INSPIRED: How to Create Products Customers Love

inspiredlg.png

Marty Cagan is founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, a consulting firm that helps companies with their product strategy. Prior to that he held product roles at EBay, Aol, Netscape among others. He is a well respected product thinker and several of the ideas in this book can also be gleaned from his insight blog on the SVPG website.

I had bought this book over a year ago as it was one of the highly recommended books for new PMs, but it sat in my Kindle until I finally got around to it recently. I concur with the advice about this book being an excellent read for new PMs, it covers an incredibly broad range of topics.

There are more than 40 (short) chapters in this book, so it’s impossible to talk about them all, but here are the parts that resonated the most with me.

Importance of product design – Even though the author was a platform product manager, much of the book is targeted towards products which have a UI and therefore there is a lot of advice on the importance of designers. He recommends doing away with PRDs in favour of high fidelity prototypes that can be tested on actual users.

Startup vs Large companies – Startups that are still trying to find product market fit are places where the emphasis is on getting things out of the door. They learn by shipping and mistakes are accepted. By contrast, large companies have a lot to lose by shipping an ill thought out feature and are much more risk averse and detail oriented.

Leadership by objective and roadmaps – This management style advocates giving people a goal and letting them figure out how to achieve it. Marty advocates a similar approach to road mapping. Leadership comes with a central theme and then rather than features, gives individual teams a set of goals and lets them decide what features to ship in pursuit of that goal.

Role of emotion in purchasing decisions – In the enterprise the dominant emotions are greed (If I buy this, I can save money or time) and fear (If I don’t buy this, I will lose to my competitors). In the consumer space, the emotions are more personal – pride, greed, love, lust etc.

Platform product management – There are three user personas a platform PM has to consider 1) Developers 2) Business head of the developers, and 3) End users. A common error is to think that since developers are the most important as they use the platform to create apps for end users. However, the reality is that the end user and the business head are much more important.

This resonated with me as it was a mistake that I made. It can be hard when your passionate development team comes up with lots of ideas on how to improve the development experience. You give in only to realise later that they didn’t really make a difference to the key objective of the product.

Advertisements

The Ascent of Money

2714607._UY424_SS424_.jpg

Written by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, the book is subtitled “A Financial History of the World”. There is also a long documentary of the same name that the author produced for PBS and the BBC that you can watch. The book is an good read for anyone interested in how and why the major components of our financial system such as banks, credit, debt, equity etc got started.

1) Credit and Banks

Without credit, only those with capital could participate in commerce as merchants typically require an initial investment to buy goods in order to then sell them and earn a profit. However in Italy, the Church had banned the practice of Usury; charging your brother interest was forbidden and this had this removed the incentive to give loans to aspiring entreprenuers.

To get around this, Venice allowed Jews (whom they did not consider brothers) to give out loans to Christians. This historical fact accounts for why a large number of banking institutions were founded by the Jewish minorities. However, loan giving was problematic for a small minority owned bank. Powerful borrowers would default on their loans and turn the local populace against the minority.

To counter this, the Medici family in Florence diversified into several markets and grew larger. Although, the way in which they made money was not new, they applied it on a scale that has never been seen. This allowed them to spread the risk of default and they prospered becoming rulers in Florence.

2) Bonds

Bonds were made necessary by the appetite of nations for war. They allowed the financing of wars and the victors forced the losers to pay back the bonds through reparations. Because the loser could not pay back debts to its own bondholders, it was hard to borrow if you were a likely losers and Ferguson cites the role of bonds in deciding outcomes in famous battles such as the American Civil war.

3) Equity

The establishment of colonies required a large initial investment. This enabled colonisers to hire soldiers, establish forts and other defences. Then over a longer period, they could get income from the colonies. This led to the formation of equities where shareholders pooled resources to come up with working capital. Since shareholders sometimes needed the money that they has invested, they were allowed to trade their holding to other investors leading to the establishment of the equity markets.

4) Insurance

You may wonder why a whole chapter is devoted to insurance. Is it really that large of a sector? The answer is that the modern welfare state that accounts for a large portion in a  developed country’s budget had its origins in insurance.

Primitive insurance was little more sophisticated than gambling; it was bets placed on whether ships would make it safely back on harbour. Several mathematical discoveries such as probability made true insurance possible. The first was a scheme to provide pension for the widows and orphans of Scottish clergy.

