Happy 10th Birthday to HTHAPM

Looking back on ten years of How to Hire a Product Manager

By Ken Norton

7 min read • Nov 20, 2015

Ken Norton

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Donut with birthday candles

In the early hours of June 14, 2005 I published a blog post, one of hundreds I’d written. I thought I was sharing a few thoughts to my friends. As it turns out, I was writing the first line of my obituary.

Over the past decade, that article, How to Hire a Product Manager, has generated millions of pageviews, been republished in several books, and, I’ve often been told, launched careers in product management. (It certainly helped my own career.)

HTHAPM was mis-titled. It’s really an answer to the question what is a product manager?” A decade ago, there were a hundred different answers depending on who you asked. When I told people I was a PM, these were common responses:

  • A project manager?
  • Is that in marketing?
  • Pointy-haired boss who tells engineering what to do.
  • So you decide what color the box of Tide detergent should be?
  • Is that the same as a Microsoft program manager?
  • Ugh.

The notion of product manager as a technical, user-focused team leader working closely with engineers and designers to guide products wasn’t widespread. The essay began as a set of notes I’d email to friends who asked me to define the role or wanted help drafting a job description. It’s not that my observations were particularly insightful so much as I just happened to be the first person to write them down.

There are some things I might change if I wrote the essay today — I cringe at my emphasis on logic puzzles, for example. Some commenters at the time even called me to task. We’ve largely moved away from those over the years, as they’re not so useful. As Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations says: “At worst, they rely on some trivial bit of information or insight that is withheld from the candidate, and serve primarily to make the interviewer feel clever and self-satisfied. They have little if any ability to predict how candidates will perform in a job.”

The funny thing is, I never used to actually ask brainteaser questions in interviews. I included them to somewhat clumsily make a broader point that still stands — hire smart people. It’s just that there are better ways to figure that out. (Incidentally, my future boss Marissa Mayer was establishing Google’s associate product manager program at about the same time I wrote HTHAPM with the same mission — hire smart people and let them figure it out. Having been at Google for more than nine years and having met scores of these APMs and former APMs, I can confirm she delivered as promised.)

If I was writing HTHAPM in 2015 I would also go into more detail on what I meant by “Product Spidey-Sense.” Especially as it relates to design instincts and working with designers. Since 2005, design has become a more integral part of the development process, and we’re all the better for it. As a PM, your ability to work with designers is as essential as your ability to work with engineers. In the best technology companies, PM, Design, and Engineering combine to form the essential core of a product team.

And finally, there was one small gendered phrase that I’ve long since changed (“remember buddy” became “remember friend”). Nobody complained, and it might seem small and inconsequential. But I’ve become acutely aware of our atrocious lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, how our (and my) unconscious biases contribute, and why little things like that matter. Diverse teams make better products.

My blog moved hosting providers a handful of times and I eventually shut it down entirely, migrating my most popular posts into essay form. But I kept an archive, and I was reminded recently that the blog post received hundreds of comments in the weeks after I published it:

After this exchange on Twitter with Josh Elman I pulled up the archive. I was struck by how many names I recognized in the comments. People who, like Josh, I’d come to know well over the years, and who would help shape my own thinking about the job. (I’m not sure what it says that three of us have since moved into venture capital.)

Here are some of the more interesting comments, and where the writers ended up.

Marc Hedlund (Wesabe, Etsy, Stripe):

I like logic puzzles, too, but I tend to get less interesting information about the person’s intelligence from them, than about their personality. They can qualify intelligence, but they can also miss it pretty easily. People who are really smart and have a certain kind of personality are good at them in interviews; but there are plenty of really smart people — maybe just as smart — that do badly at logic puzzles in interviews. In other words, I think you get some significant number of false negatives.

What I like about Ken’s list is its variety. You can’t know what questions will help you get to know someone. Having a good long list of ideas for conversation topics in an interview is the best way to be able to get at someone’s qualifications and fit — provided that list is operated by someone who has done hundreds of interviews.

My most interesting interview answers in my last big recruiting round were to these questions:

1. I come into your office and say, “We need to compete with Microsoft. Please reimplement Windows this weekend,” and I turn to leave. It’s obvious to you I have no idea how big an assignment this is. What do you do?

2. I come into your office and give you an assignment, and ask for an estimate, which I accept. Halfway through the project you realize you’ve underestimated by a lot, and it will take three times as long as you told me. What do you do?

3. I come into your office and give you an assignment with a deadline that both you and I know is impossible, but I tell you our investors have demanded we meet the deadline or they will cut off our funding and the company will close. What do you do?

The interesting thing about these questions is that they bring out fear responses in different ways. In the first, fear of a bad manager; in the second, fear of making a mistake; and in the third, fear of external forces. A surprising number of people will start the answer to #1 with, “I’d go to Starbucks and buy some coffee, and then…” With #2, an amazing number will openly admit to their inclination to hide the error from me. With #3, a good number have said things like, “I’d walk out.” Of course, there are plenty of good responses, too. I think this kind of question isn’t one that people expect, too, and that helps get them off the script and into improvised answers.

By the way, I interviewed Ken some nine years ago, and gave him an offer, as I recall. He turned me down. :)

Josh Elman (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Greylock):

Ken, this sounds like a fun and exciting interview. If someone is concerned about the combination of logic challenges and product and leadership questions, then how can you be sure they could handle the challenges of product management. Is it possible that some of this is focused more on consumer product management vs. enterprise product management where the customer experience, skills, and needs may be a little different? (not sure since I haven’t been there)

As a fellow engineering mgr-turned product mgr, I appreciate the challenges you raised about being a PM. It’s one of the most difficult jobs to measure — not in lines of code, press releases, ad sales, etc. The hardest (and most exciting) part of the job is being responsible for answering and understanding the why… “Why do users need this?” “Why is this going to support the business?” “Why can’t we get this done faster?” “Why should it work *this* way?”

Hunter Walk (Google, YouTube, Homebrew):

Great post — thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a PM at Google I do lots of interviewing and many of your points ring true.

One question — I’ve always tried to understand the person in additional to the professional. Do you ask any questions that require the candidate to share experiences from their life outside of the workplace (academics, hobbies, etc), or do you believe that the questions you noted above already give you a well-rounded view to make a hiring decision?

I replied:

Hunter, I don’t have any specific questions geared at understanding the person beyond the professional, but it’s absolutely an essential element of the interview (maybe it’s rule #0?). Usually after an hour of conversation — including icebreaker chit-chat — I’ve gotten a fairly well-rounded impression. One of the great things about blogging (and about interviewing people who blog) is that it gives you a better view into the person you might be working with (or working for).

John Furrier (serial entrepreneur and tech writer):

I love the approach of looking to the heart for talent. I would add the following…when I look at a PM I think to myself and imagine this person running the show and think could this person run a company as a CEO or even GM. If the answer is close to yes they are hired…The best PMs that I’ve worked with have had amazing multi-talented skills that cut across all major disciplines and some grew up to run companies.

Ron Jeffries (co-founder of Extreme Programming — XP):

Ken’s comments are on the mark. Many years ago when I was hired by a startup as the first product manager in an intensely engineering driven culture, I later found out that the decision to hire me was controversial.

A senior s/w engineer who had the ear of the CEO (and founder) told the founder, “I am not sure what job he should have, just hire him.”

This guy years later told me “You were a PAIN IN THE ASS, but you were worth it.” That quote continues to delight me.

Originally Published: November 20, 2015

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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