Product Gym: Justin, here at Product Gym we hear from our students and instructors all the time that Product Management is very different in every company, even on different teams within the same company. What are your thoughts?
Justin Belmont: Absolutely. Even within a company, the role of a Product Manager can be quite different from one team to the next. Over the past year at Spotify, my role here has actually changed quite a bit as initiatives have changed. So the role of a Product Manager changes as your the desired outcomes and goals change. With heavy operational roles like building new internal tools, for example, you spend a lot of time understanding how the systems work together, meeting with the internal constituents involved, etc. Likewise, if you’re launching something more B2B where the user base is smaller, you’re likely working with the sales team and doing external user research versus when you’re launching something to consumers at scale, you are spending your time A/B testing and iterating based on learnings from the data. So the teams are organized differently depending on the outcomes they’re trying to achieve and as a result of that, the day to day of Product Managers really can vary quite a bit. All of that variability makes it hard to hire Good Product Managers. When I interview, I tend to look for people who have solved complex problems at previous companies — people who have proven that they’ve done it before and can do it again.
Product Gym: How did you like being a Product Management Instructor?
Justin Belmont: Yeah, that was a lot of fun! I worked as a coach in Product Management Studio at UC Berkeley, coaching a team of 10 early-to-mid career Product Managers. It was part career coaching and part helping them through the material of the course.
Product Gym: Did you see anyone make the transition from a non-Product Manager / non-tech background into Product Management?
Justin Belmont: Yes definitely! Even in that group, there were a couple that was well on their path through Product Management.
Product Gym: What do you think were the characteristics that separated them from the rest of the pack?
Justin Belmont: For aspiring Product Managers, getting visibility into how tech products are actually built is really important. If they haven’t already experienced that directly in their role, then they are the ones who are really curious about how product development works and quickly grasp how to iterate towards product-market fit. In general, people who have successfully transitioned over to Product Managers are people who are super curious about solving problems for users.
Product Gym: Nice. I’d like to get to know a little bit more about you – do you interview for Product Managers?
Justin Belmont: I do.
Product Gym: What do you feel are your challenges in hiring somebody?
Justin Belmont: Well, I actually have pretty clear criteria of what to look for in each level of Product Manager — which gets tested through a series of interviews. In each of the interviews we do with candidates, we’re testing for a specific competency. For example, we look to see how you work with different tech stakeholders, see if you understand where the role of a Product Manager starts and stops, what a tech lead does and where the roles overlap. The design is the same. For me, from a Product Manager perspective… do you understand how agile Product Management works, have you gone through multiple cycles where you’ve seen products from conception to launch and tweaking them over time. How you think about success metrics; we want to make sure the Product Managers are always measuring their outcomes. Things like that.
Product Gym: Got it. What would really impress you?
Justin Belmont: Things that tend to get people hired is having thorough understanding of all of those things and on top of that, having demonstrated passion and real excitement about solving big problems. We all work quite hard so you need that passion to get through it. Humility is also super important as a Product Manager; you always have to be looking at data to lead your decisions and be willing to be proven wrong all the time so that you can get the best outcome for the business. So it’s important that during the interview, they show that they understand they might not know the answers right away but know how to develop a plan for getting them.
Product Gym: How do you decide what questions to ask?
Justin Belmont: We have a rotating list of standard questions that we use to kick things off, then we go deeper depending on their responses, finding opportunities to ask more questions to get to the depth of understanding.
Product Gym: How do you overcome challenges or times you would get stuck on a roadmap? Do you ever question if the route you’re taking is the right direction towards the larger goal?
Justin Belmont: Sure. We are consistently aligning the work back to the goals of the business. At least quarterly we set our OKRs (Objectives & Key Results), so that’s a good time to do a more thorough check-in… but part of the role as a Product Manager is to consistently ensure that the things in the backlog are of the highest value to the company.
About Justin Belmont:
Justin is a technology product leader with a demonstrated history of guiding agile teams at scale. His experience includes raising multimillion-dollar funding and selling a company. Prior to his current role as Senior Product Manager at Spotify, Justin was Senior Product Manager at Zocdoc.
Justin has a B.A. from Swarthmore College and an M.B.A. from Columbia University. He’s also a graduate of Flatiron School’s Software Engineering Immersive.