5) Housing

Housing and mortage are a huge part of the the financial sector. But it wasn’t always this way. For a very long time, only the elites and aristocrats owned houses while the vast majority owned rents. As democracy took hold, Governments have tried to democratise home ownership through policies such as subsidies loans, interest deduction etc with varying degrees of success.

2016: Year in Review

It’s the start of a new year, so it’s time to reflect a bit on 2016 and look at what went well and identify where I can improve.

Reading

My target in 2016 was to read 12 books and to write about the ones that I found interesting. Writing about what you have learned improves your ability to retain information. I also get outside my comfort zone of self-improvement books and explore biographies and history. In 2016, I managed to read a total of seven books (and write about three).

  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • The Elephant Complex
  • The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman
  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

For 2017, I am planning to retain my target of 12 books. More than the number of books, I want to use the knowledge in them to become better. This is a hard goal to measure but important nevertheless. Another target is to read more about emerging trends and understand them – for 2017, I plan to read about Artificial Intelligence.

Writing

I had neglected this blog from mid 2015 to mid 2016 at which point I had resolved to start again and get to 12 blog posts for 2016. I managed half that number and stopped just three months after I began. The blog received a total of 500+ visitors this year which was about a 50% drop from last year.

The main factor that limited my blogging  was that I wanted to get serious about investing and the scene in India is very different than in the USA. Hence, I spent a considerable amount of time reading and researching the topic. It took nearly three months before I settled on a strategy and I should have more time going forward.

In 2017, I am targeting 18 blog posts. In addition to the PM posts, and the book summaries, I plan to start adding in a few posts about my travels. I visited Sikkim, Udaipur, Agra, Bali, and Sri Lanka this year and plan to visit many more in 2017 so that should add to the number of blog posts.

Career

2016 marked my first year as a Product Manager and was fairly eventful. My team launched our first big feature (We started development in 2015, but did not ship until early 2016), expanded in size, and began an agile transformation. I plan to write more on my learnings as a PM this year.

When I started my role, I fancied myself as a PM who would take on a design and business specialisation. This was primarily due to my interest in UI design and human psychology. However, my role was in the API and Developer platform team and this has led to me enhancing my technical skills. Technical PMs are definitely underrepresented among PMs and there is a growing demand for them, but I have not decided if that’s the path that I want to take.

In 2017, one area that I want to focus more on is my managerial/leadership skills. This is an area I had not given much thought to in the past, but as the team has grown and I move into a more senior role, it will become more important.

The Startup of You

The Startup of You by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and author Ben Casnocha is a book that was released back in 2012. It was quite popular right around the time I started my MBA (was on several MBA reading lists) but I had not gotten around to reading it until now. I read it mostly for the content on networking and I will get to that in a bit.

As the title suggests, the central premise of the book is that in today’s fast changing business environment, one should think of oneself as a startup and act accordingly. I found the chapter on developing a competitive advantage quite interesting. As a PM, when I work with my team to find the right positioning statement,  we use a template such as “Because of [x,y, and z] our product does [a,b,and c] better than our competitors. The authors suggest applying that template to ourselves to see how we are positioned. If you are not able to, then it may be time to develop a competitive advantage. What is a competitive advantage? It’s a mix of your assets, aspirations and market realities.

At the end of every chapter is a nice summary of the chapter along with short and long term things that the reader can do to benefit from the chapter. For instance, on the competitive advantage chapter, the reader is asked to come up with a competitive advantage statement (I’m still working to acquire the skills to be be able to write the one I want. They also offer suggestions on discovering your assets such as talking to your co-workers or friends or looking at Linkedin profiles of similar people for inspiration.

“Chapter 4: It takes a network”, was the one that I was looking forward to the most as Reid Hoffman’s started Linkedin as a bet on the importance of networks. The chapter first explained the different types of networks and their benefits. This material was similar to the strong and weak ties that I first encountered during the Strategy and Innovation elective  during my MBA. For the uninitiated, strong ties are close relationships i.e people who you can turn to for advice and who will always back you. Weak ties on the other hand are acquaintances who will expose you to information that you would not discover by yourself. Both are essential for a thriving career as together they make you better and help you land new opportunities.

