How To Attract & Hire Good Product Managers

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7 mins
Updated: 2nd May, 2021

We interviewed Dave Thomson, Head of Product at Skyscanner and discussed how to attract product managers to your business, how to test when hiring and some of his favourite interview questions.

Dave is a product leader focused on transformation and high growth. He's worked in VC funded and public companies where he's built and run several successful Product, Engineering, Analytics and UX teams over the last 11 years.

Firstly, what makes a great product culture for you?

A company that optimizes for learning. That means a number of different things, everything from how fast can you build and deploy software and experiments, how tight are your customer feedback loops and then how quick are the decisions that you can make off the back of that.

If you think about two different product teams, one sat in a business that is building and shipping very small incremental changes to their product every day and every week. Every time they do it they move their KPI’s by one or two basis points, versus a team that is only building and shipping once a month but also moving their KPI’s by one or two basis points.

Over time those two teams are going to have very different outcomes so I think optimising for the rate of learning is one thing and that also means that you spend way more time as a team, and as a company in the problem space to fully understand it before you jump to solutions.

Building things on the Internet has never been easier but building the right thing still remains incredibly hard. I think along the way if you are building and shipping very, very quickly and optimizing for learning you're going to have some failures. The way in which you deal with those failures and be humble about it also for me is how you build a great product culture

What makes a great product manager?

1. A deep intellectual curiosity

I'm biased towards hiring people who are builders and for me, that's usually people who as children were playing with Lego, dismantling television remote controls to figure out how the thing worked at a fundamental level.

2. Customer empathy

It's their job to understand the customer better than anybody else in the organization.

3. Problem solving

The day-to-day job of a product manager is to solve problems for customers and for the business and so the ability to solve problems is always something that we look for.

And how do you test this when hiring?

One of the fundamental ways is to have a hard problem as part of the hiring process where we'll give somebody a real-life business problem that we're working on today and look for how they try and solve for that so again we don't expect them to you know get the right answer.

That would take much longer than we have time for an interview you'd have to go into a customer data, talk to customers and understand a bit more about the business but it's always interesting to see how people start to solve a problem.

Do they fully understand all the component parts? Do they fully understand the market then you think about it in a logical way?

It also gives that person a chance to see what are we working on day to day and is that something that they'd be interested in working on too.

How do you hire good product managers?

Normally the best product managers are already employed, happy in their jobs and working on interesting things. So normally hiring great product managers doesn't start with an interview, it starts way further up the funnel with maybe bumping into somebody at an event and telling them about something cool you're working on and see if that's a problem space that they're interested in as well.

When it comes to actually attracting that person to the company, I think it's really helpful if you have lots of information online. So blogs from people who work in the product team the design team the engineering team talking about not just what they're working on but how do they work day to day.

Videos are helpful it really gives a sense of the company culture and what it's like to work there. I think that's great because when people actually come in for an interview they already have a sense of what it might be like to work in the company. That means that when it comes to giving them time to ask questions it normally means that they can skip past the basics and get more into the detailed and interesting things.

What are your favourite interview questions?

1. "What's your biggest product failure?"

I ask it because the answer tells me a number of different things. Firstly, is this person open and honest? Did he tell me about some of the failures they've had that they completely owned it what did the alone from it? How big was the failure overall? If the failure was massive, it tells me this person has been swinging for the fence as opposed to incrementally optimizing things and playing it safe.

2. "Explain something very complicated to me in a very simple way".

Again, the answer they give back to me tells me a number of different things like what's their calibration of complicated and can they distil that into a very simple sentence so that me as a layperson could understand it. Good product managers have to often translate very complicated requirements to stakeholders or engineers so communication is key

How do you think product management will change in the next 10 years?

I think before we can understand how product management will change in the next 10 years, we have to think back to the last 10 years and think about where it's come from. A decade ago, people mostly had a website that worked on one screen size and so you probably had one product manager maybe a couple.

"I think as product people, we'll have to think about the decisions that machines should make, and decisions that we should make ourselves".

- Dave on artificial intelligence and product management

If you think over time how that's changed, organizations added their first mobile product manager as companies started to care about that screen size and device type. I think that just extrapolates over time into the future, some of the more emergent platforms today like voice, chatbots, probably over time to be a real domain specialist in one area you'll have to build a larger, more specialist product or organization.

5-10 years ago you wouldn't necessarily see a Chief Product Officer, a Chief Digital Officer or product being represented at a board level. I think that's changed in the UK to follow on from what we've seen in the U.S. previously.

Another way I think product management will change over time, is the intersection of where machines should make decisions and where humans should make decisions. We often use the analogy of the self-driving car - what decisions should it make, what decisions should the driver make? I think as product people, we'll have to think about the decisions that machines should make and decisions that we should make ourselves.

What the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I think probably the two best pieces of advice I've been given is never work for a company that you wouldn't invest your own money into. Fundamentally by being there 8-10 hours a day you are investing yourself in that company. So only go and work for a company where you would expect that company to have a great outcome or perhaps be the market leader in its space.

The second piece of advice that I was given as a product person, was only work on products that you deeply care about. It's hard to be the Evangelist for a product and understand the customer of that product, if it’s not something that you are crazy about yourself.

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