I see it come up because great product managers are hard to find and even harder to find in your domain.
What is the place of domain experience in product management? This question comes up frequently in hiring new product managers, assigning new initiatives, designing teams and (mostly) friendly arguments over drinks.
But, domain experience isn’t as important as you might think. In fact it can be detrimental.
Domain experience is almost always used – knowingly or unknowingly – as a lazy proxy for assessing someone’s “Understanding of the Customer.” It’s Understanding of the Customer that really matters.
Side note: I casually use “Understanding of the Customer” in this article to encompass the customer, the market, the industry and the competition relevant for your product).
Domain experience is probably used so frequently because it provides numbers, usually in the form of years experience, and numbers make us comfortable. For example, fictitious Barry with 5 years experience in SaaS software for airline ticketing is generally assumed to have better understanding of the customer than Betty with 2 years in the exactly the same domain. On the surface we seem to have our answer of the best person to manage our product.
Yet, if you got down to it, it’s almost impossible to know whether Barry understands the domain better than Betty based on just this information. Maybe the technology has shifted and Barry is living in the glory days of yester-year. Maybe Betty conducted 100x more interviews using effective customer interview techniques whereas Barry reads the occasional support request but largely focused on backlog grooming and internal rituals. Maybe Betty runs better controlled experiments to observe actual behaviour while Barry builds feature shopping lists from his man-cave. I could go on, but you get the point. You can’t assess Understanding of the Customer based on years of domain experience. It might give you a hint, but don’t treat it as an answer.
In fact, there may even be an inverse relationship between domain experience and Understanding of the Customer. Marty Cagan explains this best as “people that have spent a long time building their mastery of one domain often fall into another common product management trap – they believe that they can speak for the target customer.” That is, they stop questioning, they stop listening and stop researching because they think they know it all. This is supported more broadly with the regular downfall of incumbents like Blockbuster to Netflix or Nokia to Apple.
So if you think about what you really need (in either yourself or your team) as Understanding of the Customer then you can start to make progress.
Understanding of the Customer (your specific customer) can be learnt and learnt quickly by a product person equipped with the right tools, such as using this playbook for how to understand a product and its customers in 2 hours. That is, someone that knows the process, tools, techniques and frameworks to gain a better understanding of a customer will most likely get to a better place than someone that doesn’t have these tools but has “X years domain experience”.
Fresh eyes may even bring new insights.
If someone doesn’t have domain experience then don’t discount them. Just make sure they have the techniques or that you’re giving them the techniques to rapidly understand the customer.
Ultimately what you need is to understand the customer better than your competition at this moment and into the future.