Great Software Developers vs. Average Software Developers
"A great lathe operator commands several times the wage of an average lathe operator, but a great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer." - Bill Gates
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with many software developers in my various roles, but only a couple of them are what I would call great developers. If you’ve been lucky enough to encounter one of these great developers, you can attest to the immense effect they can have on building a world-class software product. For example, these great developers are capable of independently architecting great solutions in short periods of times. On the other hand, a team of average developers may never come up with a comparable solution, even after spending a tremendous amount of time brainstorming and prototyping.
For those of you that have no idea what I’m talking about or are skeptical about the quote by Bill Gates, this post is for you!
Software is unique in that it has a lifespan that only just begins when it is developed, meaning that it will still be around and in use after the developer that wrote it has moved on. Furthermore, a defective design or implementation can lay dormant for months, if not years, well into the life-cycle of the product until one day when it rears it’s ugly head as a bug or limitation in a critical situation. The cost of addressing this bug or limitation grows exponentially as it goes un-identified from the design phase, to implementation to testing to production to maintenance. When you account for possible liability, opportunity cost as well as corporate reputation, it is easy to see why someone as reputable as Bill Gates would state that the developer who knew enough to avoid the problem is worth 10,000 times the one who ignorantly or naively implemented a poor solution!
If you’re going to invest in hiring developers, know that you get what you pay for!
How to Hire a Great Product Manager
After writing my last two posts about great product managers and career paths to become great product managers, I thought I should write a post for all the employers (like myself) that are looking to hire great product managers. Probably more so than any other role, identifying and hiring a great product manager is very challenging. Since the job requires a breadth of knowledge to be successful, the interview process requires a breadth of questions to be asked to get feel for whether or not the candidate will be successful.
So what specifically do I focus on trying to understand when I interview a product management candidate? There are a few key items, and I’ve outlined them below.
Are They Wicked Smart?
To me this is the most important thing. If they’re not wicked smart, I won’t even consider them. Since product managers are faced with an endless amount of decisions, a great one needs to be able to think quickly and analytically to provide well thought out answers to questions posed by developers, sales reps, marketers, account managers, etc.. Every decision they make could have a butterfly effect down the road, so raw intelligence is a requirement to understand what the consequences of their decisions could be.
So how do you test to see if someone is wicked smart? Often times you can get a feel for it in the interview process or by looking at the candidate’s credentials (i.e. advanced degree, top school, high-profile jobs, etc.). However, I also like to pose brain-teasers too to see how a candidate breaks down a problem and tries to solve it. If you need some brain teasers to use in your interviews, do a quick search on Google and you’ll find numerous questions and answers for great brain teasers that are used by Google and Microsoft during their interviews for product managers and developers.
Have They Successfully Shipped Something Before?
I’m sure you’d never hire a developer unless they’ve written code before, so why would you hire a product manager if they haven’t shipped something before? Only those that have successfully shipped a product before truly understand how complex a process this is, it requires the coordination of many activities and the cooperation of all parts of the business, lead by the product manager.
By simply asking a candidate to walk you through the process they followed when shipping a product they led from concept to launch and beyond, you can get a solid feel for their selflessness, attitude, curiosity, persuasiveness, communication skills, product instincts and desire to completely own a product.
Do They Have a Strong Technical Background?
A great product manager needs to be able to talk shop with the developers they are leading. If they can’t do this, they won’t be respected and won’t be successful. It’s that simple.
Since the amount of technical experience required varies from product to product, it’s hard to recommend specific questions that should be asked. However, you should be asking your product management candidates some of the same technical questions you’d ask your developers to see if they’ll be able to talk shop.
Do They Have Great Product Instincts?
I touched on it earlier, but having great product instincts is another essential attribute of a great product manager. That said, assessing whether or not somebody has great product instincts is very subjective and many interviewers have a difficult time trying to evaluate this attribute.
So what questions should you ask to poke at a candidates product instincts? I recommend general, open-ended questions like the following:
- How do you know a product is designed well?
- What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in the design of a product?
- What’s a great product that you’ve recently tried? Why do you like it? What is the biggest issue with it?
By posing questions like these, and other similar ones, you’ll get a feel for the candidates products instincts pretty quickly.
Are They a Leader?
In order for a product manager to highly successful, they have to be leader. They need to be convincing and have the ability to lead a diverse group of people as they ship a product.
Identifying a great leader is relatively easy during an interview process as the great ones naturally convey their great leadership abilities through their confidence, effective communication and persuasiveness. That said, there are many questions you can ask to poke at a persons leadership ability. One of the best lists of questions I’ve seen is in this post on the blog of Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers:
Hiring a great product manager is hard! :) That said, if you use the guidelines above, identifying and hiring a great one for your organization will be easier than ever before!
