Last October I took part in Digital Wave, a conference in Bournemouth that brings together over 1,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 19 to learn about the opportunities offered by a career in the technology sector.
I attended the conference to represent product.careers, a project I launched last year to raise awareness of Product Management as a career path, with a particular focus on undergraduates and graduates. I started the project in response to challenges I had recruiting entry-level product managers for Crowdcube. It had become clear to me that there is little awareness of Product Management as a role among students in the UK.
It was inspiring to speak to so many young people at Digital Wave for whom Product Management resonated as a career option – once they understood it. This has also been my experience when visiting universities to speak to students about Product Management over the last year. Many graduates are keen to work in a startup or technology company, but are not aware of the existence of the Product Manager role, and that it is ideally suited to them.
Graduates Need Opportunities
However raising awareness among students is just one half of the challenge. In order to build a strong pipeline of up-and-coming Product Managers, it’s equally important that there are employment opportunities available to them.
Large technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, all offer graduate recruitment and training programmes for Product Managers, but their annual intake is small, and mostly outside the UK. As a result, most Product Managers move into the role part way through their career. They either discover the role by working alongside Product Managers within a company and pursue a career change, or are courted by existing Product Managers who recognise their potential.
Consequently the majority of technology companies are not in the habit of offering graduate-level positions, or recognising the student community as a potential source of new Product Managers. This also leads to a lack of placement and internship opportunities for undergraduates.
The Benefits of Hiring Graduates
I worked alongside graduates who were part of Google’s Associate Product Manager programme for many years, and was consistently impressed by their passion and productivity. This perception has only been reinforced since I started introducing graduates into my own team, which has delivered a number of benefits:
Young people have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and have grown up with technology woven through their lives. They have a healthy disrespect for the impossible, and are looking to make a positive impact on the world.
Graduates have not yet put down roots, and are open to roles around the country, which increases the size and diversity of your pool of qualified candidates. Young people also increase the age diversity of your team, offering new perspectives on technology trends.
Salary expectations for an entry-level role are significantly lower than for an experienced candidate. For a startup keeping a tight rein on its burn rate, well mentored graduates can be a very cost-effective way of building a highly effective product team.
Graduate-level Product Managers start out as a blank canvas, and will need mentoring to develop into a great Product Manager. As the hiring manager, this requires you to keep your skills and knowledge up to date, so that you can train them in current best practices. In larger organisations, graduates also provide mentoring opportunities for your existing team.
Graduates are an Investment
It is important to understand that hiring graduates is not just cheap labour. It’s a commitment and a responsibility. You are sculpting this person’s career, and the value you extract from them in the long term will be a direct reflection of the effort you put into training and mentoring them. Hiring graduates is an investment that can reap significant rewards over time, but you must be willing to dedicate the time and energy needed to coach them, and help them establish themselves as a Product Manager.
For example, we ensure that all new graduate Product Managers in the team attend an introductory course, such as the Product Management Essentials workshop run by Mind the Product. We set them a small introductory project that is low risk, and pair them with an experienced developer who can coach them on working with software engineers. We provide training in areas not covered by their academic background, such as technical skills, problem solving, or public speaking, and we encourage them to participate in community events such as ProductCamp, or in public hackathons.
Choosing the Right Graduates
As with recruiting into any Product Manager role, it’s important that you choose carefully when filling a graduate position. Graduates may not have a track record of product delivery, are less likely to offer references from previous employers, and will be unfamiliar with the “language” of Product Managers such as KPIs, OKRs, and Sprints. You must therefore focus your hiring process on selecting the candidates who most strongly demonstrate the character traits of a successful Product Manager.
They must be intelligent, positive, self motivated, a good communicator, and have the humility to listen and learn. It’s not necessary to limit yourself to recruiting from technical degrees, but you do need people who are passionate about technology, and recognise its potential as a force for good. Students now live their lives – both social and academic – online, so set them exercises to critique one or two apps and services they use, discuss opportunities for new products, and debate the impact that up-and-coming technology will have on our lives.
Often the most promising students are those who have demonstrated leadership, initiative, or entrepreneurship. They may have managed a student society, edited a student newspaper, started a company, built an app, participated in a startup weekend, mentored other students, or performed charity work.
Strengthen Your Team and the Ecosystem
If you’re looking to grow your team, I highly recommend that you consider offering one or more graduate positions. By offering Product Management roles to graduates and mentoring those you recruit, you’re not just building a stronger and more diverse team. You’re also contributing to the health of the technology ecosystem, and paving the way for the next generation of product visionaries.
If you’re not in a position to recruit right now, but would like to help raise awareness of Product Management among graduates, please get in touch. Introductions to contacts at UK university societies, careers services, and academic departments are particularly valuable. Plus I’m always looking for Product Managers willing to contribute to our growing library of video interviews, and inspire young people to explore Product Management for themselves.