Podcasts for Product Managers

2016 saw me really dive into the world of podcasts. I felt this urge of making my commute times more productive, so I turned to podcasts. With some advice from fellow podcast listening friends, I downloaded the Podcast Addict app (I now use Pocket Casts and it's 100x better) and I was off to the races!

Coincidentally, the period of 2016-17 was the time when I was sinking my teeth further into the field of product management. Here's a joke - "How does one know if a person is a Product Manager?". "S/he'll tell you about it, blog about it, podcast about it and create a PPT about it". Okay I made that up. But the point I'm trying to make here is that there's a lot of material on podcasts directed at new and experienced product managers alike.

Keeping my cynicism aside, I have learnt a lot from these podcasts. They give you a sense that the playing fields are levelled, you can up-skill hard and soft skills, and eventually, you feel at par with accomplished product managers in marquee companies. I'm going to use this opportunity to mention a bunch of podcasts that have helped me grow as a product manager over the past two years. Please note that the list is not in any order of preference. 

1. This is Product Management
This is arguably the most popular podcast for product managers out there. Their amazing catalog of podcasts covers every imaginable topic a product manager would want to listen to. TIPM is produced by the team at Alpha, a tool for generating user insights. While TIPM is vast, I find the tone of the podcasts fairly monotonous. It's less conversational and more of doling out advice or product experiences. Nevertheless, it's a great place to start or revisit for certain key topics. 
Listen: https://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/

2. Rocketship.fm
Rocketship.fm does a great job of creating stories for each of their topics, which makes it a very enjoyable podcast. They usually have a recurring theme across a series of podcasts. It's a podcast that helps a layman understand the goings-on in startup life. While the podcast covers general topics, of late, they have been talking a lot about product related topics. There's a very interesting episode on the origin of product management which talks about the 'Brand Men' at P&G (circa 1930s). For the compelling stories, structure and conversations, I rate this podcast highly.
Listen: http://rocketship.fm/

3. Inside Intercom
Intercom is a tool used for customer support and in-app customer engagement. While I'm not completely sold on their product, I must say that they're doing a fantastic job in getting inbound traffic via their website. They've created a blog and a podcast which comprises of a knowledge base spanning topics on product management and design. It's done well enough that it doesn't feel like "content for the sake of content". Des Traynor, the founder of Intercom, usually hosts the podcast and the show has had respectable guests from the startup/design/product world. There are some great conversations in the podcasts, especially the one on the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework. 
Listen: https://blog.intercom.com/category/podcast/

4. Exponent
It doesn't get more credible than Exponent when it comes to the people behind the podcast. Exponent is run by Ben Thompson, author/founder of Stratechery, and James Allworth, author and Harvard Business Review writer. Exponent isn't directed at product managers but they often talk about over-arching problems, trends, innovations in the technology space. Whether it's AI/ML/Bitcoin, Amazon's dominance or Facebook's newsfeed algorithms, there is always something useful for the listener. The hosts (and guests) pick each other's brains on several topics every week. Prepare yourself for some great analysis and deep-dives into interesting subjects on the Exponent.
Listen: http://exponent.fm/

5. Product Popcorn
Product Popcorn is the Aubrey Plaza of product podcasts. By that I mean, it's quirky and funny. Product Popcorn is hosted by Kimberly and Adam, who will give their light-hearted take on product management interspersed with elephant trumpet sounds. What I love about this podcast is that you'll feel like it's a roundtable discussion with friends. Another aspect of the podcast that I love is that the hosts share updates on their own professional lives, something like a stand-up meeting update. It helps you connect with the hosts and what they encounter on a daily/weekly basis while PMing. I would 12/10 recommend a listen. 
Listen: https://www.productpopcorn.com/

6. The Startup Chat
With close to 300 episodes, the Startup Chat is an important podcast for entrepreneurs and startup folk. It's hosted by Hiten Shah (founder of Kissmetrics) and Steli Efti (founder of close.io), who have been hustling for over 10 years. This podcast pretty much covers all the bases on advice related to starting a startup, the modalities of running one and the specifics on key topics like hiring, processes and more. The episodes usually don't run over 20-25min, which makes it very easily consumable and retainable. I also love how Hiten and Steli can be at loggerheads with each other during debates on "controversial" topics. This podcast becomes more relevant if you're a product manager at a startup because you see these different flavors play out around you. 
Listen: https://thestartupchat.com/

Best of 2017 (Music)

It's listicle time! ♫ 

For the last 3 years, I've been making Albums Of The Year (#AOTY) lists, so 2017 won't be different in any way. These lists consist of albums which have caught my fancy, have high repeat-spins, are "unique" and bring something fresh to the world where most music is shite. While, it's impossible to listen to all the popular and critical releases of 2017, I reckon I would've sampled at least 100 odd full lengths. My personal taste lean towards heavy music, hence these lists comprise mostly of metal music. 

