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How important is Domain experience to a product manager or product marketing manager?

Today the Open Network Foundation was announced promoting a new approach to networking called Software-Defined Networking (SDN). SDN allows owners and operators of networks to control and manage their networks to best serve their needs. For example, instead of treating video and voice like a Microsoft Word document, network operators using the OpenFlow protocol can manage priorities. Through simplified hardware and network management, OpenFlow seeks to increase network functionality while lowering the cost associated with operating networks.  The Board consists of representatives of Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo and members consisting of Broadcom, Brocade, Ciena, Cisco, Citrix, Dell, Ericsson, Force10, HP, IBM, Juniper Networks, Marvell, NEC, Netgear, NTT, Riverbed Technology, and VMware.

In the New York Times article announcing the effort, Silicon Valley start-up, Nicira Networks was mentioned.

As a product manager and product marketing Consultant for the 280 Group and yesterday learning that a recruiter, Olga Ocon, who specializes in recruiting in product manager or product marketing positions has joined forces with the 280 Group, I thought I would take a peek at Nicira.

Plus, I have been saying lately that many start-ups ignore having a product manager at their great peril as the founders who have the original “vision” get overrun dealing with fund-raising, recruiting, retention, HR, finance, engineering, manufacturing, business development, marketing, speaking, sales, etc. so no one at the company is performing the vital functions of product management.

And failing to do so the company slowly starts going out of business.  Why you ask?  HP often cites that something like 75% of their business comes from product introduced in the last five years.  On the other hand, one can cite an example of poor product management processes and techniques as we slowly watch it die: Yahoo.

I noticed that Nicira actually lists positions for product management and marketing.  Further poking around reveals that the founder Steve Mullaney is a former product manager (many founders and CEOs are) as is Paul Fazzone their current VP of product management.  Ah…as we frequently see at the 280 Group, former product managers get the importance of having people focus on product management.  Also, when their product managers product their work products, the Steve Mullaney’s and Paul Fazzone’s know exactly what to do with it.

Looking further at the job descriptions at Nicira it calls for years of networking technology, networking systems, data center networking, compute virtualization, distributed systems, storage, distributed systems, and infrastructure security experience. Which raises a questions us fellow 280 Groupers have been discussing over the years.

How important is domain experience for the product manager and product marketing manager?

To kick of this discussion I will present my view:

Not important at all and it limits the hiring company’s ability to bring in fresh, new views.

A product manager or product marketing manager who has been in the industry too long and with little other experience, will just tend to repeat the same mistakes and probably not know any other way.

Providing the product manager or product marketing is bright and knows how to learn fast (like has graduated from a top school) it won’t take them more than a few weeks to be an industry expert but with ideas from other markets to bring to bear.

What do you think?

15 Responses to How important is Domain experience to a product manager or product marketing manager?

  1. Brian Lawley Mar 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm #


    I believe that anyone who has good knowledge and skills in product management (providing they have the technical chops) can be up to speed VERY quickly (like 1-2 weeks). How do I know this? Because we do product management consulting and contracting all of the time with markets, technologies and products we haven’t worked with before.

    Companies inevitably have a LOT of domain expertise and market information already about their business. A good product manager can immerse themselves in this and be an expert within a matter of days.

    My two cents…

    Brian Lawley

  2. Tom D'Arezzo Mar 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    David –
    Limiting the applicant pool to only those with specific domain expertise is counter productive and could unnecessarily screen out viable candidates.

    Clearly one of the questions that needs to be answered in the recruiting process is whether the particular individual can develop the required domain expertise quickly. I would also note that a product manager needs far more than domain expertise to be successful. In fact, I would rate domain expertise as only a minor factor in being able to ‘hit the ground running’ in a new role.

    Much more valuable, particularly at the beginning of a new role, are process and organizational skills to see where the strengths and weaknesses are in an organization, so you know where to focus to get the best bang for the buck. A dynamic product manager with leadership skills will learn the domain quickly while immediately adding value.

    Waiting for the right domain expert to show up may be shooting yourself in the foot. In my world, a solid history of success, even outside of the exact field I’m looking, for wins every time. Give me a candidate with passion backed up by the ability to learn.

