The product management roles in my career have been, by far, the most challenging and rewarding: the required multidisciplinarity and the fuzzy nature of the beast demand continuous learning, adaptation.. and I love this aspect.
Resources I consider fundamental for a product manager’s journey:
Doing things the proper way. Motivation
A text I often find myself revisiting: Commencement Address, American University in Beirut, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A core quote from the article:
Success as a Fragile Construction. For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.
The human layer is in my view the most critical factor that can make or break a product initiative: if you master this aspect, the rest should fall in place:
- Peopleware (by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister)
- Body Language (by Allan Pease)
- High output management (by Andrew S. Grove)
- The 4-hour work week (by Tim Ferriss)
- Mythical man month (by Frederick Brooks Jr.)
- Skin in the game (by N. Taleb)
- Antifragile (by N. Taleb)
- Inspired (by Marty Cagan)
- Don’t Make Me Think (by Steve Krug)
Enterprise product platforms
Guide to creating or enhancing a SaaS product with common features that will enable more adoption by enterprise customers: EnterpriseReady – Build SaaS Features Enterprises Love
Perceived Performance. How they made Visual Studio Code seem fast
VS Code: The First Second – lessons from Microsoft VS Code regarding perceived performance. Johannes Rieken spoke at CovalenceConf 2019 about what Visual Studio Code does during the first second after launch – and what lessons other Electron apps can draw from Microsoft’s findings
Dogfooding. How AWS became AWS
Lessons from AWS regarding platform/product performance via internal use. By legend, the mandate is as follows:
1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
4. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter.
5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
Competitive Advantage. Distribution and bundling
Distribution advantages are more valuable than the Product & Technology ones. A page from the Slack vs Teams story:
Insights from running Waze as part of Google
Noam Bardin shared in this article invaluable insights from his years as CEO of Waze; quoted below a lot from it:
It's the nature of the beast
Working as an independent start-up is fundamentally different from a corporation and it is much more nuanced and deep than I had understood. I am proud of what we achieved within Google - when we started talking to Google, we had 10M MAU's vs 140M MAU's when I left. We went from 2.5B monthly driven Km's to over 36B. We launched a completely new product, Carpool, and went through all the pain of MVP, iterations, launch until achieving product market fit. So what was so different from being independent? The Waze brand continued to grow and solidify post acquisition, constantly ranking as one of the top Alphabet brands in terms of trust and utility.
In a start-up there is complete alignment between the product, the company and the brand. The employees, management and investors are aligned as well - product does well, company does well, investors do well, employees do well. In a Corporation, the employee alignment is to the Corporations brand, not to the product (i.e. Google, not Gmail; Facebook, not Instagram). The product is a tool to advance the employees career, not a passion, mission or economic game changer. Being promoted has more impact on the individuals economic success than the product growth. The decision which product to work on stems from the odds of getting promoted and thus we began onboarding people with the wrong state of mind - seeing Waze as a stepping stone and not as a calling.
Hiring, Firing and Promoting
The famous Netflix culture doc claims that culture is “who you hire, fire or let go”. I strongly agree with this, reality > theory. The challenge was that, as Google employees, we were subject to all of the Corporate hiring practices. It is practically impossible to fire someone for the basic reason that you don't need this role any more or there is a better person out there or just plain old "you are not doing a great job". This neuters managers and does not lead to great teams, driven by mission, pushing each other to do better. Fast paced products have different needs that change all the time. There are people who are great for a stage of the company and later, do not have the right skills as the company grows. It is not their fault, it is reality. But not being able to replace them with people that do have the right skills means that people are constantly trying to “offload” an employee on a different team rather than fire them - something that is not conducive with fast moving and changing needs. I learned the hard way that if another manager is recommending a great employee to hire, that they are probably trying to get rid of the employee since they cannot fire them.
We quickly learned, the hard way, that we could not get distribution from Google. Any idea we had was quickly co-opted by Google Maps. The Android app store treated us as a 3rd party, there was no pre-installation option and no additional distribution. We did have a lot more marketing dollars to spend but had to spend them like any other company, except we were constrained in what we could do and which 3rd parties we could work with due to corporate policies. All of our growth at Waze post acquisition was from work we did, not support from the mothership. Looking back, we could have probably grown faster and much more efficiently had we stayed independent.
As much as I tried to keep the team focused, being part of a Corporation means that the signal to noise ratio changes dramatically. The amount of time and effort spent on Legal, Policy, Privacy - on features that have not shipped to users yet, meant a significant waste of resources and focus. After the acquisition, we have an extremely long project that consumed many of our best engineers to align our data retention policies and tools to Google. I am not saying this is not important BUT this had zero value to our users. An ever increasing percent of our time went to non user value creation tasks and that changes the DNA of the company quickly, from customer focused to corporate guidelines focused.
At Corp-Tech, the salaries are so high and the options so valuable that it creates many misalignments. The impact of an individual product on the Corp-Tech stock is minimal so equity is basically free money. Regardless of your performance (individually) or your product performance, you equity grows significantly so nothing you do has real economic impact on your family. The only control you have to increase your economic returns are whether you get promoted, since that drives your equity and salary payments. This breaks the traditional tech model of risk reward. Corp-Tech gives you no risk returns on equity. Since 2008, FAANG stock have only gone up so employees look at the equity is a fixed part of their salary with the only option of increasing. We tried to build an innovative compensation model but quickly ran into the challenge that employees viewed their equity as a given compensation so why sacrifice it for a risk model? These realities lead to extreme focus on promotion vs product success -- Me > We > Product/Users. I feel that the risk reward model in Corp-Tech is broken due to ever rising stock prices and lack of personal impact on your returns. Perhaps Corp-Tech should move to employee share buy back where employees must sacrifice some of their salary for equity or change equity to vest by a product related metric to connect the teams performance with the employee returns.
