Product Manager Hiring at a European Deep Tech Startup

Hiring Product Managers for Deep Tech

I was catching up with a peer earlier this week and towards the end of our call, they threw out an interesting question - if you were hiring a product manager (PM) for our team right now, what profile would you hire?

For context, the startup they worked for was a european deep tech startup. Their current team size is around 15, with 5-7 members of that team in engineering. They’re well funded (2 years of runway) and (major) VC backed. The founding team of CEO and CTO have a strong background in the technology they were using - they’re confident in what they are doing and they’ve been attacking the problem for a couple of years since founding.

The question was framed as - could we short circuit the problem and hire someone with a strong PM background and then teach them the domain, or should we wait for the right candidate to come along who has knowledge of the domain already?

This is tricky, so I’m not sure I got this right (is there a right answer?) but let’s try and break down a response and also look at how we could assess or develop some of these skills.

Do you need to hire at all?

The team was on the cusp of scaling out. The CTO wants to stay technical and hands on, the runway is fairly long based on the current cost base and they’ve been shipping well. The founding team have a clear vision and the expertise they need to execute on that vision. They had a strong, experienced and close knit engineering team (no skills gaps to fill) and they’ve done well so far. Why hire at all?

As you scale up there are obvious organisational and communication downsides of having to manage and coordinate more people. Your focus can slip. Hiring itself is very time consuming, especially if you are enforcing a high technical or expertise bar and you have a low risk appetite as the hire is critical. This means it’s valid to query do we really need to scale up now and at this speed? What’s the opportunity cost on my time? If I make this hire, does that also imply I need to scale out my engineering team so I can staff a squad? How long will it take until the new team is productive? How much of time and expense will that process consume? What if we ran a bit leaner? What if I passively/opportunistically searched for this person instead (i.e. build a candidate profile and then shortlist candidates in or adjacent to your network today, wait for that candidate to be available)?

Speed of learning

So, assuming you do still want to hire a PM today, you know that individual is going to need to get up a steep learning curve for a complex domain quickly. What characteristics would that person have? Perhaps some things to look for could be:

  • Self taught a complex skill to a high level in a short period of time.
  • Evidence of skill adjacency (i.e. they don’t have the direct skill you need, but they have y capability and they’ve done z with that)
  • Moved through more than one domain in their career, and have clear evidence of mastery of each domain
  • Can reason about how to acquire the knowledge they need, beyond trivial answers
  • The ability to reflect, and use these reflections to drive rapid learning cycles (as they reflect they can pinpoint the skill they need to improve)
  • Can show the ability and willingness to pick up knowledge quickly about the domain during the hiring process
  • Appetite for risk; have they looked in their career for challenging work that feels uncomfortable but enables them to grow?

How can you check for speed of learning in a hiring loop?

Assessing speed of learning in an interview setting is hard. Some of these pieces you can assess indirectly through observation or by interviewing references, but a few can be looked at directly. Imagine a scenario where you’re doing a deep dive on a project that the PM has delivered previously, can they:

  • Articulate how the work stretched or challenged them? Did they adjust their approach to deal with this challenge? How quickly were they able to do that? Did they do that independently or did others have to step in and support?
  • Accurately evaluate their performance and make suggestions on how they can improve? Are they comfortable talking to you about this learning process? Did they share this with others on their team (Do they have the ability to admit mistakes and learn from them?)?
  • Did they have more out there ideas that could have radically changed the approach taken? Can they get buy-in for those ideas?

As this is important to the role, another thing to consider would be structuring the exercises in the hiring loop to look at the same set of skills from different angles in each interview. This repetition avoids good candidates flaming out due to one poor choice of example, but it also allows for different interviewers to get an individual read on the skill set which should allow you to get a better assessment of the skill.

Empathy for candidates

Coming into a new field is intimidating, so let’s shift perspective to that of the candidate for a second. It’s important that we work through our hiring funnel and make sure to refine the candidate experience at each touchpoint for the characteristics we want to attract. This means adjusting our job descriptions to remove jargon and feel welcoming to non-experts, but also demonstrating in each interview that we have the type of culture where quick learners can thrive. For the type of candidate we want to attract to the role that means being open to questions and giving detailed answers, offering additional time to follow up if it’s required but also offering optional additional detail like links to further reading, technical talks and whitepapers at each point of contact.

Confidence in your ability to coach others in the domain

As the hiring manager you’re on the line to help this person get up the learning curve. Are you well set up to do this? Do you have the capacity to fully invest in onboarding this person effectively? When you’ve onboarded people into your team previously how long has it taken them to be fully productive? Have you hired non-domain experts previously? How did it go? If you have a small team today then the answers to quite a few of these questions are likely to be no, so you should expect a rocky road as the organisation itself gets up the learning curve on how to do this effectively. There’s lots of great material out there on how to effectively structure onboarding so I won’t repeat that here.

Some techniques for developing expertise in others

Instead, lets look at how to develop expertise. In this case, the hiring manager had mastery in the domain, so they have a good understanding of what expert level performance in the domain feels like. This knowledge can be used to structure training, for example by:

  • Setting well defined, specific goals which act as milestones to having expertise in the domain and building these into a longer term plan with the individual
  • Making sure the learning curve is gradual, but also ensuring that the learner is be stretched and doing things that are uncomfortable and just out of their reach
  • Providing space to reflect on their learning, and working with them initially to pinpoint the skills they need to acquire, and how to structure their work or their practice to acquire these skills (1:1s are great for this)
  • Over time backing off from this process of instruction to allow for self-directed learning
  • Checking that the right mental model is being formed as the expertise develops. For example through observation (can they participate actively in discussion about the domain?) and questioning (e.g. out of sample application of knowledge, practicing problem inversion)
  • Having had the space to reflect and pinpoint what needs to improve, having the opportunity to repeatedly practice the skill

Overall candidate strength

Of course, there’s more dimensions to the performance of a top PM than domain expertise - leadership, communication and collaboration skills, customer empathy, product intuition, analytical and data skills, bias for action, or the ability to build and lead high performing teams. Are they so strong in one or more of these other areas that this addresses the shortfall in domain expertise?


So, for me this comes down to striking a balance between domain expertise and the candidates capacity for growth. It also relies on a realistic assessment of how much time you have to invest in making this project a success - by providing the necessary support, coaching and resources can you enable them to thrive in the role?