The Hard Thing About Hard Things - Book Review

If there's one feeling that you will be left with after reading Ben Horowitz's 'The Hard Thing About Hard Things' is that you'd be kicking yourself for not having read it earlier. In my opinion, it is the definitive guide to doing business whether you're an entrepreneur, a sales guy, a product manager or a team leader in any department. 

Image picked up from Google image search

Image picked up from Google image search

One of the primary motivations for me to pick up 'The Hard Thing about Hard Things' is the essay titled 'Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager'. This was first featured in the book and has been widely touted as a 101 reading for all aspiring product managers. And rightfully so. I had read that essay a couple of years ago and it outlines the qualities of good product managers and how most fall into the trap of certain bad habits. It's essentially a list of dos and don'ts. A good product manager makes a team a winning one, whereas a bad product manager creates negative value for the team. The essay can be read here.

But moving on to the book on the whole, it was an easy read. I suspect this would even be entertaining for a reader if s/he is not well versed with business jargon. Each chapter comprises of the choicest anecdotes from Ben's expansive career from Netscape to Loudcloud to Opsware to HP and finally a16z. All of these stories, if not relatable, will evoke a sense of empathy with Ben's narration. I love the honesty and the struggle behind each of the big decisions Ben, as an entrepreneur, had to make.

'The Hard Thing  About Hard Things' succeeds like no other business book because it embraces failures while instilling advice and leaving you with memorable takeaways. Sure, what you may face as a future entrepreneur may or may not mirror Ben's or Marc's (Andreessen) struggles but the learnings are timeless and many of them can be applied in different scenarios. For example, no matter what team you lead, your team members will have the base expectation of you not bullshitting them. Many team leads and CEOs fall prey to this. This is one of the basic principles that is hammered to the reader with many of the stories. Some of the other key lessons that Ben talks about is going against the grain of the executive management or board members. Important decisions often get swayed by group-think or risk-averseness. It's your job as a CEO/manager to champion the tough decisions especially when you have corroborating evidence of a positive hypothesis, whether data leads you that way or it's customer feedback or market research, what have you.

As you progress through the book, you will realize that Ben's narration pretty much covers the major events in the life cycle of a company. Some of those are:

  • Working in a startup and scaling it 
  • Product - Market fit
  • Fending off competition from incumbents
  • Excelling at sales
  • Knowing the true value of your company/product
  • People management as your company scales
  • Knowing when to go public with your company
  • Knowing when to get acquired

One criticism that this book faces is that most of the stories predate the current millennial-tech-ecosystem. Okay that's not really a thing (or is it?). But I hope you get my drift. The companies mentioned in examples by Ben aren't glamorous but they're hardcore businesses which survived the 2000 dot-com bubble, made hundreds of millions of dollars and one even being valued at $1.6 billion dollars in the mid 2000s. If those aren't great benchmarks, I don't know what are. Just because a Snapchat may have a completely different model, doesn't mean that their teams don't struggle with sales or people problems. A lot of the learning in this book stems from principles of doing business and handling situations.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is not an entrepreneur's playbook to success but it's a warning to that lot that...well...shit happens! And when you realize that you've been dealt a bad hand, Ben proves that there are still ways to maneuver through them and come out standing. It's a book to be re-read multiple times! 

I'm going to wrap this up by quoting some of my favorite lines from the book. There are many to choose from but these quotes were an instant home-run for me and they left me nodding profusely in agreement. 

"Note to self: It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?"

"Take care of the People, the Products and the Profits - In that order."

"If you're going to eat shit, don't nibble!"

"A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved."

"Having dogs at work and yoga aren't culture!"

 

The 2nd and 3rd Ps of being a PM

I guess I’m ultimately calling this the 3Ps of being a PM. Very Kotler. Much jargon. In the off chance that you missed the first post where I talk about Prioritization being the first and foremost attribute of a product manager, you can read it here

At the outset, a product manager is required to have a very good understanding of the market, competition, business models, future trends apart from knowing the user thoroughly. The insights gained from the above and channelized into better decision making is what, I reckon, constitutes the second important P of being a product manager — Pulse

I may be oversimplifying it but with my limited experience and reading about product failures and successes, it is very important for the product manager to have her ears close to the ground. This enables you to not only understand the environment in which your product is being used/consumed but it also helps you predict/anticipate for the foreseeable future to a certain degree. 

