Ask Women in Product Contributor: Does domain expertise really matter? If you’re a PM at, say, Linkedin or Slack, would you consider hiring a PM from the airline industry?

Answer from Kate Griggs, Product Manager at Pivotal Labs

Hiring managers who seek only candidates with specific industry chops are missing out on the diamonds in the rough. Sure, it may take a bit longer for, say, a retail-savvy Product Manager to master the intricacies of the hospitality industry, but a PM’s current domain experience shouldn’t pigeon-hole them in one industry for life!

Job seekers should describe their work experience in a way that highlights their value beyond their current industry.

It’s not the industry experience that matters; it’s the experience itself.

When we talk about great product managers, we don’t typically focus on their industry expertise. Instead, we talk about how they achieved success. We talk about how they studied a problem space and moved towards a solution. We talk about failures and course corrections. We talk about how they measured and evolved that solution to be successful. We talk about how they adjusted and adapted their strategies as new data became available. In short, we talk about their experiences and what they have learned from them.

Frame your experiences in a way that extends beyond the industry.

Job seekers should describe their work experience in a way that highlights their value beyond their current industry. For example, consider the Airline industry and a hypothetical product manager who has worked on an In-Flight Beverages app:

“Our passengers complained about long delays between takeoff and receiving complimentary in-flight beverages, so we built a seatback screen app to let them pre-select their beverage choice upon seat arrival. We created a separate mobile interface that guides flight attendants to prepare and serve drinks quickly based on seat locations. We were able to reduce wait times by an average of 10 minutes, and our social listeners picked up multiple satisfied comments related to the experience.”

If I’m a hiring manager at another airline, I could ask about the flight routes that were tested. I could compare the seatback application devices used against the ones we have. I could even ask about the passenger survey methods that were used to get around common traveler privacy regulations and the like.

But if I’m a hiring manager in another industry, these are the key concepts I would be interested in:

  • How did you gather information about passenger needs? What tools and methods did you use? I want to know how you might communicate with and listen to our customers.
  • How did you determine the need for multiple user experiences? How did you go about determining the key outcomes to be designed? I want to know how you might understand and connect our varying user personas. I want to get a feel for how you’d prioritize new features.
  • What usability tests or assumptions did you validate along the way? Were there any pivots in direction? If yes, when and why did they came up? I want to know that you’ll make smart, validated choices with our product, even if it means potentially rolling back newer ideas.
  • How did you define success metrics? How did you measure initial baselines and determined business impact? I want to know you’re accountable for the investments that the business will make in your work, and I want to know you’ll keep us informed of real progress instead of providing vanity analytics.

Learn about the new product or problem space, then apply your product experience to yield relevant insight.

Job seekers should do some initial research into the product space at the new company they’re interested in. Find functional similarities between those products, apps, and tools. Practice speaking as to how that relates to your products or apps or tools. During the interview, ask how the company tackled the areas you worked on, like how they measured success, how the interface evolved, etc. Show that you speak product language, even if you can’t fluently speak the industry-specific language yet.

Ultimately, all businesses with money to spend on new and evolving products have people to please: their business stakeholders, and their customers or users. No matter the industry, companies need experienced product managers who can take charge, take calculated risks, and take care of their people.

Be ready to talk about how you deliver value, and companies across the spectrum will jump at the chance to have you on their team.