Transparency and directness
I have always been a pretty passionate guy, especially at Waze. After the acquisition, I was invited to speak on many different Google panels and events and very quickly, I began racking up my HR complaints. I used a four letter word, my analogy was not PC, my language was not PG… I actually stopped speaking at events where the majority appreciated what I was saying but the minority that was offended by something (words and not content) made it a pain. I began watching what I said, what I discussed and began wearing a corporate persona (I was still probably one of the less PC characters at Google but this was my cleaned up act…). I value transparency and feel that people should bring themselves to work but that also means a certain tolerance of people not saying something exactly as you would like them to or believing something you don't. That tolerance is gone at Google and “words” > “content” is the new Silicon Valley mantra of political correctness. You can say terrible things as long as your pronouns are correct or can say super important things but use one wrong word and it's off to HR for you…
Work life balance needs to be a balance - sometimes we need to work hard and long even if it eats into our personal life and sometimes we need to leave early even if it eats into our work. Balance.
Work life balance
When I was growing up in Tech in the ‘90’s - there was no such thing as work life balance. We loved what we did and wanted to succeed so we worked like crazy to achieve great things. As I had kids, I learned the importance of being at home for them and that's how I understood Work Life balance - its a balance, sometimes you need to work weekends and nights or travel, sometimes you can head out early or work from home - we balance the needs of the employee and the company. Today, in Silicon Valley, work life balance has become sacrificing Work for Life - not a balance. Young people want it all - they want to get promoted quickly, achieve economic independence, feel fulfilled at Work, be home early, not miss the Yoga class at 11:00am etc. Having trouble scheduling meetings because “it's the new Yoga instructor lesson I cannot miss” or “I’m taking a personal day” drove me crazy. The worst thing is that this was inline with the policies and norms - I was the weirdo who wanted to push things fast and expected some level of personal sacrifice when needed. I don't believe long hours are a badge of honor but I also believe that we have to do whatever it takes to win, even if its on a weekend. With all the amazing perks Corp-Tech employees get, they still find lots of things to complain about. OH in cafeteria: "what? Sushi AGAIN?!?" while 50M Americans are food insecure
Everyone working in the tech space is SUPER LUCKY. If you happen to work for one of the tech corporations - you are even luckier. You get unbelievable conditions (food, gym, offsites, travel), amazing economic wealth creation, can work on amazing things surrounded by the best and the brightest. But many of the people I met did not understand or appreciate it. Tech workers leaving college directly to Corp-Tech and never working for a “real company” end up spending their time complaining about the wrong things. When COVID hit and we moved to work from home - a huge amount of complaints began around why can't employees expense food since they are not in the office. While most "real" people were worried about keeping their jobs or finding one, many employees were complaining about expensing their food on top of their salaries/stock/bonuses. This entitlement continued everywhere - while Google is BY FAR the most employee centric company giving tremendous hard and soft value to its employees, employees keep creating imaginary problems to complain about, instead of appreciating the hand they have been dealt. After being acquired by Google, we had a “fun day” at the Google campus where we were shown around, wide eyed, to see the facilities. We had lunch in the cafeteria and while on line, a Googler ahead of us was overheard saying “What? Sushi again???” which became our inside joke around entitlement. But several months later, we had been co-opted as well and it was Waze employees complaining about the food... All these issues drove me crazy. I believe in the Waze mission and love the company and wanted to continue to grow it. These aspects of corporate life slowly wore me down. at the end of every day, I always ask myself "what did I do for our users today". This simple exercise helps keep priorities straight. When I found myself avoiding this question because I was embarrassed by the answer, I knew my time was up. I feel we ended up with the worst of both worlds - the challenges of a start-up (scale, access, distribution) with the constraints of a corporation (forced to use internal not-best-of-class systems, cost structure, politics, culture etc) all aggravated by the inability to quickly hire and fire.
So, what can be done?
I think that the independent model is a must for acquisitions. No one buys technology, you buy a team and a way of doing things. I think this has worked in most cases. That being said, how to retain the start-up magic is extremely difficult. I think that the Alphabet model is the correct model (at Google) but not as a “moonshot factory” but rather as a holding company. Amazon did this with Audible - keeping it an independent legal entity with its own culture and processes. Yes, there is a challenge of how to compensate when there is no equity upside but I think the main point is to keep the company focused on the product, with the right employees there for the right reasons and empowering the leader to control her destiny. One of the main challenges with this is that people who grow up in a Corporate environment do not really understand these issues since this is how things are done in Corp-Tech so it makes these issues hard to negotiate.
What did I learn?
I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success. The problem was me - believing I can keep the start-up magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing opposite. Had I not set out to fight the nature of the beast, I could have focused on building for leaving rather than building for the users. 3 years ago I realized this and wanted to leave but the company was still too start-up'ish and dependent on me. I have spent the last 3 years building a new team and leadership that can carry on the mission without me, within the corporate constraints, to the point where I could leave. I would recommend to the 2013 me to not try and innovate within but rather focus on exiting the company as fast as possible and building the right team/structure/succession plan to make it happen instead of fighting the nature of the beast. This is easy to say but extremely hard to do if you love your company and mission. When you decide to sell a company, you need to be honest with yourself that this is the end of your era, and not pretend that you will be able to continue to build the company but with a different shareholders. This will make the selling decision harder and looking back, would have forced us to be more honest about what selling means.
So, why did I leave?
[..] If I had to summarize it, I would say that the signal to noise ratio is what wore me down. We start companies to build products that serve people, not to sit in meetings with lawyers. You need to be able to answer the "what have I done for our users today" question with "not much but I got promoted" and be happy with that answer to be successful in Corp-Tech. [..]