  • Getting a pulse of your customers’ problems, needs, aspirations, behavior helps you build better products. Clearly, a no-brainer. 
  • Getting a pulse of your competition helps you identify your competitive advantage. Go a step further and talk to your competitor’s customers. It helps you beyond the realm of product management, say if, Company X is kick ass at marketing. Can those serve as inputs to your internal stakeholders? Or can there be possible synergies that can be explored to benefit you and the competitor? 
  • Getting a pulse on trends helps you build better products. Trends would encompass everything from market/economy to consumer/behavioral to technology. How would you incorporate these trends to make your product better? 
  • Acting on impulse helps you build products effectively and efficiently. Here’s a really neat graph published by Hacker Noon which hits the spot about what I’m trying to get at. This point transcends the scientific aspect of being a product manager and makes it seem like product management is also an art form. Unfortunately, this can be learnt only through experience, but here’s a heads up nonetheless. 

All in all, pulse, is a very fluffy word to describe what I just wrote but I believe the best product managers have this as an unsaid trait. It comes naturally to the curious and the ambitious. Personally, I’ve been trying to better myself at getting a pulse of the aforementioned things. I try to read more, I listen to relevant podcasts and I avoid any blinders restricting my vision lest I miss out on anything. 

So…great, you’ve nailed your product-market fit, you’ve validated your ideas, you’ve prioritized your backlog…what next? 

The third important P of being a product manager is Project Execution. Notice, how I don’t say project management. How a product manager brings design and technology together is what constitutes execution to me. Project execution would certainly vary from company to company. In more established companies like an Amazon or Facebook, a product manager isn’t alone in execution. One works with technical product managers, program managers, engineering managers, tech/dev leads and so on. But if you’re in a seed-funded or series A funded startup, product managers end up playing a larger role in execution. The scope of responsibilities vary, but I’m going to talk from my own personal experience. 

  • People — The success of project execution solely depends on your team. It is important for the entire team (designers, engineers, QA testers) to be on the same page. But hey, you’re a product manager. You have no authority over everyone else. This is where as a product manager, you need to play your ‘people skills’ cards well. I strongly believing that motivating the team before and after the project, irrespective of the size of the release, is key to having the team stick together. You show them impact, the potential of a product they’re building and how important each of their contributions are. A product manager must in no way take credit away from the team, after all they’re doing all the heavy lifting. Sure, you “conceptualized” the idea but make no mistake about it — your team will lose faith in you. 
  • Timelines — You will need to approximate timelines pre-development while sprint planning. You will need to get finer timelines from design and development. You will need to give out timelines with additional buffer, wherever necessary, to your stakeholders. Timelines are sacrosanct. There will definitely be times where you don’t meet these deadlines but it’s crucial to inform your stakeholders about any delay and possible alternative timelines. 
  • Development — If you’re a non-technical product manager, you would be solely reliant on your engineer leads or senior engineers. Invariably, engineers do come back to product managers with doubts, cases missed, cases where they’re block. It’s your role as a product manager to ensure that any doubts/blockers are swiftly resolved. You gain the respect of an engineer if you clear her blockers promptly. 
  • Testing — One of my strengths as a product manager is that I’m very hands-on with my product during development and testing. The more rigorous the testing, the fewer chances of your product failing in the user’s hands. Once the engineer(s) hand over the product to the QA team for testing, I step in between to do a pre-UAT (user acceptance test) where I try to ensure that the product is behaving as it should for the users’ major cases. I say ‘major cases’ because you are generally constrained for time. The pre-UAT testing phase significantly reduces the back-and-forth exchanges between QA and engineers. Once the QA team gives a sign off on product testing, I usually perform a UAT thoroughly to ensure that the product is ready to be shipped. 
  • Shipping — Here you have it, your feature/product moved from a staging test bed to your production servers. I prefer to ship out new releases on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays or when the next day is not a holiday. That’s because in the slightest chance that there is a bug, you have the team available to quickly re-ship a bug-free version as soon as possible. 
  • Post-shipping — Is a product manager’s job done after shipping? Hell no. Sure you may have dusted your hands and got that awesome product released. While this doesn’t fall under the purview of ‘execution’, how else will you measure how successful it is? Are your users using the product as intended? Whether it’s a beta release or a full fledged roll-out, it is essential to choose the right metrics and have those metrics closely monitored either via data pulled from the database or analytics tools like Google Analytics or Mixpanel. A topic like measuring success metrics would require its own blog post. 

So there we have it — Pulse and Project Execution, the two remaining Ps in what makes my three essential Ps of being a product manager. While I can’t cover everything with this 3Ps post because, let’s face it, product management is a fluid field, part science and part art. 

I would love any feedback on this post. Do write in at me@vcent.in if you would like to talk further about product management. 

The first P of being a PM

The idea for this series of posts stemmed from a completely different discussion I had with a colleague on the differences between product management and program management. I won’t delve into that but what got my mind racing was me trying to introspect on a product manager’s role. After running through a whole host of responsibilities and attributes, I finally narrowed it down on Prioritization. I believe this is the first and foremost task a product manager has to be responsible for. I did cover this briefly in my introductory post of my first month as a Product Manager. 

