Hiring and Scaling Product Teams

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” – Phil Jackson, legendary basketball coach.

What is a product team? Depending on the organization you’re a part of, it can mean a diverse mix of cross-functional roles. These could include product manager(s), product owners, the development team, “business” (aka sales and marketing), support, operations and so on, led by visionary senior management.  

The role of each person in the team (except, perhaps, for the dev teams, which are Agile-driven nowadays) is defined slightly differently in different companies.

In their book “Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology”, authors Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro devote an entire chapter to how the role of the Product Manager varies in different tech companies: Google’s PMs are generalists who focus on strategy, analysis, and facilitation of the engineering team; Apple looks for people strong in Science and Math and who ‘live and breathe’ Apple products; Microsoft calls the facilitator between marketing and engineering teams the Program Manager – the company has one of the highest PM-to-developer ratios, per the authors.

It’s evident that the company culture and roots have a strong bearing on not just the composition, but also the entire hiring process when it comes to building and scaling teams. Veteran product leader Rich Mironov discussed this in great detail in a Meetup at Sydney, Australia earlier this year. His metric for a successful product team (which, in turn, releases successful products) is the number of conversational ‘hops’ (the number of people between a product team member and a user – if your user is a phone call away, your hop number is 0) between the product teams and the users. The larger this number, the lower the chances of success.

This is an important precept to keep in mind while hiring and scaling. When enterprises are on the fast track to success, it often becomes quite easy to slide into an org chart filled with multiple hierarchies and handoffs. The ‘clutter’ will not just make simple decision making a humongous chore, it can also choke the success of the very product.

Here’s an ideal org structure for product teams, as recommended by Mironov:

While hiring, it’s important to get some key roles right:

  • Start with the leadership. Strategic and visionary leadership is always the key enabler of success for product teams. An experienced leader who’s ‘been there and done that’ on product launches in a senior product management or engineering leadership capacity usually fits the bill.

Such leaders have been through the crests and troughs of product successes and failures; been ‘in the trenches’ talking to users about what works and what doesn’t; and chased lost customers just to find out what went wrong. These are leaders who have the deep domain expertise and experience to make key decisions at the right time to ensure progress.

Many-a-times, VPs of Product from Sales or Marketing backgrounds are very successful too, as a large part of this role is not just user and customer-centric, but also involves rallying internal teams around a common cause and moving them forward.

  • Take the time to find the right product managers. The product manager (or engineering program manager or program manager depending on your org) role is the lynchpin around whom great products are built. Ensure you find the right fit for the PM roles – a domain fit, empathy fit and company culture fit are essential prerequisites.

It is a misnomer to think all engineers make great product managers. In fact, as Himanshu Palsule, CTO/CPO of multinational Epicor outlines in this interview, it is a huge risk for product managers to have an engineering background. Their linear thinking may limit their outlook and ability to think outside the box, he says. Palsule looks for a mix of hard and soft skills to hire product managers. He recommends looking in quality or even support to source ‘accidental product managers’.

  • Hire juniors with cross-functional skills. As product teams scale, there will be a demand for more junior ‘aspiring’ PMs – called product analysts, associate product managers, business analysts or other names – who facilitate training, prepare senior leaders with the proper collateral and messaging, update databases with requirements gathered and create business use cases. Ensure these hires have extremely good communication skills besides core domain expertise. These are the product leaders of tomorrow – the PMs, Directors of Product and VPs –  who will learn to apply the proper user, business and technology contexts for success.

As the company grows, your product teams will evolve, as will the demands of their roles individually and as a team. Hire for the long term, scale with a plan and nurture your teams: this will ensure your company develops and delivers high-quality products that add value to a large customer base.

This blog is part of the Product Leaders Forum (PLF)’s thought leadership series on all things product. Attend our upcoming conference in Bangalore on Dec 14 and 15, 2018 to gain the perspectives of senior product leaders on this very topic, and others in the product space.

Written by:
Padmaja Narsipur
PLF Volunteer