insightchalkboardNote from Art: I am thrilled to present this guest post from Steve Johnson, a product management guru, the proprietor of Under10 Consulting and a person I have long respected and appreciated. Enjoy!

Have you heard about the “purple squirrel?” It is a term used by employment recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, experience, and qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s requirements. In theory, this prized “purple squirrel” could immediately handle all the expansive variety of responsibilities of a job description with no training.

And will work for peanuts.

I once read about a company seeking a head of marketing. Their ideal candidate was the current president of their top competitor.


I saw a job posting for a senior marketing role requiring 15 years of experience in social media. There are about 10 people in the world who qualify. Facebook was founded in 2004; Twitter in 2006. David Meerman Scott wrote the first edition of The New Rules of Marketing & PR in 2007 and has had 4 editions to keep up with all the changes in social media.

I’m amazed at the assumptions hiring managers make about what is and isn’t required in a job candidate.

Four areas of expertise:

1. Expertise in your products and technology. It’s unrealistic to assume someone on the outside has deep expertise in your product but they are likely to be knowledgeable in the underlying technology. From their daily interactions, product managers pick up a deep understanding of product and technical capabilities; they achieve this by playing with the product, by discussing it with customers and developers, by reading and reading and reading. For a technology expert, the product almost becomes their personal hobby.

2. Expertise in your markets. Market expertise is a focus on geographic or vertical markets, either by country or by industry. They know how business is done in that market. They know the major players, and the jargon or colloquialisms of the market. Market experts define themselves by the market they serve rather than the product or technology.

3. Expertise in your domain. Domain expertise is about the discipline your product supports, such as security, fraud detection, or education. Domain experts know (and often define) the standards for the domain and can explain the latest thinking in that area. They understand the problems that your product endeavors to solve, regardless of the market or industry. And for a domain expert, your product is merely one way of addressing the problems of their specialty. You might deliver solutions through software or services (or both) but domain expertise serves as the foundation of your methodology.

4. Plus, expertise in the processes and methods of business. A product manager should have some financial modeling abilities and know about success metrics. Today’s product managers should know the merits of agile development methods and lean thinking. More than that, a candidate should have a process mindset that looks for opportunities to streamline and proceduralize—to create a product playbook for moving ideas through design to delivery.

Your ideal candidate doesn’t already have deep expertise in each of these areas; the ideal candidate knows how to learn them.

Sure, it would be great to be able to hire someone who doesn’t need training but most of what a candidate needs can be acquired—by reading about your product, by interviewing your customers, and by attending workshops. Look for someone with one or two of these skills, and the ability to learn the others. Or build a roster with strengths in each of these areas and encourage them to work as a team.

Are you looking for a purple squirrel? Instead, look for a strong candidate with expertise in one area and the ability to learn the rest.

About the author:

Steve Johnson is an author, speaker, and strategist within the technology product community. At Under10 Consulting, he helps product teams implement the latest methods for today’s business environments.