David Cancel recently stirred up some controversy by arguing that when it comes to hiring Product Managers (tl;dr) “Experience doesn’t matter. Mindset and hunger do.” While I understand that this is his personal experience and not a hard and fast rule for everyone, I think some of the reasons he outlines are outdated and no longer hold true.
Experience is Valuable
Sure, we work in different industries, and there are differences between B2C, B2B, Enterprise, Software, Hardware, and Internet of Things. Some product managers are more technical, some are designers and some come from the business side. But one thing we learned very quickly when we started meeting other Product Managers at our meetups is that we are much more alike than we are different.
There are definitely a common set of patterns that we all face. Not in the products themselves, but in how you define the problem you’re solving, articulate that to the team, collaboratively design the best possible solution, motivate the team behind a shared vision, and deal with the scores of minute decisions that come up while you’re developing the product.
And this is what makes good product management an art, a craft, and a profession. Recognizing those patterns, knowing how best to tackle them, and delivering the best possible product in the most efficient way all comes from deep experience. From having faced them before and knowing good ways to overcome them, from having stepped on all the landmines and knowing the path out of a troubled process, team, or launch.
Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. – Oscar Wilde
Of course you can learn these patterns in theory, but only experience will teach you how best to apply them, and only experience will help you when things go wrong or don’t fit the theory.
This is a craft that is hard to learn and even harder to master.
Diversity of Experience is Even More Valuable
Even more valuable is building up a team with a wide diversity of experience. A good product team needs a mix of design, tech, and business, a mix of genders and backgrounds, a mix of industry experience and product management experience, and a mix of skills from the visionary to the detail oriented, from the data hungry to the user research fanatics.
This level of diversity is not just the best chance you have of representing your audience, but also ensures you’re always bringing the best experience to bear on any product challenge you face.
If you’re just hiring one product manager this is obviously hard. It means looking at the rest of the company to make sure their skillset complements what you already have, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore product management experience at the core.
Experience is an Attitude Multiplier
Finally, of course our best teammates are those who have the right attitude, a hunger to learn, and a passion for product. It’s just that when you match that attitude up with the right level of product management experience, the result is many multiples better than either on their own.
There’s a reason the serenity prayer rings true – only experience can “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Mindset is only one part of the equation. Now that product management is a craft, experience matters. A lot.