Unicorns, Purple Squirrels, and T-Shaped Product Managers

Published Apr 3, 2018

When applying for my first job, still in college, I had listed on my résumé a class that was scheduled for my last semester, but then it got canceled. Meanwhile, the résumé made its way to an HR person who was scanning for a specific keyword that was in the class title—and I was a match. In the interview, I sheepishly explained that I hadn’t taken the class and the hiring manager said, “No problem. We’ll teach you what you need to know.” And he hired me.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I find myself frequently speaking with managers who say they can’t find any good candidates for the product management roles they’re hiring for. I also talk frequently with candidates who are seeking those jobs; they’re being told they’re under-qualified because they don’t have technology ‘x’ or domain ‘y.’ And the ones who do have the expertise are told they’re overqualified.

And just to throw recruiters under the bus, all they seem to be doing is keyword matching. The hiring manager calls out the qualifications for their ideal product manager and then recruiters try to find resumes that match those keywords.

No wonder matching companies and product managers is such a mess.

Unicorns and Purple Squirrels

Hiring managers ask me: “do you know anyone with this skill set in the area?” They are looking for the ideal candidate who can be productive immediately with no training and who already lives in the right city.

They’re looking for a unicorn. The perfect candidate.

But actually, they’re not. They’re really looking for a purple squirrel. The perfect candidate,  who will also work for peanuts.

Don’t hire unicorns or squirrels. Hire “T-shaped” product managers.

T-shaped people

Imagine that you can only know five things. You might choose to know a little bit about five topics or you might prefer to know everything about one topic.

Many developers, engineers, and scientists are I-shaped. They have deep knowledge of a single subject. They’re most comfortable when they’re discussing their area of interest and have little to contribute outside of their specialty. They may not know which teams are in the Final Four (or even what the “Final Four” means) but they can explain in detail the various Star Trek universes and which characters are in which universes. Technical people tend to be I-shaped.

Sales and marketing people are often hyphen-shaped. They can chat about almost anything but aren’t able to go into any one subject very deeply. They know about Star Trek but aren’t sure if Picard was in TOS or TNG. (Answer: Picard was in ST:TNG.)

The best product managers are T-shaped. They have general knowledge on myriad topics, like the “full stack product manager” described in a piece published here just yesterday. But I’d argue that beyond that general knowledge, they should be able to go deep on one subject—not as deep as an I-shaped developer but deeper than a hyphen-shaped sales rep.

Organizing your team for expertise

So how should hiring managers build a team? You’re not looking for a bunch of unicorns; you’re looking to create a team of T-shaped experts. All have general knowledge but some will have expertise in business planning, some in products and technology, and some will have deep expertise in the markets you serve.

In particular, think about the four types of product management expertise: business, technology, market, and domain. You should have at least one person on staff with expertise in business planning and the discipline of product management. For each product, you’ll want someone who can engage in technical discussions about the product and its use in real customer scenarios. And for each market, you’ll want a market expert.

For example, a medical technology firm selling its products in US and Asia will need a market expert in the industry of medical technology as well as a local expert for each of the targeted geographic areas.

The good news is, most product managers have knowledge in multiple areas—typically some product expertise as well as either domain or market.

Start thinking about building a team of experts. It’s hard to build a team made up of purple squirrels.