Two books that helped me develop as a Product Manager

Two books that helped me develop as a Product Manager

October 06, 2016 | Eli Laipson

For the past six years I have been working in technology — primarily startups. I’ve held roles in sales, product marketing, project management, product management and even founded a company of my own, thereby dabbling in everything. Most recently I transitioned from a sales and business development focused role at a fantastic startup called Modelo to leading up product management at a brand new and very exciting company called huupe.


From a product standpoint early-stage technology companies are unique. When there are less than 20 people on the team, regardless of your role, you’re never very far from the product. We were eleven at Modelo and we’re six at huupe. When I joined huupe it had been more than two years since I had been in a true product management role, so I felt a refresher was needed. After picking the brains of a few friends who have been heads-down pushing pixels and building products the past few years, I had four recommended books to get me in the right mindset. Here I’ll talk about two; The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick and The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey.

 

The Mom Test is the first book I read and wow was it helpful. It’s a quick read at 125 pages long and is more helpful than just about any Product Management focused book I’ve ever read. Fitzpatrick clearly and efficiently identifies the common pitfalls so many of us encounter in the early stages of building a product or company: making assumptions and jumping to conclusions by focusing on the wrong things and hearing what you want to hear. He doesn’t merely identify these pitfalls though, he also provides actionable methods of collecting data in casual ways that enable you to make educated decisions about your product or business.


One of the most important jobs of the product manager is discovering your prospective users’ truth.  


For me the most meaningful takeaway from the book was to Stop asking leading questions. This idea is presented to the reader before you even open the book through its title, which Fitzpatrick explains early on. Essentially, he says the way we structure our questions and conversations overall in early stage  product conversations is reminiscent of speaking with your mother. We’re unconsciously setting people up to say supportive things no matter what. Fitzpatrick is ultimately teaching you that you’re on the quest for truth, not compliments. Like any good mentor he cracks you over the head with this concept many times and rightfully so. It’s harder than it sounds and requires more discipline than I expected. It is so easy to be overly optimistic when speaking to people about your product ideas. The path of least resistance is to latch onto every positive (or even neutral) word you hear and assume people actually want what you’re pitching, when in fact they just want to have a friendly conversation and not offend you. The reality is, you shouldn’t be pitching at all.

 

One of the most important jobs of the product manager is discovering your prospective users’ truth. Assuming your truth is their truth is a recipe for disaster. As Fitzpatrick points out, one of the best ways to find this truth is to ask specific questions in the past tense. It doesn’t help anyone to ask your polite prospect if they would use this. They will be inclined to tell you what they think your truth is — i.e. what you want to hear. Instead ask about the last time they encountered the problem you’re solving. What was it like? Why did they bother at all? That’s all I’ll say about The Mom Test, for now at least.

 

The second book I’ve been reading is The Inner Game of Tennis. I discovered this book after reading a Sports Illustrated article about Steve Kerr, coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Kerr claims he reads Gallwey’s book every year and buys a copy for all of his athletes. Dozens of high profile athletes swear by the book as they say it helps them continually perform at the top of their game.

 

For me, this book highlights the areas of sports psychology that translates well to product management, and the criticality of process in top-quality product management. Ultimately this is a second book about finding the truth. Gallwey posits that within each of us there are (at least) two selves. There is a self, which operates and oversees at what feels like a conscious level. Then there is a second self, which functions at a more instinctual level, that simply does. For athletes, there is a tension between these two selves. When driving for a layup in basketball or throwing a deep fade in football Self 2 just does it. You’re not actively thinking about the muscle contractions that enable each motion to take place in order to accomplish your goal. Self 2 instinctually does what feels natural and good things tend to happen.

 

Things start to get confusing when Self 1 gets involved. Self 2 may happen to miss shots causing Self 1 to freak out and start ordering it around. Or perhaps self 2 is hitting every shot perfectly, which causes Self 1 to wake up and consciously think — “Wow I’m doing great, let’s analyze why I’m doing so well!” This of course takes Self 2 out of its rhythm.

 

So what does this have to do with product management? For me, this is all about Process. I am typically a process-oriented person. When there is a process vacuum, I tend to try to fill that hole. In previous roles as a young project manager, bringing what I thought was order to chaos felt good. It felt like value and accountability were being created where previously there was none.

 

At huupe my outlook has become more flexible with less of a focus on process and more of a focus on results. I’ve had the benefit of working with a very experienced team, all of whom accept and embrace the chaos that goes with early stage companies and product. This team outlook combined with Gallwey’s perspective have allowed me to start seeing things as they are as opposed to how they supposedly should be, allowing me to simply do what works.

In Gallwey’s terms this means allowing yourself to step back and do what comes naturally to serve, or shoot, or throw. For me, from a product management perspective this means focusing on building the product as opposed to the process of building the product. Seems simple, but it has been a profound change for me.

 

So, I strongly recommend reading both of these books. In short, they will give you greater focus on what matters most in product management: Discovering the truth of your user’s problems and focusing on execution. I wish you good luck, and would love to hear how you get on. Let me know your thoughts on the books, or your recommendations for me – please feel free to drop me a note at elilaipson@huupe.com or visit my profile on huupe.

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