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Hiring for Domain Expertise

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Many in ed-tech prefer to hire teachers for their domain expertise but what do teachers know about the business of education? Health organizations like to hire nurses and practitioners but what do they know about the business side?

Most product management and marketing job descriptions mandate heavy domain expertise but is this really necessary? After all, practitioners only experience a minute part of the overall business of their domain.

Another popular approach for recruiting is stealing away employees from the competition. After all, they know the market and the domain; we’ll just have to get them up to speed with our products. However, the competitor’s employees are probably too immersed in the competitor’s strengths.

We once hired a product manager who worked for the competitor. Unfortunately, he struggled with focus on our strengths or our competitive position. He continued to tell the same stories and hawk the same features; he just substituted our company name for his old one; worse, he insisted we needed all the same features as his old product. But if his old product was so good, why were we continually beating it in the marketplace?

There are four types of expertise needed in product management: product, market, business, and domain. Each can be learned but finding someone with all four can be a challenge.

What’s the solution? You want to hire people who can learn. Hire the best person you can find and help them learn. Have them learn the product by working directly with customers and with your internal support and service teams. They’ll learn more about the domain from a few afternoons with clients than they’ll ever learn from research studies and white papers and survey results.

Technical product managers working with developers need to learn the product well enough to have a technical conversation and understand the ramifications of one decision over another; they don’t need to be programmers. Product marketing managers need to understand the product and how it is used by customers in order to develop go-to-market tools. Strategic product managers need to understand the math of business so they can determine the right market and product priorities.

Domain expertise can be learned. Don’t hire it; learn it. Product teams need business, market, and product savvy to create successful products for their markets.


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