Degrees of Ability: Hiring Into Product Management

By Jacques Murphy
October 22, 2007

What do you look for when you want to hire an ace product manager to champion your product and move forward relative to the competition?


Product Management is not a job for which people can go out and get a degree. You can get a degree in Computer Science that covers the knowledge you need in order to start out as a programmer. You can get a degree in Marketing that gives you the basic foundation to get started in Marketing or Advertising. But there is no college-level degree in Product Management, as far as I know.

This makes it a real challenge to find, evaluate, and hire good product managers. With so few objective external indicators, you have to define the product manager position very clearly and scrutinize candidates to see if they are a good match.

So what do you look for when you want to hire an ace product manager to champion your product and move forward relative to the competition? After some years doing Product Management and many more before that doing things that all relate to Product Management, I see the ideal candidate as having a combination of four critical elements.

The four factors

When looking for people who will make good product managers, I look for a combination of four factors, namely natural talent, artful skills, bitter experience, and hard work. All these things need to be in place to make for a solid performance.

1. Natural Talent is basic abilities that people seem to have possessed throughout their career or school years. It forms the foundation of what they can do and how well they do it.

2. Artful Skills are developed and consciously honed over time. These did not usually come naturally or automatically to someone, but over time the person has learned how to use them to good effect.

3. Bitter Experience is a real-world perspective that comes from past frustrations, limitations, and failures. Except for the unluckiest among us, it takes time to build this up.

4. Hard Work is the ability to put in a steady and sustained effort towards accomplishing a project or goal. Without it you do not get very far using the first three factors.

Natural talent

Natural talent forms the basis upon which the other factors can be built. So it is important to have a bedrock of natural talent that a product manager can draw on to be successful in the many and widely varied tasks that they will need to complete.

A person’s natural talent can vary widely in terms of what exact talent or talents they have. Here are some talents that are important for Product Management:

Marketing flair. The ability to makes things sound appealing to people who are likely to buy them. The ability to persuade and get people excited about ideas and projects.

Technical aptitude. The ability to understand complex technology, hardware, and software and figure out how all the pieces work together, not to mention potentially new ways for them to work together.

People sense. The ability to collaborate and communicate with people and motivate them to get things done and improve their efforts.

Analytical ability. The ability to see a situation, break it down into its component pieces, and understand how and why it works the way it does and how that could be changed.

Business sense. The ability to see how things and people can be built into an organization that makes money, and profitably.

Synthesizing ability. The ability to join seemingly different things together so that they create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is something that product managers need to do a lot, especially when it comes to joining the business and technical aspect of things.

A good question: Your goal in asking the question is to find out where a person’s natural talents lie and how those talents have been applied to improve Product Management. “Of all the types of things you do when you work (or study, if this is someone starting out their career), what is your favorite? Give some examples of how you have applied that in your jobs (or in school).”

Artful skills

Artful skills are not what comes to you naturally. They consist of the many necessary skills that round out your abilities at work. There are often lots of tips and tricks you have to pick up in order to learn to use them well. Frequently you start out wielding skills as a clumsy tool, and then become better at it over time.

For example, so much of the time Product Management is a balancing act between technical and business imperatives. The ability to balance two things that do not balance naturally takes lots of skill. You have to hone your communication skills and make use of many tricks of the trade to get the right mix between the business and the technical in order for your software product to succeed.

Another example: Using the psychology required to be a change agent requires lots of focus and skill. It is hard to be the person who is pushing comfortable people to go where they are not comfortable. To get organizations to change requires the ability to communicate, to inspire, to cajole, to push, to prod, and to uproot with grace, humility, and humor.

A third example is presentation skills. For some, these come naturally, but for others, you need to first learn the basics, then learn about and cleverly incorporate the hundred tricks and ideas that make a decent presentation great. Using your listeners’ names where appropriate, using your audience’s terminology to make the subject seem familiar and comfortable, bonding with everyone in the room, these are all skills that require both science and art to use successfully.

A good question: You want to hear about a skill that did not come naturally, and you want to hear how someone got more adept at it. “What is one of the skills that you feel you have developed over the years? What tips or tricks do you use? For that trick you just mentioned, when would you use it and when would you avoid it? Can it backfire?”

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About the Authors

  • Jacques Murphy tailors best practices in software product management to your company and products, creating competitive advantage through better product roadmaps, product requirements and product launches. Read more of his articles on this site or on or via email at

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