I’m often asked by colleagues about what product managers do, and how they can learn more about it. The one thing everyone knows is that product managers guide decisions about what to build, but don’t build things. The mystery of what the job actually entails can be inaccessible — would they enjoy being a PM? Would they be able to do it? What is involved on a day-to-day basis?
My advice is always the same: read books about building products. It’s kind of amazing; people have written up how the people have built the best products in the world, and in a way so that anyone can read them.
Why books rather than blog posts? Or videos? Simply put — books are more in-depth. They go into more detail, and have a stronger grit-to-glamour ratio. If you want to know if you’d enjoy being a product manager, then you’ll need to understand what the nitty-gritty is all about. Blog posts can often give a rose-tinted version of what it actually takes.
The truth is that building products is really hard, but rewarding. Have a read of the books in this list, and if you think the rewards are greater than the hard work required, then it’s most likely a job you’d enjoy. And, you’ll have gained a bunch of knowledge along the way.
As building products requires a strong breadth of knowledge and skills, and I’ve tried to include a host of different aspects with this reading list. Pick the ones that are most to your interest, and get reading!
Hooked: This book delves into the practice of how to make an app, website, (or any customer offering) addictive. It relates heavily to product management, as it solves a very typical problem: getting users to use your thing frequently. It talks through how to structure your offering, and what you might need to build and give customers. It helps provide a very user-focussed view of building, and goes into quite a lot of depth around user psychology.
Great if you’re: interested in customer-facing products, especially ones that need daily usage (social networks, games etc.).
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: This book is about how to run companies, but the lessons and thinking is verymuch from a product-mindset. Ben Horowitz talks a lot about making his companies’ offerings fit the market needs, and making big decisions to reflect that. Overall it’s incredibly well written, and very easy to read.
Great if you’re: interested in general problem-solving, especially if you come from a business-orientated background.
How Google Works: Although this book is often more about Google the company than Google the (original) product, there are tonnes of lessons in how product people think. Google is famously a product-driven company, and it’s led by some great product leaders. A word of warning — Google has a belief that you can only create great products if you have ‘technical insight’, and while this may be true, don’t get too caught up in what having ‘technical insight’ actually means. It’s easy to get put off building things if you don’t have a technical background, but I don’t think it’s vital (I didn’t have one).
Great if you’re: wanting to understand how product management fits into a major company, and can shape the world in general. Also good to see how product people fit alongside (more) technical people.
Algorithms To Live By: Don’t get put off by the title — this book is super accessible, and written for those of us without PhDs. It delves into how structured thinking can improve almost any process that people do, and how that can apply to almost any company. If you combine parts of what you learn in this book with some basic machine learning, you’ll be able to understand how the most technically-advanced products in the world work, (at a high level).
Great if you’re: happy to dig beyond the most visible product challenges, and dig into the nitty-gritty of how the world works.
Don’t Make Me Think: A great introduction to how to think about usability when building websites (and apps). It offers a really interesting look into how product people think about usability, as well as direct tips about how to improve conversion and user behaviour through simple steps.
Great if you’re: someone who obsesses about the minute details of experiences, and want to use that to improve other peoples’ lives. Especially useful if you’re keen on building out user-facing products.
Sprint: This tells the story of how a team from Google invented the concept of a ‘design sprint’ — a hyper-speedy way of solving problems by answering important questions. The story gives way to a guide of how to run a design sprint day-by-day, it’s often almost a textbook. In addition to understanding how to strip out (potentially) superfluous steps, the lessons here apply to a more considered and sustainable approach to product development too.
Great if you’re: someone that’s in a hurry, working at break-neck speed is what really excites you, and you want to know how to turn that into building great products. Especially if you want to understand what the day-to-dy life of a PM can look like.
Design of Everyday Things: This book gives a fascinating insight into why things are designed the way they are; and how to truly focus on users when creating products. It’s relatable and fun, with lots of fascinating examples with pictures, and some examples of very bad usability. One of the most important lessons from this book is about how to focus on building things that are actually useful, usable, and add value, rather than just focusing on aesthetics.
Great if you’re: wanting to think more about how people interact with things (the messages are applicable to websites and apps).
Delivering Happiness: This is the story of Zappos, focussing on it’s founder. The reason I include it here is because it has one crazy, unique product management story: the most important part of the product wasn’t really a ‘product’. The founder (Tony Hsieh) strongly believed that great customer service would set Zappos apart, and it did. They solved problems not by building slick user interfaces for customers, but by empowering and inspiring their CS staff. It’s a unique story that you won’t often hear about elsewhere, but it’s customer-focussed problem-solving without having to build much — a product managers dream!
Great if you’re: interested in a real-world example of how to solve problems, outside of the highly-technical world of your Facebooks and Googles.
Blitzscaling: Written by Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Blitzscaling covers what happens when companies need to grow really, really fast. Crucially, he covers a lot about how to know when blitzscaling is needed (spoiler alert: many great companies don’t need to blitzscale). The reason product managers should read this book is that it goes deep into business strategy; your aim shouldn’t be do build the ‘best’ product, it should be to build the ‘best’ product for the company’s strategy, at that time.
Great if you’re: wanting to know how to build product in a company that is growing extremely quickly, or is trying to but not quite making it.
A special mention…
Product Handbook from Intercom: I haven’t actually read this book, but it came recommended on Twitter, and I skimmed through it a bit. It looks like a fantastic introduction to the day-to-day life of a product manager, so I’ve included it here too. The rest of the books I’ve recommend talk about thinking like a product manager in a fairly strategic sense. This handbook looks like it goes to much more executional level, and so is a great addition to the reading list.