The Self Taught Product Manager

[ product-management  ]

I made a career transition into Product Management four years ago. Prior to starting my first role at Splunk as a line level Product Manager my previous experience was in the U.S. Army. I didn’t know that product management was a career field option when I started my job search, and as I look back on it I’m amazed I got any interviews at all. I had no meaningful experience building software, and I made some blind assertions that I had qualifying experience as an Army Officer. I still maintain that those assertions holdup, and I think most companies would do well to hire more Junior Military Officers as Junior Product Managers.

Once I managed to find a job, I’ve faced the task of educating myself on the craft of product management. I’ve long been a person who learns well through self-study. I blame the Army that taught that professional development was 1/3 on the job, 1/3 in the classroom, and 1/3 personal development. It’s also possible I’ve just always been a nerd.

Below you will find a list of books, blogs and podcasts that I’ve read and strongly recommend. If I were hired or tasked to start an associate product management training program at a company. Most of the content here would constitute my curriculum. Now you can have the benefit of that without having to listen to me lecture.

But what about all those posts on Medium?

I tend towards books rather than the plethora of Medium posts because I think you can find lots of half-baked things on medium. I personally have published on Medium in the past (and now write here using GitHub Pages), and opined on my views of what product management is to me. But I’m a bit of an institutionalist and I tend to give some more credence to folks who gone through the effort of getting something formally published. Continuing to read on the internet is great, but I think it can be a bit hard to follow if you are trying to establish some foundations.

Affiliate Note: Where I link to books on Amazon, I am using affiliate links, because they might as well pay me for sending traffic their way. I strongly recommend checking your local library for copies of the books.

What is the job

This section includes several great books to get started understanding what product management is. If you haven’t worked somewhere that has product managers as a role, start here. Also start here if you feel like people keep saying things about what product managers should be doing and they don’t all quite make sense.

Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value

From the author:

To stay competitive in today’s market, organizations need to adopt a culture of customer-centric practices that focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Companies that live and die by outputs often fall into the “build trap,” cranking out features to meet their schedule rather than the customer’s needs.

In this book, Melissa Perri explains how laying the foundation for great product management can help companies solve real customer problems while achieving business goals. By understanding how to communicate and collaborate within a company structure, you can create a product culture that benefits both the business and the customer. You’ll learn product management principles that can be applied to any organization, big or small.

Andy’s take: I think this is probably the best book I’ve read on what Product Management is. It explains it clearly if you are learning how to interface with product management for the first time, if you are trying to build a product management organization, or want to understand how product management organizations are structured and organized to be effective and focused on customer problems.

If you want to get the essential understanding of what product management is, start here.

Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams

From the author:

In today’s lightning-fast technology world, good product management is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage. Yet, managing human beings and navigating complex product roadmaps is no easy task, and it’s rare to find a product leader who can steward a digital product from concept to launch without a couple of major hiccups. Why do some product leaders succeed while others don’t?

This insightful book presents interviews with nearly 100 leading product managers from all over the world. Authors Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw draw on decades of experience in product design and development to capture the approaches, styles, insights, and techniques of successful product managers. If you want to understand what drives good product leaders, this book is an irreplaceable resource.

Andy’s Take:

  1. The Authors are Pillars of the product management community. As the collective founders of Mind the Product they represent an enormous mind-share about what it means to build products in today’s software ecosystem.
  2. I love that this book takes a broad vision of what a product leader is. There can be a tendency to draw sharp lines between people by title and what they do. (Engineering Managers and Engineers should stick to engineering and Product Managers think about product things!) This book is more inclusive and I think represents reality better, Product Managers, Engineers, UX/UI, Docs are all part of the Product Leadership team of a company.
  3. They do a great job talking about what it means to do product at different sized and staged companies. Startups, mid-sized companies, and enterprise companies all have a very different feel, they work in different ways. Reading this section of the book if you are trying to break into product management is a good way to understand what kind of company you are looking to apply to.

Building Products for the Enterprise: Product Management in Enterprise Software

From the author:

If you’re new to software product management or just want to learn more about it, there’s plenty of advice available—but most of it is geared toward consumer products. Creating high-quality software for the enterprise involves a much different set of challenges. In this practical book, two expert product managers provide straightforward guidance for people looking to join the thriving enterprise market.