While I have built a few strong ties at work, I am lagging on the weak ties. I suspect this is true of most introverts. In the past, I had tended to dismiss this by telling myself that networking was inauthentic and slimy. Hoffman suggests that to get over this, you think of networking as a two way street i.e you are looking to help the other person just as you hope that they will help you. By first focussing on how you can help the other person, your mindset should change from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s in it for us?”. There is also a lot of good advice on maintaining a network which I found quite interesting especially the concept of ‘gifts’. Btw, one hack for introverts that I got from the S&I course was to build strong relations with at least one ‘broker’ i.e a person who is a good networker. This person can then introduce you to their vast network of weak ties.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick read and nothing dense, it’s mostly common sense if you really think about it. Like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, this is not a book to read and move on, it’s highly recommended to note down some of the points listed at the back of each chapter and take the recommened action.

Note: I plan to continue with a few more blog posts that deal with general career advice. This will be based on advice that I have read over the last few years and some of the mistakes I have made in my career. Look for them in the next few weeks.

Deep Work

deep-work-cal-newport

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at GeorgeTown University, author, blogger and is obsessed with productivity. He writes on this topic in his popular Study Hacks blog. I was introduced to him and his work after I read an article of his in the New York Times where he argued that passion was overrated in picking a career and that it would follow in time if you focus on achieving mastery.

Deep Work is his latest book and is a summarisation of many blog posts on the importance of focus in the workplace. For the uninitiated, deep work refers to activities performed in a distraction-free state that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. By contrast, shallow work refers to tasks that can easily performed while distracted i.e email, non essential meetings etc. So why then do so many spend so much time on shallow work? The answers are some of my favourite lines in the book – a) Deep work gets you promoted while shallow work keeps you from getting fired and b) Busyness is often used incorrectly as a proxy for productivity. The second one will sting those of us (myself included) who take pride in spending the day attending meeting and always being available through chat, email and phone throughout the day.

Part 1 of the book focusses on why deep work is valuable while the second part is spent on detailing ways to get more productive. As with the last book I blogged about, this is not a book to read and move on. It’s essential to put it into practice if you agree with it and hope to benefit from it. Cal argues that focus is a skill to be practised and will not come naturally to many of us who are used to multitask endlessly. Some tips for focussing on deep work are to avoid social media and to avoid working after you leave the workplace. The most intriguing one to me was the idea of embracing boredom. Cal argues that the constant switching of tasks at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate boredom. Hence he argues against checking your smartphone when you are in a queue at a store or eating alone, instead he advises that you learn to be bored. He is also a big fan of structure and recommends planning your workday in hourly blocks.

In the past I have written about the trend especially in software firms towards open offices. Cal abhors this trend and cites research that shows that such environments made it hard to focus. This puts him at odds with those such as Steven Johnson, Facebook, Google who argue that multitasking and open offices encourage innovation. Cal suggests a compromise using a hub and spoke model for a perfect workplace. While offices need to have spaces where people regularly meet and exchange ideas (hubs), they also need private areas (spokes) to focus.

One of the critiques of the book is that the advice is much more applicable to those in academia than to those in management positions. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good advice in there and I plan to try out a few things that the book recommends and I will report back on my progress in a few months from now.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

the_7_habits_of_highly_effective_people

This highly influential bestseller was first published over 25 years ago. I had wanted to read this book for a long time and I finally got around to it last month. While the book can be applied to both personal and professional goals, I read and interpreted it mostly from a professional viewpoint.

The following three goals, the first three in fact struck a chord with me and I have detailed them below

Be Proactive

I was a very reactive person early on in my career but I have learned from watching others and through experience to be more proactive. This chapter introduces the concept of circle of influence vs circle of concern. Reactive people waste time focussing on things that they cannot control (circle of concern) because it is easier to do. This is a bad habit that I occasionally fall into as well and I was reminded to stick to focussing on what I can control (circle of influence).

For example as a PM, it may be tempting to blame marketing, sales, or someone else for a missed deadline but that will achieve absolutely nothing other than alienating them. Focussing on being more efficient during scoping and development (circle of influence) would actually help in shipping features faster.

Begin with the end in mind

This chapter exhorts you to have a plan and work backwards with that plan in mind rather than mindlessly going about your daily life. For instance, rather than hope that you will be promoted to the next level after a few years at your current level, actively understand the skills that will be required and work towards acquiring them. (I did this as soon as I read this chapter and now I have a plan for the next phase of my career).

