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Interview with Minh Phan: How to hire a great product manager

With about 10 years of product management experience, Minh Phan is currently the Director of Product Management at Seagate for their Cloud Backup Services. Prior to Seagate, he was at Symantec working on solutions that enabled secure mobility and collaboration. In my chat with Minh, we talked about his personal process when it comes to hiring.

Helen: When you hire, do you look for specific attributes? Or do you think there are certain attributes that will make a product manager successful?

Minh: The hiring process starts with a determination of the strategy. Strategy dictates the organizational structure needed to support it. If you

hire before there’s clarity on the strategy, you might end up hiring someone to manage a product line that may go away later. So you have to develop a strategy first, then project what you are going to do with these products - whether you're going to invest, consolidate, or move into new areas. Asides from product, you may need to bring in different skill sets depending on what is needed to move the business forward. For example, the skill sets required to support the development of a new mobile app versus driving a new go to market strategy are very different.

I see product managers with a wide range of experiences, some with engineering backgrounds, some more business oriented. Specific skill requirements depend on the needs that come out of the strategy, but PM’s tend to either be good at outbound or inbound. The one attribute that cuts across all successful PM is their ability to take 360 degree ownership over their area, whether it’s a single feature, product, or lines of business. And from the sense of ownership comes the leadership, initiative, resourcefulness needed to drive to a conclusion anything that blocks a successful launch.

Helen: Great point. It seems to me that a lot of your experience is in B2B enterprise. Now, I assume that a product built specifically for SMBs has different requirements than one that is built for the Enterprises. Do you think it’s important to hire someone with domain and market segment experience?

Minh: Ideally you find someone who has domain expertise with an understanding of the product, industry, competitors, and customers. Perfect matches are hard to come by. Of all the skill areas, domain expertise on the product is the easiest to learn. After all, you can have someone give you a demo on the product; you can read all the documentation associated with the product; There are industry reports like Gartner and IDC. You can get a good baseline knowledge within a couple weeks. The part that takes the longest is experience with the target customer segment.

It is more helpful to have new product managers come to the table having experience providing products or services to the same customer base. For enterprise IT, I would look for someone who is familiar with job roles and responsibilities in enterprise IT, the problems they’re solving, and how they make purchasing decisions. I think having that understanding is actually much more important than having domain expertise of the product itself. I am also less attached to product expertise because things can change quickly and product managers need to be highly adaptable as markets and problems change.

The other aspect is the sort of trust and ambition the person has. If you can't trust the person to come through and do the work for you, that's going to be difficult. I also want to make sure this person’s ambition aligns well with the role and team. No matter what the scope is, it is critical for product managers to have a sense of ownership and responsibility over their area.

Helen: Now, imagine someone reading this article is a first time hiring manager for her product team, and they don't have the internal infrastructure to provide them support. What advice do you have for that person in terms of what to look out for, and what questions to ask?

Minh: Take every opportunity to practice interviewing. Hiring managers are not the only ones doing the interview. So even if you’re not in a position to hire, you could start by volunteering to be in the interviewing loop. You can learn a lot by sharing notes and feedback with the rest of your team and the hiring manager as you help evaluate candidates

You can also gain interviewing experience outside the workplace. For example, I’ve volunteered to interview MBA candidates for the University of Michigan. I also work with a nonprofit called Upwardly Global that needs support with mock interviews for skilled immigrants who need help rebuilding their careers in the US.

As far as questions, I prefer ones that are scenario-based, questions that start with "Tell me about a time you had to...” That way you’re able to incorporate real proof points based on the candidates’ history.

In terms of building trust, I like to know about their failures, how honest they are about them, and their level of awareness in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. I also think about their ability to own things. As a product manager, you need to own the results. Whether that result is a complete product line or a subset of a feature, you are owning the result of something. You're being tasked to solve a very specific problem. Are you going to own that problem end to end? And can you work independently? Can you be resourceful?

Helen: What have you struggled with the most?

Minh: I’ve struggled with finding great candidates within a short time. When you have a req, you want to try and fill it with-in a quarter or two. Budgetary conditions can change quickly and I have lost reqs because I didn’t fill them fast enough. At the same time, you have to balance that with the fact that it is really costly to hire the wrong talent. HR will help with sourcing but it’s important for new hiring managers to understand that they need to be out there networking as well.

Helen: My last question is: Before you hire someone, you will develop a strategy, making sure that this product is going to be around for a long time. Imagine that you make the case, and it makes the business sense to hire a full-time person to roll this out. But internally, people somehow they don’t see your vision, or maybe they think a part-time person will do just fine. What advice do you have for people who have that problem? How should they influence internal stakeholders to your vision?

Minh: The hiring decision is actually less of a buy-in decision. Because when you say buy-in, I assume it's working with your colleagues, people at equal level or someone who works cross-functionally. It is more of an executive investment decision. The business case you have to make to management is on your strategy. If they agree on your strategy, you also need to let them know what investments, including headcount, are needed to support the strategy.

Helen: That’s very helpful, Minh. If we have new product management leaders who need some advice from you, can they reach out to you on LinkedIn?

Minh: Yes absolutely.

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