Authors Blair Reeves and (Benjamin Gaines)[https://twitter.com/benjamingaines] explain critical differences between enterprise and consumer products, and deliver strategies for overcoming challenges when building for the enterprise. You’ll learn how to cultivate knowledge of your organization, the products you build, and the industry you serve.

My first (currently only) experience in software is in Enterprise Software. So I was thrilled to learn that there was a book specifically about building products for Enterprise Software. In this case Enterprise Software is referring to the companies you are trying to sell to, not so much the type of company you are. There are plenty of startups and mid-sized companies that are trying to sell to Enterprise Customers. But selling to an Enterprise customer has very distinct sales motions, support requirements, cadences, that are, as far as I can tell, nothing like consumer products.

This book has a great overview on how to work with the many different parts of this process. Understanding who you are building for, how your organization works, how to think about your industry. Read this if you are going to be selling to companies, particularly big ones, rather than individual people.

As a final note I also like Blair, he’s got a strong twitter game, an occasional newsletter, and we’ve become somewhat Twitter friends. He has a much bigger following than me, but we’ve corresponded multiple times and he’s always genuine and smart. Be aware that his twitter goes overtly political quite often, which is fine with me, but truth in lending if you want just the product stuff.

Methods and tools

User Story Mapping

From the author:

User story mapping is a valuable tool for software development, once you understand why and how to use it. This insightful book examines how this often misunderstood technique can help your team stay focused on users and their needs without getting lost in the enthusiasm for individual product features.

Andy’s take:

User story mapping is by far my favorite design technique. I use it whenever I get the opportunity. I find that it provides a clear and easy way to communicate what the user is trying to accomplish. It helps visualize the flow, discuss sequencing and priorities and does a great job of drawing out missing steps. I also love that the technique is easy to explain and understand. It’s simple to implement, while there are tools out there to build a story map, I’ve also effectively built story maps in a spreadsheet so that I could project it when I’m working with distributed teams or multiple co-located teams in different cities.

Also Jeff Patton is a giant the industry, when he speaks or writes something I perk up and listen (see the recurring resources)

The North Star Playbook

John Cutler is one of the most prolific writers I know on Product Management, his newsletter is further down the list of continuing education. At the time of writing he works at Amplitude which is a tool focused on helping Product Managers understand how users use their products. Working with his peers at Amplitude they’ve written this terrific guide to picking strategic metrics. Having a clear strategic metric can be incredibly grounding for a team and helps tremendously when you are trying to prioritize work with your teams. It gives you the magic power to say to a stakeholder a clear articulation of why you prioritized one thing over another.

The Product is Docs: Writing technical documentation in a product development group

Lean, Agile and DevOps

Most of the software development world will claim to apply some form of Lean and Agile methodology. You will never show up to a company that brags about their waterfall development methods. Some might admit that they are still transitioning or admit that there are constraints that prevent them from being more agile (government contracting struggles with this). But having a good understanding of what “Agile” is, will help you as a product manager.

At its highest level I tend to think of Agile as applying Lean principles to IT and software development. Lean was first developed by Toyota in their famed Toyota Production System. Encouraging continuous and early learning, small batches and empowering individuals throughout the system to point out defects and areas for improvement. Thankfully there are some great texts out there.

Foundational to Agile in software is the Agile Manifesto. It’s short and easy to read in less than 30 seconds, but like a zen koan, you can spend a lot of time thinking about and working on the implications. A lot of Agile is built upon the practices of Extreme Programing.

Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations

From the author:

How can we apply technology to drive business value? For years, we’ve been told that the performance of software delivery teams doesn’t matter―that it can’t provide a competitive advantage to our companies. Through four years of groundbreaking research to include data collected from the State of DevOps reports conducted with Puppet, Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim set out to find a way to measure software delivery performance―and what drives it―using rigorous statistical methods. This book presents both the findings and the science behind that research, making the information accessible for readers to apply in their own organizations.

Readers will discover how to measure the performance of their teams, and what capabilities they should invest in to drive higher performance. This book is ideal for management at every level.

Andy’s take:

Don’t read anything else until you read this. Stop reading this page right now and read this book. I’ll wait, this book is that important. Almost nowhere else will you find such a definitive, clear and well researched book to demonstrate the actual measurable value of adopting Lean/Agile/DevOps practices in your software development. This book comes complete with years of research, flow charts and suggestions on how to avoid burning your teams out, develop software better, and deliver value faster.