Put first things first

Having identified goals and the steps to take to achieve those goals, the third principle is about prioritising them. As a PM, there are a ton on things that you could work on. Deciding what is important is what isn’t is a decision that individuals must actively take in order to become effective. This chapter also asks a question that I found quite interesting – What is the one thing that you are not doing that you could do in your personal or professional life that would have the most positive impact? In my case, I decided that the answer was to read more books and become better at networking. I am an introvert and the second goal will not come naturally, but having identified it as critical, I have made a plan to get better at it.

I did not find any of the other principles as compelling as the first three. This book is not one to be read, it is to be applied. Therefore, I highly recommend that you reserve a complete weekend for it, one day to read and another to apply the teachings to help you become a more effective person.

 

My average PM workday at Freshdesk

PMmemeA question that one can always expect from a prospective Product Manager is – so what’s an average day like?  This post is my attempt at answering this question.

7:00 AM: The alarm goes off and I get out of bed half an hour later.

8:00 AM – 9:00 AM: Hit the gym to workout. I try to workout three times a week. If I’m not working out, I go out for a walk and get some physical activity before it gets really hot.

10:00 AM: Leave for work. I don’t have a car, so I call for an Uber or Ola (Ola is the Indian competitor to Uber. It isn’t as cheap as Uber, but the sedan class of cars have wifi, which allows me to check emails while I ride to work. I live around 5km (3 miles) and it usually takes me about 20 minutes to get to work.

10:30 AM – 12:00 AM: I reach work and grab a cup of tea and check my emails, Twitter, and check my to do list for the day. This is not the most productive time of the day for me, so I try to keep it for light/shallow work such as reviewing the roadmap, collecting metrics, making notes etc.

12:00 AM – 2:00 PM: At 12, my team has our daily standup where we talk about what we did yesterday and what we plan to do today. Along with the PMs and engineers, we also have the PMM and QA attend this meeting. The QA at Freshdesk is organised as a functional unit i.e there is one QA team across the company and involving them in the standup is a great way to ensure that there are no communication gaps. Post standup is usually a productive time for me and I try to avoid meetings and distractions.

2:00 PM – 3:00 PM: I have a late lunch. Most days, I will head over to our cafeteria for the (free) lunch, but there is a food court downstairs with additional options that I will head to once a week. After lunch,  a fellow PM and I go for a quick walk. On my return, I usually spend a few minutes reading the day’s newspaper.

3:00 PM – 5:00PM: I try to keep most meetings in this time period as most people in the office are usually present at this time. Most days I usually spend 1-2 hours in meetings.

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM: This is another productive block of time for me, so I will use it for work that requires my full attention such as research, PRDs etc. Right now, I’m helping write the technical documentation for the APIs and the app framework.

7:30 PM: I spend the last few minutes of the day tying up loose ends and then I leave work at around 7:30 or so and I reach home by 8.

8:00 – 11:00 PM: At home, I cook dinner and relax. I will watch TV, play games, or do read interesting articles online. Occasionally (1 time a week), I will have a few small things from work to take care of, but most days are free.

11:00 PM: I turn off all screens at this time. I had pretty bad insomnia that improved after I  started limiting my caffeine and screen time, so I try to be disciplined about this. I will usually read a book until I feel sleepy. Right now I am reading “The hard thing about hard things” by Ben Horowitz and I will post my thoughts soon. I usually turn the lights off before 12.

Summary: I used to be really bad at answering the average day question when I first began working. This was because there was no average day – I was overloaded and did whatever came up. This resulted in me focussing a lot on what Cal Newport calls “shallow work” such as answering emails or solving support tickets. However, the deep work (research, PRDs) did not get enough attention. Recently, I have gotten better at recognising my productive times during the day and reserving them for work that adds the highest value.

Latest Updates

It’s been a really long time since I last posted but I promise to post more regularly (at least once a month) from now. I began the Oxford Comma once I began my MBA at the Said School of Business, Oxford. My main motivation was to provide the information that I had found missing when I was an applicant and I also wanted to improve my writing. However, once I left, there wasn’t anything I could add to the blog and more than a year has passed since I last posted.

After I graduated, I was looking for Product Management roles and I started a new blog to catalogue my experiences learning about the role. However, once I got a job, that blog started to be neglected as well. I intend to make more PM and career themes posts but I didn’t really want to maintain two separate blogs. In addition, I also wanted a blog to share my travel experiences and other musings.

Long story short, I plan to convert The Oxford Comma into my personal blog and make posts from all the aforementioned categories here. I have already merged all the posts from my PM blog into this blog. I plan to rename the blog name and domain accordingly.