Mick Lock, Head of Product at The Chemistry Group, considers whether companies like Google are excluding valuable talent by applying blanket rules to the recruitment of product managers. Blanket rules may be effective in managing the sheer number of applications, but do they also limit the potential of individuals – and the future potential of the business itself?
I’m a digital product manager. I don’t have a degree in computer science, I’ve never been a developer and I can only write rudimentary code.
Google wouldn’t hire me. I don’t pass their rule of having to have a computer science degree to be a Google product manager.
Maybe they’re right not to. They’d be right not to if my lack of technology background were a predictor that my behaviours wouldn’t be right for them. That my behaviours wouldn’t match what is needed for somebody to be successful in the role of a product manager at Google.
But this rule has always bothered me, if I’m honest. Not because I can never get a job at Google, but because, as other companies have tried to emulate the success of Google and digital businesses in general, this rule has come to be used quite widely. And that excludes potential talent.
Some historical context.
As technology businesses realised that developers weren’t the best people to decide what to build, the role of digital product manager emerged.
Technology has therefore been the catalyst for the role of digital product management to develop, and the role has historically been filled mostly by people from technology.
People who made the transition to product were the ones who displayed certain behaviours appropriate to deciding what to build rather than how to build it. Behaviours which led them to want to understand the needs of people, to want to experiment with options and not to be bound by current ways of thinking or doing — to be curious.
The key ingredient isn’t technology.
The key ingredient of a good digital product manager isn’t a skill in technology. The key ingredients are behaviours like curiosity, and collaborative behaviours which enable them to work with and align the inputs and requirements of technology, user experience design and business management. These behaviours, and the values and motivations that drive them, are far more commonly available than just the universe of people who are highly qualified in technology.
So why might Google insist on it?
It’s possible that the insistence on a high-grade technology qualification to be a product manager at Google has little to do with digital product management per se, but more to do with the context of Google’s industry. They’re a pure-play technology business. Maybe being qualified in technology gives you the credibility and the understanding of that market needed to be the API across teams of tech, user experience and business management in that sector? But if that’s true then that’s one very good reason not to apply the same rule in all contexts — across all sectors and across the many other types of businesses.
I often hear that the reason digital product managers should have a background in technology is for them to have ‘credibility with development teams’. I’m sure it does help your credibility with developers – at least instant credibility. Maybe when working in a product owner role, prioritising the work as part of an agile delivery team, you are close enough on a day-to-day basis to the developers that credibility in the technology sphere is more important than credibility in design, user experience and business. But when performing the product strategy and discovery roles of product management, is it right to prioritise credibility, competence and a background in technology above user experience and business?
I have been involved in technology-focused cultures and teams where that focus has led to poorer execution of product discovery: understanding users, the drive to understand real problems and the continual experimentation with creative solutions (especially experiments not involving code) were suppressed. Developers and product managers from technology had little patience for deep generative research efforts and experiments that didn’t mean building something right away.
Maybe Google only use their rule because it radically reduces the number of people they have to interview? I’m pretty sure Google are spoilt for choice for product managers. Maybe insisting on a computer science degree is an effective way of keeping choice down to a manageable number? But that’s another good reason for the rest of us to apply the rule with caution — we usually don’t have the same luxury.
I’m not arguing against lean digital practices that technologists have championed. For example the need to build things quickly and to try small things for real — you will only really know if something will work when you try the smallest viable something for real. Building something gives you concrete lessons to match a product to market. But that is an example where we take sound practice and misapply it by leaning too much towards technology and not enough into design. Here’s what I mean: the lessons learned from a functioning minimum version of a product come from the starting point of that minimum. If you go too early in building that, then you narrow the breadth of your discovery because your efforts naturally focus there. That then increases the risk that you’re wrong. That you’re wrong on the needs that your users care about or that you’ve chosen the wrong solution as your starting point for your minimum product.
And so I would argue that you need product managers who can lean into any of the three areas of technology, user experience and business management equally as they need to and depending on the context of the business you are in and the problems you are addressing. If your business need is to find unmet user needs and to experiment broadly with many possible solution directions, if you don’t know the type of product solution you want to try in market, then you should prioritise the inputs and needs of design approaches above technology. In that case product managers with a background in design thinking may be better aligned to your needs. But more than anything, you will always need product people with the levels of fluid intelligence and collaborative behaviour required to gather, assess and synthesise options and evidence from all three domains.
Building an echo chamber and limiting options.
I don’t know Google’s business that well. They are doing rather well, and so the computer science rule probably works well for them. But unless your company is very similar in market and culture, I think you should think carefully about using it, or indeed any other blanket rule for recruiting product managers. I know it will exclude valuable talent. My worry is that it will also limit the product opportunities and solutions you consider, and that’s the source of the future potential of your business, or even if it will have a future at all.
Maybe emphasising technology as a background for product managers introduces a consistent type of bias in the types of opportunities and solutions Google consider. Maybe this has contributed to the reported problems of the likes of Google and Facebook becoming echo chambers which have helped polarise politics towards the left and the right. Maybe Google should be insisting product managers have a major in philosophy?