring people who are not genuinely interested in the company's stage.

Quick-Fire Round (00:53:39)

  • Early-stage founders should hire product leaders who are comfortable with the hands-on, multi-faceted nature of the role.
  • The most common sources of friction for product managers are engineering and sales departments.
  • AI will likely change product teams by requiring them to understand AI domains, use AI tools, and potentially blurring the lines between PM, design, and engineering roles.
  • The most important advice for product managers is to talk to customers more, as many failed products result from a lack of customer understanding.
  • Two impressive recent examples of product strategy are Amazon's approach and the Browser Company's innovative browser, Arc.
  • Scott Williamson was interviewed on a YouTube video titled: "Hiring the Best Product People in Five Steps, Why the Best PMs are Writers | E1118".

Overwhelmed by Endless Content?