When should you hire a product manager?

They’re out there but you may have to look for them…

They’re out there but you may have to look for them…

Yesterday I came across an article Europe’s Product Management Problem that seemed very on point. It contrasts how comparatively few European software companies hire product managers (or seem to value their skillset) compared to Silicon Valley.

I'm not sure there is a standard definition of the "Product Manager" role but here's how I'd describe it: Firstly the product manager is the custodian of customer & problem domain knowledge, assumptions and evidence. Secondly, they challenge the development function to ensure that everything that gets built is contributing to a goal of the organisation (i.e. it solves a valuable problem for customers).

Assuming you agree that this is valuable, you might be asking "When should I hire one?"

Before answering that question, it's worth discussing the alternative, to ensure that we are on-board with why we should hire a good product manager.

In early-stage businesses, the temptation is for the CEO to perform the product management role, although they rarely formally assume the position. They often have the best product domain knowledge available and care most about the success of the product. It seems like they can do it, and it saves money for other hires, so it looks like a natural enough decision.

In most cases, it will turn out to be a mistake. While the CEO technically may be able to perform the role to some degree, they also have a million other things they feel they should do. Most of these things are going to seem more important to them. So managing the product gets short-changed, risking the development team ending up responsible, day-to-day, for production direction — not a good thing.

It also turns out that product management (the tools and techniques to design the right product) are things you have to learn and experience to do well. Most CEO's even were they to prioritise the time, don't have those skills or experience. "Doing" product management without the right skills or a grasp of software development born of many battles leaves a CEO prone to making choices detrimental to the long-term success of their product.

In short, this is not a role that can, or should, be "fudged".

So having decided that investing in a product manager is worthwhile, we go back to the original question of when you should hire one.

The answer is quite simple, although you might not like it. You need to hire your product manager about the same time, or even a little before, you hire your developers.

Hiring a product manager at the beginning of the journey improves the chance of making important decisions based on sound evidence and robust processes.

Hiring a product manager at the beginning of the journey demonstrates that you believe it's better to build a scrappy 1.0 of the "right" product than any number of gold-plated wrong products.

Hiring a product manager at the beginning of the journey means someone is guiding the development team towards customer pain and holding it accountable for delivering business value.

Hiring a product manager at the beginning of the journey avoids paying compound interest on poor early product decisions.

Get this right, and it will pay for itself many times over.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash