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Hiring and building a product ops team

 

The product ops topic is gaining traction in the product management community. More and more product leaders are now considering creating product ops in their organisations. In this post, I'd like to offer some food for thought to anyone who looks to hire and build their product ops. 

Mind the gap

First of all, there is a difference between hiring product managers and product ops people. You need to look at diverse profiles and ask other interview questions.

Secondly, at least one of your product ops roles will require substantial product experience. A product ops team cannot be fully staffed with junior people.  

Thirdly, you need people with a servant leadership style who have intrinsic motivation to help others shine rather than pursue personal achievements. 

Product ops profiles

Team size

The size of your product ops team will depend on the scope of your organisation. I am not sure there is a scientific ratio between the size of the product team and the product ops. What is known from analyzing thousands of product ops profiles is that companies of any size might benefit from having product ops. Even startups, those that want to grow effectively, need to consider product ops from the early days. Up to giants that need product ops to ensure the standards of quality and user value their teams produce. 

Key hire

At least one person on your product ops team should be a senior PM with extensive and wide experience. The research into thousand of product ops professionals found that the average tenure they had as PM was 7.9 years. Numerous people who switch to product ops previously held senior, lead or even C-level titles. 

A good candidate for the key product ops role will have years of practical product management experience under their belt. They might be product leaders in the past or individual contributors with a passion to help others get better at product management craft. As far as their background is concerned, like with core product management, people in modern product ops might have previous experience in operations, project management, business analysis, data science... and so on. However, their hands-on experience building and launching products will be essential to their success in the product ops role. 

Team composition

Besides one or several key hires, a product ops team might include a number of junior positions. Data scientists, business analysts and project managers are especially suited for the roles on a product ops team. Depending on the size of your organisation, product ops will be either busy or extremely busy. There are tons of work around processes, tools, data, product discovery and delivery. Any PM would tell you how valuable to have someone who could help with scheduling product interviews, creating a reporting dashboard or compiling status updates. All these are valuable activities that could eat a lot of time and distract a PM from their main activity - bringing value to their customers and companies. 

Good product ops candidates 

For key hires you need people with hands-on product management experience and strong soft skills such as communication, evangelising, negotiation and so on. 
Depending on their past experience and motivation a product ops role might have a different appeal. 
Seasoned individual contributors might find it interesting to try their ways of working for a bigger product org. To succeed they will need to demonstrate their knowledge and convince their peers. Aspects of team management could be additionally appealing to individual contributors taking on a product ops role. 

For someone who has been a product leader before - switching to product ops might mean increasing their influence and getting more exposure. They could have been leaders for one product, but on a product ops team, they will likely be involved more broadly and therefore will be able to take a more prominent part in the overall organisational success. 

For more junior hires, a role on a product ops team might mean hyperfast learning. If they want to get into product management, the exposure to multiple teams, tools, data and best practices will be hugely beneficial for their professional development. 

With experience on a product ops team, professionals could then decide where they want to go next. Continue with the operations side or switch to core product management. 

Interviewing for product ops roles

What to look for

For senior hires, you need to look for core product management competencies, but also for experience mentoring peers and leading cross-functional initiatives. 
The ideal candidate will have: 
  • 7+ years of product management experience in several, differently sized organisations in multiple industries 
  • A growth mindset and lifelong learning attitude
  • A servant leadership approach and great communication skills
For junior hires, you need to look for a motivated individual that wants to learn how product teams work. 
The ideal candidate will have: 
  • A few years of experience in a relevant field: product management, business analysis, data science, project management, operations, account management, engineering, quality assurance or design. 
  • A keen learner with an open mind
  • A team player

Questions to ask

Here are some of the questions you might ask while interviewing for a product ops role:
  • Remember the last time you suggested a tool or a methodology for your team to try? How did it go?
  • Remember the last time you found insight in data? How did it happen? What did you do? How did it affect your organisation?  
  • Remember the last time a product release went wrong. What happened and what was your part in it? How did you improve next time?
  • How did you set product goals? What worked and what didn't in your approach? 
  • How do you work when your product team is in different locations, speaks different languages, or prefers different ways of working? 
  • Remember the last time you or someone on your team had a conflict with another person in your organisation. How did you resolve it? 
  • Describe one of the experiments you did. What were you trying to learn and how did it go? 

Hiring internally vs externally 

Hiring product people is hard. Hiring product ops people is even harder. Hence many companies first look internally when they want to create product ops in their organisation. Internal hires have many benefits for product ops roles. They already know how your org is working, they know history, what you've tried, what worked and what didn't. They know people inside the org, and their relationships are established. The hiring process for these folks could be easy and straightforward. You can even set up a trial for them and if the outcomes are not to your satisfaction, they can return to their previous roles if they want to. 

However, hiring internally has its downsides as well. Probably the most crucial one is the lack of new experience and knowledge that you would normally get from an external hire. People who spent a significant time in one place are prone to the "we always did things this way" type of thinking. And that's the worst mindset you can ever have. Additionally, internal hires moving to product ops, especially if that's a promotion, might find it hard to change the perception of their peers and re-build the relationships formed in their previous role. 

External hires to product ops will also have challenges. Among them is a learning curve anyone, but especially product ops people will have joining a new organisation. They will need to quickly gain the respect of their peers and build strong interpersonal connections with a wide group of co-workers to make an impact. External product ops hires will need time to adapt to a new environment before the organisation can feel the effects of their work. 

Summary

Hiring and building a product ops team is a challenge to any product leader. You need to clearly understand the difference between product management and product ops. Your new product ops team should include at least one senior professional with extensive experience in product management across different companies, industries and ways of working. 

The junior hires on product ops could be hired based on attitude rather than hard skills. For all types of hires - a growth mindset and continuous learning are essential for success. 

You can hire both internally and externally for product ops. Both have advantages and challenges. Once committed, give your product ops enough time to settle and build the needed relationships before you judge their effectiveness. 

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