A Career Path to Product Management Greatness!
It’s that time of year again when new grads are going through the interview process with prospective employers, trying to land their dream job. For the ones that are looking to become product managers, they often find it extremely hard to find a good entry-level product management job and even harder to land that job. However, they shouldn’t get discouraged because there’s more than one way to get into product management! Furthermore, starting off with an entry-level product management job is not the best route to take if you want to achieve product management greatness!
Looking back at my experiences and the experiences of some product managers I highly respect, I can confidently tell you that the best way to become a great product manager is to make sure you experience what it’s like to work in other parts of the business first. To become a great product manager you need to gain a deep and thorough understanding of each aspect of a business and the only way to do that is to walk a mile in the shoes of each part of the business.
Although this may sound like a difficult thing to do, it’s actually much easier than you think. What you’ll need to do is find a start-up that’s building something that interests you and take any job there (think developer, account rep., etc.). After you get comfortable with your primary job and are excelling at it (usually after about 6 months), take on extra responsibilities that fall outside of the normal scope of your job and set the table for a move to a completely new role (usually after about 12 months, but could be earlier if an opportunity presents itself); examples of such a shift could be from engineering to services, services to sales, etc.. The great thing about start-ups are that diagonal shifts within an organization are relatively easy and happen pretty regularly.
If you repeat this process a couple more times to gain more experience (could all be within one organization or spread across multiple organizations), you’ll be in a tremendous position to become great product manager!
What Makes a Great Product Manager?
For the first real post on my new blog I thought I’d address a question that I get asked all the time by friends, colleagues and mentees, namely “what makes a great product manager?”
Beyond the extreme focus and dedication that my son is displaying in the photo to the right, there are a few attributes and skills that I feel someone needs to be a great product manager. Take a read below and let you know your thoughts…
A Great Product Manager Needs to Speak Many Different Languages
I’m not talking about traditional spoken languages like English or French, I’m talking about business “languages” like Marketing, Sales, Executive, Intern, etc.. To be a great product manager you’ll need to understand what motivates each part of the business and what they actually care about so that requests for features, resources and your time can properly be understood, vetted and prioritized.
Furthermore, It’s not uncommon for product managers to be talking to the CEO and a QA intern in the same day, so you’ll need to be comfortable talking to everyone in a confident manner. You need to understand that C-Level execs need to be spoken to differently than interns so that you can be effective and successful in your job.
A Great Product Manager Must Take Ownership of Everything Related to the Product
As the product manager, you must own the product! A great product manager will take ownership for not just the good things (i.e. product launches), but also the bad things (angry clients because an important feature didn’t ship on time). Furthermore, the product manager should be right there with QA looking for bugs, with Services team talking to users and with marketing developing press releases. Another artifact of owning the product is that you get all the random tasks that nobody wants to do (i.e. taking meeting notes, managing partner deliverables, etc.), it’s your job get off your ass and do anything that needs to be done!
A Great Product Manager Needs to be Persuasive
As much as you need to take ownership for everything, there realistically are some things that you can’t do (ex: changing a graphic, etc.). For these items you’ll need to persuade people to do things for you, and this become especially difficult once you realize that most of these people likely don’t report to you! However, if you’ve taken ownership of the product as best you could, you’ve likely gained the respect of the team so it’ll be much easier for you to convince them to get some things done for you.
A Great Product Manager Needs to be Curious about the Underlying Architecture
A great product manager should be curious about how the product is technically built, this will allow you to understand why some features take long to implement, why some pages take forever to load, etc.. Furthermore, you should be able to explain to others why certain architectural decisions were made, just as good as those that made the decision. If you’re unable to do this, you’ll quickly lose credibility as the owner of the product.
A Great Product Manager Must Have a Positive Attitude
If you haven’t noticed, many engineers are skeptical by nature. This means that a positive attitude from the product manager is not just nice to have, but a requirement to offset the rest of the teams innate skepticism. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that you are the connection the team has to the rest of the office and industry, they rely on you to understand how sales are doing, what competitors are doing and whether or not clients are happy; so even when times are rough it’s important to shelter your team from all the chaos unless absolutely necessary.
A Great Product Manager Needs to be Selfless
This should be a no-brainer, but a great product manager celebrates others on the team, not themselves. Since the developers likely do not get much exposure to the rest of the company, it’s your job to let everyone else know how great they are and how much hard work they’ve put into that latest feature that’ll help Sales close the next big deal.
Welcome to My New Blog!
I’ve had a few other blogs over the year, but with proliferation of tools like Twitter I’ve gotten a little lazy recently and stopped creating content with any real substance; I hope is that this blog will put an end to that!
My plan is to focus primarily on product management, but if there’s something else you’d like to see me write about just let me know.
I hope you enjoy!