The best part of this book is that they boil all of the knowledge down into four clear, measurable metrics that you can use right now in your business to understand how well your team and your process stack against the rest of the industry. Not only do these give you an understanding if you are a low, moderate, high, or elite team in the industry, they give you great chart to visualize how to get there.

Also follow Nicole Forsgren on Twitter, always smart things, sometimes funny things, and frequently things to remind you about blindspots in the industry for diversity and inclusion.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement

From the author:

Written in a fast-paced thriller style, The Goal, a gripping novel, is transforming management thinking throughout the world. It is a book to recommend to your friends in industry - even to your bosses - but not to your competitors. Alex Rogo is a harried plant manager working ever more desperately to try improve performance. His factory is rapidly heading for disaster. So is his marriage. He has ninety days to save his plant - or it will be closed by corporate HQ, with hundreds of job losses. It takes a chance meeting with a professor from student days - Jonah - to help him break out of conventional ways of thinking to see what needs to be done. The story of Alex’s fight to save his plant is more than compulsive reading. It contains a serious message for all managers in industry and explains the ideas, which underline the Theory of Constraints (TOC), developed by Eli Goldratt.

Andy’s take:

This novelization follows an auto parts manufacturer, as they struggle to streamline production and save the business. This text is foundational and classic. So classic that my father, a manufacturing engineer, read it as part of his college courses many moons ago. But it holds up. Look past the fact that they are talking about building car parts not software, for our purposes they are not significantly different.

The Phoenix Project

From the author:

Bill, an IT manager at Parts Unlimited, has been tasked with taking on a project critical to the future of the business, code named Phoenix Project. But the project is massively over budget and behind schedule. The CEO demands Bill must fix the mess in ninety days or else Bill’s entire department will be outsourced.

With the help of a prospective board member and his mysterious philosophy of The Three Ways, Bill starts to see that IT work has more in common with a manufacturing plant work than he ever imagined. With the clock ticking, Bill must organize work flow streamline interdepartmental communications, and effectively serve the other business functions at Parts Unlimited.

In a fast-paced and entertaining style, three luminaries of the DevOps movement deliver a story that anyone who works in IT will recognize. Readers will not only learn how to improve their own IT organizations, they’ll never view IT the same way again.

Andy’s take:

This book returns to Parts Unlimited (from the Goal), and tells a story of applying the same lean principles that saved the manufacturing business to the IT department. This is a great primer on what DevOps looks like in application.

The Unicorn Project

From the author:

This highly anticipated follow-up to the bestselling title The Phoenix Project takes another look at Parts Unlimited, this time from the perspective of software development.

The Unicorn Project, we follow Maxine, a senior lead developer and architect, as she is exiled to the Phoenix Project, to the horror of her friends and colleagues, as punishment for contributing to a payroll outage. She tries to survive in what feels like a heartless and uncaring bureaucracy and to work within a system where no one can get anything done without endless committees, paperwork, and approval.

One day, she is approached by a ragtag bunch of misfits who say they want to overthrow the existing order, to liberate developers, to bring joy back to technology work, and to enable the business to win in a time of digital disruption. To her surprise, she finds herself drawn ever further into this movement, eventually becoming one of the leaders of the Rebellion, which puts her in the crosshairs of some familiar and very dangerous enemies.

The Age of Software is here, and another mass extinction event looms—this is a story about rebel developers and business leaders working together, racing against time to innovate, survive, and thrive in a time of unprecedented uncertainty…and opportunity.

Andy’s take:

The final (or maybe most recent) installment at Parts Unlimited tells you the story of the evolution of their software development practices. The characters again learn to apply small batches, continuous integration and continuous testing to their application development practices. This is a great text to read what right should look like, as well as help you develop a sense of empathy for the developers on the teams you work with.

The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development

From the author:

“…the dominant paradigm for managing product development is wrong. Not just a little wrong, but wrong to its very core.” So begins Reinertsen in his meticulous examination of today’s product development practices. He carefully explains why invisible and unmanaged queues are the underlying root cause of poor product development performance. He shows why these queues form and how they undermine the speed, quality, and efficiency in product development. Then, he provides a roadmap for changing this. The book provides a well-organized set of 175 underlying principles in eight major areas. He shows you practical methods to: Improve economic decisions Manage queues Reduce batch size Apply WIP constraints Accelerate feedback Manage flows in the presence of variability Decentralize control The Principles of Product Development Flow will forever change the way you think about product development.