Why is prioritization important?
As a product manager, you are measured against metrics related to your user’s goals. These metrics could range from Gross Margin Value (GMV) to Average Order Value (AOV) to Engagement (DAUs, Cohorts) and so on. There is absolutely no room for anything else if your features/releases aren’t impacting the metrics the most. It’s the holy grail. Intercom published a really informative read on prioritization. They subscribe to a model called the RICE framework — Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort. Each of these parameters are scored and the overall RICE score determines the priority of a feature. Honestly, it cannot get simpler than this. But I personally also like to leave some room for judgement and intuition as well. What follows from prioritization is the product roadmap. 

Roadmap vs Ad hoc Requests
A product roadmap is created after you are done prioritizing tasks and features/releases. Depending on the stage of your company, you may have a roadmap for a quarter, a year or possibly even more than that. I’ve only worked for small to medium sized startups so my product roadmaps haven’t gone beyond 6 months. I believe that once you’ve gotten the items in your roadmap prioritized, half your job is done. But wait…

…and just when you’re mid-way feeling good about your roadmap going on as planned, someone from the marketing team makes a feature-request. Someone from Finance asks for alterations in certain dashboards. Long story short, it’s a balancing act between handling ad hoc requests and ensuring you’re still on course with the roadmap. On receiving an ad hoc request, I ask myself (and the stakeholder) these high-level questions:

  1. What is the impact on my user and the aforementioned metrics?
  2. Can I measure this impact? Short term gain or long term gain?
  3. How much of a pain point is it to the stakeholder/user? 
  4. Can I quantify or measure the pain point or criticality of #3? 
  5. Can it be resolved or shipped with a complementary feature which is already in the product roadmap?
  6. What is the effort (quantified by time) involved? 

There are more questions but I’ll stick to the above six. Based on these, I take a hard call on whether to pursue ad hoc requests at that time or post-pone working on it or shoot it down all together. 

What certainly helps is organizing your engineering team into developers who can work on long term features and shorter term features separately. I have seen this through experience as I’ve faced resource crunch working with small teams of about 5–6 developers. I may have groups of 2 or 3 developers working on the big ticket items which typically have a development effort of more than 1-2 weeks. On the side, I will reserve one developer who will work on relatively smaller features (development effort of ~3 days or less). If you can draw up a mental picture of a Gantt chart, you will realize that I am constantly shipping small features and/or bug fixes on a regular basis without having the major chunk of my roadmap affected. In light of this segregation of resource, I would then assign the ad hoc requests (post scrutinizing on whether to take them up, of course) to the developer working on short term features. In the worst case scenario, I would be able to get to those ad-hoc requests in a few days. There you have it, my approach on handling a roadmap with ad hoc requests. (Vincent’s secret sauce much?)

Dealing with stake-holders
By nature of the PM role, you will be dealing with multiple stakeholders and inevitably, everyone wants their requests as soon as possible. To be specific, I’m talking about internal stakeholders of the company such as marketing, finance, sales, operations and others. Prioritization becomes important more than any where else. As I had described earlier, there will be times you have to shoot down proposals or feature requests by nature of failing the ad hoc test. I wish there was a surefire way of coming out with a win-win outcome. It’s subjective and depends on the context of the discussion. I have learnt though, that being empathetic with your fellow peers is a step in the right direction. Back up your reasons with data, guesstimates or strong hypothesis to ensure that your stance defensible. Without these, it’s all about people management skills. On the flip side, do take into account that these stakeholders are equally important to you and the success of your product roadmap. One such example would be at the time of product launch, you’d have to coordinate with the sales and marketing teams to conduct demos with customers/sales representatives. I guess you get my drift, right? Product managers need to develop people skills to handle such situations. 

If there was a punk rock song about product management, it would be ‘Prioritization Über Alles which translates to ‘prioritization above everything else’. It determines the success or failure of your product. 

Stay tune for the next post — The second P of being a PM.

Best of 2016

It's that time of the year again where I list down my favorite metal albums of 2016. This is a practice that I've been following over the past two years (Czech out the 2015 and 2014 lists). 2016 started off weak with very few releases catching my fancy. But fortunately, the latter part of the year dazzled me with some stellar releases. Traditional heavy metal ruled the roost for me and newcomer bands like Eternal Champion and Sumerlands got multiple plays. There were also some off-kilter releases from Khonsu and Mithras. Overall, the list below is representative of the different genres in metal. Without further ado, I'll dive into them one by one. 

 

10. Khonsu - The Xun Protectorate
Khonsu's sophomore album might fly under the radar for many but let's give them the attention they deserve. The band hails from Bergen (Norway) and their sound can be best described as industrial/progressive metal with a healthy dose of black metal injected in it, making it sound fairly evil. Khonsu is very accessible and for all I know, they may appeal to the Gojira/Ministry fan as well. The sci-fi theme, really detailed artwork, blast beats overlaying industrial sounds and stomping choruses, all make it a grandiose record.