  3. David Fradin Mar 22, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    We are in violent agreement!

    David Fradin

  4. Harpreet Rana Mar 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Hello David,

    Domain experience does bring in certain value, however if the person is not passionate about any Product, domain experience does not help.
    I personally feel the person should have a vision and know about the Product life cycle more thoroughly than domain knowledge. One who can sense the market and guide the product in the right direction is a true winner.
    Having domain experience will definitely expedite the process of competitive analysis and market research. Moreover, if a specific model is followed in a particular domain, re-inventing the wheel is a possibility. The person might not look for “out of the box” ideas. Sometimes it is necessary to bring in a fresh look and that’s where a passionate and dynamic person will get the job done without domain experience.


  5. David Fradin Mar 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    I agree too!

    Also, I sometimes notice the job listings for product marketing managers, business development and sales people need to have large Rolodex’s. That is to come into the position with existing contacts.

    With all the turmoil over the past several years, I would suspect less than 25-50% of people are in the same positions.

    Hence being able to identify and penetrate an account is far more important on having a list of former drinking buddies.

  6. Paul Fazzone Mar 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    Hi David,

    Love the post, disagree with the way you represent the job listing for the Senior PM Position at Nicira.

    Given the transformational technology that Nicira is developing for the data center, some working knowledge of common operational customer infrastructure challenges is required for the immediate roles I am looking to fill. That said, some of my best hires have had little or no subject matter expertise and, with a little guidance, have killed it as phenomenal Product Managers because they viewed themselves as the CEO of their products (borrowed that from Ben Horowitz) and acted accordingly.

    In my job posting for Senior Product Manager at nicira.com/careers, if you read above and below the requirement of “3 years of experience in some related data center technology (network, compute virtualization, etc), either as a PM or a TME”, you will see what else matters to us here at Nicira. Most great TMEs come from dev/test engineering or systems engineering backgrounds. These types of folks make my favorite PMs. They are typically aggressive (in a good way), eager to learn, have a good social IQ, and haven’t been broken by big company PM training and politics.

    As a general rule, when hiring for a PM position, I focus on where a candidate can take the product and our company vs. where they came from and what they have done in the past.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this article together!


    • David Fradin Mar 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

      You bet!

      I think I looked at the product marketing manager’s job description first and then yours. Yours says:

      * At least 3 years of experience of leading product management or technical marketing efforts in the data center networking, compute virtualization or distributed systems field
      * Technical depth in (2 or more): data center networking, compute virtualization, storage, distributed systems, infrastructure security
      * Proven track record of delivering successful, infrastructure oriented data center solutions across all stages of the life cycle (Dev, GTM, Pricing, Support, EOL, etc)

      I got the impression, and suspect other candidates might too, that 2-3 years experience is a must have? I am not an expert in writing such ads, but perhaps if you used the word “preferred” with those three bullet points they would do less to discourage exceptional candidates from applying?

      Anybody else have any suggestions?

  7. Roger L. Cauvin Mar 23, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    David, having written my first substantive blog entry on this very issue in 2006, I completely agree with you.

    Great product managers possess an aggressive and resourceful learning style that renders prior experience in an industry relatively unimportant (and sometimes a liability). The latest excuse I hear from people trying to defend prior industry experience is that it’s the accumulated “Rolodex” that’s important. But just as a great product manager learns quickly, she also identifies, leverages, and expands contacts quickly.

    Paul, the Senior Product Manager job description your company has posted is actually much better than many of the descriptions I’ve seen. The description lists a number of talents and characteristics needed for the position. Buckingham and Coffman say that the best managers hire for talent, not so much for experience.

    But the requirement for “3 years experience leading product management or technical marketing efforts in the data center networking, compute virtualization or distributed systems field” filters out a lot of product managers who could be rock stars in the role. And if you have an “immediate need” to fill the slot without a learning curve or training, your company may be operating in a short-term mindset that will undermine building a talented “A-player” team in the long run.

    • David Fradin Mar 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      I agree, Paul’s job description is pretty good.

  8. Christian Almgren Mar 23, 2011 at 4:20 am #

    It all depends on the product manager and her skill set. It is not mandatory to have domain knowledge but if you can’t get it fairly quickly you will not be successful. So I think that a basic skill for a product manager is to gain that knowledge. As some say the company has that but not all companies are great at sharing that knowledge.

    Then we get to the passion parts. Some are passionate about a product management process others about some other process and use product management to further that process. I don’t think there is a right or wrong here. At the moment I am more passionate about Talent management that product management. But I see product management as my best way to bring really good talent management to the world.

  9. Martin Eriksson Mar 23, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    I agree that overall a Product Manager does not need specific domain knowledge – and bringing in fresh blood from outside the domain is often more valuable than domain expertise – but as part of a team it makes sense to balance domain expertise with new blood.