Andy’s take:

While product management is not project management (with a focus on throughput and timelines), a successful product manager will do a fair portion of project management as you manage the sequence of your backlog, work with the team to release work into development, and work on managing dependencies and handoffs when working on multi-team efforts.

This is not the most exciting read, unlike The Goal, Phoenix and Unicorn projects, it is a more academic discussion of principals and potential solutions to common problems when managing development queues. But if you work your way through this text you are never going to look at your development process the same way again.

Lean Enterprise

From the author:

How well does your organization respond to changing market conditions, customer needs, and emerging technologies when building software-based products? This practical guide presents Lean and Agile principles and patterns to help you move fast at scale–and demonstrates why and how to apply these methodologies throughout your organization, rather than with just one department or team. Through case studies, you’ll learn how successful enterprises have rethought everything from governance and financial management to systems architecture and organizational culture in the pursuit of radically improved performance. Adopting Lean will take time and commitment, but it’s vital for harnessing the cultural and technical forces that are accelerating the rate of innovation.

  1. Discover how Lean focuses on people and teamwork at every level, in contrast to traditional management practices
  2. Approach problem-solving experimentally, by exploring solutions, testing assumptions, and getting feedback from real users
  3. Lead and manage large-scale programs in a way that empowers employees, increases the speed and quality of delivery, and lowers costs
  4. Learn how to implement ideas from the DevOps and Lean Startup movements even in complex, regulated environments

Andy’s take:

I’ve never highglighted more sections of a book for use later (well it is a close count between Accelrate, Prinicipls of Product Development Flow), but this is a great guide to not only making agile work at the one team level, but how to make large technology organizations work quickly, in small batches, to advance your goals. Must read if you are working in a bigger organization.

Communicating

Product Managers spend most of their time communicating. You communicate with stakeholders to understand their needs and explain their plans, you communicate with your team to explain the business case for a feature and the users needs, you communicate with the sales and field team to explain what has been built and what is on the roadmap. Learning to communicate well is essential to good product management. Here are a few resources that I think have improved my communications skills.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts

From the author:

Annie Duke, a former World Series of Poker champion turned business consultant, draws on examples from business, sports, politics, and (of course) poker to share tools anyone can use to embrace uncertainty and make better decisions. For most people, it’s difficult to say “I’m not sure” in a world that values and, even, rewards the appearance of certainty. But professional poker players are comfortable with the fact that great decisions don’t always lead to great outcomes and bad decisions don’t always lead to bad outcomes.

Andy’s take:

The thing I took away from this book is learning to be clear about what you don’t know. Lots of people will expect or want the product manager to have all the answers. But there are always unknowns, we are always experimenting and making bets about what might work and what users might need. Even with good process we’ll always be guessing at some level. This book gives you some great tools to help understand how to frame your uncertainty and communicate it.

Blogs, Podcasts, and Newsletters

  1. John Cutler - The Beautiful Mess - John Cutler is one of the most prolific writers on product management that I know of today. His newsletter is a great way to keep up without being overwhelmed by the stream of content on his twitter feed (which is also worth following, but hard to catch all of).

  2. The Margins - Ranjan and Can write one of the smartest newsletters out there on trends in tech and its impact on society. Not really about product management at all, but always a great read to help product managers think about how the software they are writing might be shifting or moving with society and computing at large.

  3. Stratechery - Ben Thomson writes one public article and three subscriber only newsletter updates a week. With a focus on the business of software strategy, the impacts of his cornerstone Aggregation Theory, and breaking down the tech news of the week with an eye on the strategy or apparent lack there of the various companies making the news. Reading Stratechery regularly is like getting a business school education, without having to take 2-3 years and tens of thousands of dollars in debt. You unfortunately don’t get a fancy degree as a result.
  4. The MetaCast - Great podcast from very experienced agile coaches.
  5. Enterprise Ready - Podcast and Enterprise Ready - Website - These sites are incredibly valuable for product managers working in the enterprise software space. The podcast is a great set of conversations with enterprise founders and operators talking through how they found their ideas, how the started their companies, how they approach sales and support, I don’t think I’ve shared any single podcast to members of my teams as often as I do this podcast. The website is also valuable giving an enterprise PM a list of features that they can start checking off to make sure they are ready for the biggest customers.
  6. The Product Experience - The podcasting arm of the Mind the Product network. They cover a huge variety of different aspects of product management for different industries, different size companies. A valuable resource to help you discover new things that you might need or might not know existed.
Written on February 13, 2020