Friday 20 January 2023

Hiring Product Roles and Looking for Unicorns

I have recently found myself with an interesting insight into the software product talent market, both from the position of an employer looking for talent and in my own search for a next opportunity. I've interviewed a lot of product candidates and also read a wealth of job adverts. What is apparent to me from engaging with this process from both sides is that, in the UK at least, there is a huge disparity between the capabilities and experience expected in product hires by the recruiting companies and the experience available in the market.

A difficult role to hire for

Finding product people is hard. I've been hiring product roles on and off for 7 years now and it hasn't got any easier in that time to find capable people.

The reason for this I believe is that product roles have a unique set of characteristics that make them particularly hard both to hire for and for people to deliver

  • They are hugely responsible - product roles are key decision makers in technology development and carry a huge weight of responsibility on them to steer team and product direction and prioritise the right things.
  • Product role autonomy varies massively between companies - one organization's idea of a product owner will be little more than a user story administrator processing features dictated to them by the leadership team. Another's will be a mini CEO with complete autonomy over direction of a product as long as strategic outcomes are achieved.
  • Applicable skills vary hugely between contexts - The relevant approaches for success in a B2C product context will be very different from an enterprise B2B product company. Methods for discovery, measurement and validation differ widely depending on the scale and nature of the customer relationship.
  • They require a wide variety of both soft and hard skills - from technical and data familiarity through customer communications, stakeholder management and process management to marketing and commercial acumen, few roles can boast quite such a range of capabilities needed to do them effectively than product owners and managers.

These novel traits make the process of moving individuals between product roles in different companies a risky and error prone business.

We want certainty of success

At the same time, the increased focus in recent years on senior product roles across organisations leads to high demands in hiring companies. Many operate with the expectation that individuals exist not only with the extensive list of skills referenced above, but also with a history of working in multiple successful startups.

Here are a few examples of product job ads I've seen recently

  • "Demonstrable ability to build and scale a Product organisation in a high-growth startup or scaleup setting."
  • "... previous experience building a world-class product function from scratch utilizing their network and other external resources"
  • "You have worked at the highest product level at a large successful startup, where you have been successful and now want to translate somewhere new"

All of these and similar phrases translate to the same thing

"We want to guarantee success by finding someone who has worked in a unicorn startup before and can apply the same magic here"

But is this realistic? I can understand the desire for certainty here, but there are good reasons why finding product people who have previously taken a new product through high growth is a blinkered strategy.

  • Great market fit is a springboard for success

    If the core product concept is strong enough from the founders then success will have momentum behind it for anyone stepping in. Putting equally capable individuals into companies with stronger or weaker product offerings will yield very different outcomes and just because someone has been successful with a great product concept doesn't guarantee that they'll be able to do the same with yours.

  • Luck also plays a huge part

    With 60% of new businesses failing within their first three years ( yet only 8% of start-up failures attributed to poor product ( there are a lot of potentially good product people out there who haven't been lucky enough to enjoy scaleup success through no fault of their own. I've spoken to some great product managers whose companies failed to grow for reasons they had no influence over - they were just unlucky.

  • Success opens up new opportunities

    Those that have successfully worked in a start-up through to exit may not want or need to again - the product people that I know that have seen products through high growth to successful IPO or acquisition found themselves in a very different position as a result, both in terms of personal finances and reputation. Consulting, training, non-exec positions, writing a book or simply not working can suddenly become available options that may be more attractive than starting back on the first rung as product manager in another company.

The net result

I’ve been in the software industry for a long time and haven’t met that many people at any level with the range of skills expected in most senior product adverts, let alone those working in Product roles. Add further constraints of having driven a successful start-up to exit, and still wanting to stay in a full time product role, and you really are hunting for unicorns.

It's not necessarily a bad strategy to 'ask for the moon' and see what you get, but I believe there are risks. At best I fear that this kind of approach excludes capable candidates - such as those who have worked in more mature businesses or the majority of startups that didn't hit the big time. At worst it drives a talent market that favours those who pursue short term quantifiable wins to grow their personal profile over addressing the important but unglamorous needs that are vital to build long term company success.

Image: Wikimedia commons public domain

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