The Six Essential Books that Every Product Manager Should Read
I always tell the participants of my workshops that as a Product Manager you should be voraciously curious about what’s happening in the field. Read books, keep tabs on blogs, follow people on Twitter, listen to podcasts, be a massive consumer of ideas and then see what resonates most with you.
Here are some of the first books I read after getting into product management. They are also the books that I keep with me wherever I am, and I return to each of them every few months or years. These books capture fundamental theory as well as basic practices. I have written in the margins of my copies and the pages are dog-eared, but I still use them and regularly quote from them. The ideas in them remain as relevant today as the day they were published, and the practices just as useful.
I recommend this list as a great starting point for new Product Managers, or for anyone who feels they need support with tough problems.
The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products are Driving us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity
by Alan Cooper
With chapters titled What Do You Get When you Cross a Computer with an Airplane? and Techno Rage, you can be assured that Cooper’s book will not bore you. Published in March 2004, Inmates was one of the first books published that strongly called out the the insane usability problems with most software tools at the time. Using the phrase “Dancing Bear-ware”, Cooper lambasted the technology community for the idiotic way in which software was built, calling out isolated software development teams in general, and Microsoft specifically, for first ignoring their user and then blaming them for “not getting it”. It was the first time I had heard cognitive friction discussed in relation to software, and it is something I’ve always kept front and center when building products. The final section of the book is both a brilliant and specific treatise on the need for interactive design and how “polite” software should be the goal of every product team. Yet, 14 years later, I continue to run into the same type of thinking that Cooper condemns in his book. Relevant, applicable, and funny, I regularly name Inmates as the first book any product team member should read to understand what we’re trying to accomplish and why.
As a bonus the book is now available online for free.
Ah, Inspired. Like a cool breeze on a hot day, this seminal work by Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group is an easy-to-read primer on the role of a modern Product Manager. Published in 2008, Cagan continues Cooper’s work by instructing his readers to focus on their customer’s misery, rather than technical solutions. I loved this book because Cagan is really specific about the traits that he believes Product Managers should have, including leading by objective, the art of wandering around, and having empathy, for your teammates and customers. When you’re reading the book Cagan’s passion for his work and great products is palpable and infectious. Since reading the book, I’ve aspired to become the kind of Product Manager that Cagan would be proud of.
by Kent Beck
I spent a few years working as a consulting Product Manager at Pivotal Labs. My favorite thing about working there was a mandate to “do the right thing”. What “doing the right thing” at Pivotal Labs means is captured by Kent Beck in XP Explained. XP stands for Extreme Programming, which is another way to think about agile development. I believe that if XP explained were compulsory reading the world would be a kinder, more efficient place. Beck explains XP values, principles and processes in simple, understandable terms and gives examples of teams that benefited from using them. The main takeaway for me has always been that a culture of collaboration and openness breeds the ability to improve because team members can talk about what is going on frankly and in real time. Creating this type of culture is both easier and more difficult than it seems, but Beck breaks it down into actionable processes. I always want to work with XP teams.
The story of Horowitz’ rollercoaster ride at the helm of Loudcloud and Opsware is a fun read, but it’s the lessons he imparts that make it part of this list. He talks candidly about some of the mistakes he made, the traits he looks for in people he hires, how he empowers his teams. Product Managers, no matter how junior or senior, should always lead by example. Reading Horowitz’s story taught me a lot about how to think about the soft skills that are beneficial to the role. He also has written one of the best paragraphs on the Product Manager’s role. At one point, I actually wrote it down word for word and taped it next to my desk, but I’m not obsessed or anything.
The book that launched 1,000 experiments. Actually you could easily estimate that The Lean Startup is responsible for launching millions of experiments. It was this book that cemented the concept of “assumptions” and “validations” in modern product development. When Lean is paired with the practices described in XP Explained and Inmates, you have a very powerful pathway to building the right thing very well.
I found this book when I left the safe haven of teams and was forging a path as a freelancer and independent consultant. For the first time I was working alone and I needed some support. Buly’s book does an excellent job of articulating both the goals and progression of UX research and design activities. Each chapter outlines the lifecycle phase, what is typically needed during that time, and the activities you could consider implementing for specific outcomes. Each activity listed comes with descriptions of the prep time needed, suggested agendas, the goals, the materials needed, how to handle remote situations, and what to do next with the things you learned. I often refer to it when I need a refresher on how to conduct specific activities and how to articulate why we’re doing something to my teams. Everyone, no matter what point of their career they are in, needs some support.
Have I missed any? What are the books that shaped your thinking around Product Management?
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