9. Ripper - Experiment of Existence
Ripper from Chile play death/thrash in the vein of early Sepultura and Possessed. The production on the album does justice to the 80s sound and I'm most pleased about that. The second most satisfying thing to hear on the album is the bass. Ripper have paid adequate attention to the bass, as if they are the garnishing atop the onslaught of riffs. This young band will go far! 

8. Blood Incantation - Starspawn
Starspawn is the only pure death metal styled album that caught my fancy this year. Blood Incantation do riffs excellently and by Jove, will the riffs hit you hard! The band primarily lies in the intersection of old school death metal and tech-death sound. On a side note, the more you listen to this album, the more you will appreciate the song arrangements and the good use of atmospheric passages (which build up to full fledged songs). 

7. Mithras - On Strange Loops
Mithras make a triumphant return with an album after 9 years and it did not disappoint at all. Sure, I could rank it higher but I was severely biased towards other sub-genres. Attempting to classify On Strange Loops would be a task carried out in vain but nonetheless here goes nothing. While the foundation of the album is laid in tech-death, Mithras have also created modern-sounding atmsopheric and progressive elements in their songs. It took a while to appreciate the album but when I was able to, it was very satisfying. 

6. Thrawsunblat - Metachthonia
I can't recall many melodic/folk black metal albums that have made an impact on me in the past couple of years. Well, Thrawsunblat have certainly done so with Metachthonia. The album meets all the expectations one might have before listening to songs in this genre. There is never a dull moment while listening to this, which only exemplifies the excellent songwriting. Vocals alternate appropriately between clean and harsh. There are acoustic-foresty snippets which add fresh and new dimensions to the songs. The catchy melodies will get your head bobbing in no time. The album clocks in close to an hour and at the end of it, you'll probably tell yourself that this band needs to keep going to make many more such albums!

5. Mare Cognitum - Luminiferous Aether
Mare Cognitum is the brainchild of Jacob Buczarski, who has been unrelenting with his project's releases year after year. While Luminiferous Aether may not be his best work, this album does carry on in the same vein as his previous albums; Dripping in cosmic themes, lots of tremolo-picked riffery while at the same time creating that warm characteristic black metal atmosphere. The album serves as excellent background music as well as one to be discerned with scrutiny. 

4. Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire
We're moving into traditional heavy metal territory now. This piqued my interest because of a Manowar-like album cover. Eternal Champion is a name taken from an epic fantasy Multiverse novel series by Michael Moorcock. Naturally, the lyrical themes do justice to that. As far as the musicality is concerned, the band plays traditional heavy metal with some first wave traditional doom-laden parts too. It's a great debut full length release for the band, although I would've liked to hear more anthemic memorable choruses in this. 

3. Vektor - Terminal Redux
Enter the mad scientists of who thrash as much as they prog! This has probably been one of my most anticipated albums of 2016 and they delivered an album which sounds as fresh today as it will many years down the line. The songs, much a characteristic to Vektor's style of writing, are long and winding. This needs repeat listens to gain an appreciation of the intricate layering put forth in this record. Terminal Redux is easily the best thrash album of the year. 

2. Khemmis - Hunted
Khemmis is the only doom band on my list. But it rightfully earns this position because of a stellar sophomore album. While I did say 'doom', many of the songs delve into heavy metal and stoner rock territories. I think what won me over is the vocals - clean, soaring and somewhat reminiscent of Solstice (UK band). Another aspect of Khemmis that I really liked was the variation. Doom bands can get caught in the rut with monotonous songs but not Khemmis. They switched it up a bit with galloping tunes like Three Gates. Almost sounded like the band High On Fire and before you know it, they were back to their epic doom parts. The guitar work (riffs and solos) is top-notch on Hunted.  

1. Sumerlands - Sumerlands
So it came as a massive surprise to me that the two guitarists from Eternal Champion play for Sumerlands too. The other surprise was seeing Phil Swanson, of Hour of 13 fame, do vocals here. For lack of a better word, Sumerlands' debut is a very complete album. This is heavy metal at its finest and I think Phil's voice suits this kind of music brilliantly. I can liken his vocals to early Black Sabbath. With each of the 8 songs averaging at around the 4 minute mark, it's fairly easy to get through the album in no time. There's no fluff. Sumerlands packs as much as they can into those minutes, while giving each song a different treatment. The quality of music spreads across all songs evenly (if there's such a thing like that) and that's my main criteria for ranking Sumerlands numero uno. So give this album a spin and enjoy riding its glorious riffs!