    In a start-up environment this domain expertise can come from the founder or the product manager – but it’s there to make sure the start-up avoids the same mistakes and pitfalls the rest of the industry has already faced.

  10. Phil Burton Mar 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    Earlier in my career, I used to think that domain expertise was paramount, and mattered more than issues such as an understanding of the product management process, a deep understanding of markets and customers, effective communications skills, working well with other product managers, engineering and sales, etc. Now I realize that it’s these other issues that matter the most, that enable someone to be an effective product manager and a leader within the company.

    This is a very important issue, really entire sets of issues, because a company’s success is so dependent on hiring the right people.

    Markets and products are constantly evolving. What someone knew about the market five years ago, or even two years ago, may not be relevant to the challenges they face as a product manager in defining and launching successful products in the current market environment, with new market requirements, with new competitors, with disruptive changes in underlying technology or the business climate. What matters more than deep domain expertise is the skills, the drive, the tenacity, to jump into an area and come up to speed rapidly. Those are long-term career skills, that are very “portable.”

    Also, the comments so far don’t address the point about how domain expertise is defined. In very broad terms, it could apply to business in general, or to an entire industry, or it could apply to a broad market segment. My own domain expertise is in computer security, and before that, computer networking. The constant in my career has been a focus on business, especially enterprise and government. That market focus allowed me to switch very easily from networking to security. And as a consultant, I have demonstrated that the market segment focus is more important in doing client assignments than specific product knowledge.

    If domain expertise is important, then how does a company define that expertise for a prospective employee? Many companies seem to go completely overboard, by micro-defining domain expertise in very, very product- and technology-specific terms. For example, a job description requires not just computer security expertise, but expertise in firewalls, or intrusion prevention systems, or data leakage protection. Unless a company wants to hire someone who is now working at a direct competitor, there are no “qualified candidates.” Or, the only “qualified” candidate is an engineer currently doing development in this product area, who wants to switch into product management, but with no actual product management experience.

    As other people have pointed out, someone joining a company who does bring deep domain expertise provides some short-term benefits. But even that choice is a trade-off. Taking six months to hire a candidate with the right domain expertise means the company goes without a product manager for six months. Instead, if the company hires a product manager in one month with all the right attributes and career skills, the company would go without a product manager for one month, and without the domain expertise for perhaps one more month while the new hire came up to speed. Given the overall importance of product management and fast pace of many industries, what is the right choice here?

  11. Kevin Frisinger Mar 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    I wanted to thank everyone for their comments. This has been very insightful discussion topic, as I was just having this discussion with someone else in my office today. We are wanting to hire 2 new Product Managers and the topic of domain experience came up. By the time we got done listing out the skills and experience we wanted we realized that it would take us forever to try and find the right individuals.

    You have helped steer the conversation back to finding the right individual with the right skill set versus experience. I feel that this will help speed up the hiring process and put the focus back on bringing in a larger pool of potentially good Product Managers.

  12. Jim Reekes Mar 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    I’ve trained nearly 500 product managers, and one of the first things to clarify is the role. As a product manager, we are not the expert of the product as most believe. Our knowledge domain is about the market. That’s how we become market-driven.

    Domain experience is about the market, customers, industry, competitors, products, etc. Certainly this necessarily includes some technical knowledge, but the focus remains in the market. Otherwise you’re likely to become technology-driven, and then miss market opportunities or misunderstand customer needs.

    Given that domain expertise is about the market, the functional expertise is the product management process. I say this is different from skills, and one example is in the art of influence. Since PMs have little authority over others and a great deal of responsibility, influencing is a key skill.

    The most important thing to look for in a PM is their functional expertise. This is the deep understanding of how product management is done, and why. This functional knowledge transfers to any company, market, or product. This needs the most amount of experience (years in the trenches). Any PM with this degree of experience can quickly become a domain expert in any market.

    I advise clients to look for PMs outside of their domain and even suggest someone outside of hi-tech. A consumer products market company like P&G have a well established PM process and experienced people in that role. PMs from such companies have the functional experience of how to do their job, and that type of expertise is invaluable (and often missing in hi-tech).

    As for the domain knowledge, that’s the easy part. There’s no better place to learn about a company’s market (and products) than as an employee at the company! Armed with the functional experience a PM can easily and quickly become a domain expert. Even more, they may bring some new perspective and that leds to innovation.

    Domain knowledge isn’t nearly as valuable as functional expertise.

What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear from you!