This year had a string of stellar releases popping up towards the end of the year. I've luckily managed to come across such albums this month and have promptly added to my AOTY list. So here goes nothing, in descending order. 

10. Jordablod - Upon My Cremation Pyre
Jordablod's debut was picked up by the (in)famous Iron Bonehead records and that in itself is a reason why it deserves at least a listen. Hailing from Sweden, this one-man band plays black metal swathed in luscious and grand atmospheric/psychedelic vibes. What stood out for me is the guitar work, especially the solos which isn't something that one talks much about in black metal music. I look forward to his future releases. 
Full album stream: https://ironboneheadproductions.bandcamp.com/album/jordablod-upon-my-cremation-pyre

9. Contaminated - Final Man
This is another full length debut to make my list. Contaminated are a death metal band from Australia and they love their tunes crunchy, buzz-saw like (Swedeath influenced), played through a filthy and raw filter with an additional dose of doomy sections. I feel this album borrows the best bits of the Incantation/Immolation sound and marries it beautifully with what death metal bands from Sweden are best known for. It packs quite a punch! 
Full album stream: https://bloodharvestrecords.bandcamp.com/album/final-man-12lp-cd

8. Nokturnal Mortum - Verity
While many die-hard fans would've expected this band to recreate another Voice of Steel (their magnum opus), I honestly feel Nokturnal Mortum did quite a stellar job with Verity. It's more of the same ol' grand and symphonic folk black metal that you'd expect from the band. Verity has an abundance of melodic riffs which will get your head bobbing in no time. For any of you unfamiliar with the band, you can expect a lot of folky sounds played on traditional Ukrainian instruments.
Full album stream: https://nokturnalmortum1.bandcamp.com/album/verity

7. Wiegedood - De Doden Hebben Het Goed II
Wiegedood are a black metal band from Belgium, somewhat born out of an older band called Oathbreaker who play post-hardcore/metal (or some such abomination). I've never been a fan of Oathbreaker so my apprehension to listen to album was justified. Much to the fanfare surrounding this release, I'm glad I checked this album out. It's beautiful if intense tremolo riffing over blast-beats is your thing. The album is also atmospheric in the modern/contemporary black metal way. While this may not appeal much to purists, I feel Wiegedood have produced a great black metal record. I'll definitely revisit this in the years to come.
Full album stream: https://wiegedood.bandcamp.com/album/de-doden-hebben-het-goed-ii

6. Malokarpatan - Nordkarpatenland
Malokarpatan were a last minute addition to my AOTY list as I started listening to this album only two weeks ago. I feel with a couple more full listens, this album could be bumped up to a higher rank. They play a primal form of black metal which essentially is heavy metal with harsh/screechy vocals. Fans of early Venom, Master's Hammer, Bathory or Mortuary Drape will really enjoy this sophomore album by Malokarpatan. As an added bonus, the band also experiments with folky sounds, making it quite an interesting listen. Funnily, the band calls their music - "Old school rural Slovak black metal". A very apt descriptor. 
Full album stream: https://malokarpatan.bandcamp.com/album/nordkarpatenland

5. Hällas - Excerpts From a Future Past
Given this list, I reckon this album will be most accessible for "non-metal" listeners. Hällas play 70s influenced rock, almost progressive too. You'll hear instrumental passages where guitar solos harmonize perfectly with Deep Purple-esque keys. Even if you're overly tired with the retro bandwagon that many bands keep jumping onto, you should still give Hällas a listen because the lovely instrumentation and the song composition are top-notch. It's only their second release and you can hear the maturity in their songs. One of the main reasons I really enjoy Excerpts is because on a deep personal level, I feel the songs/music put me in a self-reflective mood. Not sure what I mean? Listen to the album. 
Full album stream: https://thesignrecords.bandcamp.com/album/h-llas-excerpts-from-a-future-past

4. Perturbator - New Model
James Kent aka Perturbator breathes in new life into his project with New Model. While the foundation of New Model is still built on the retro-synth wave sound, the songs are way more darker and grittier than the previous releases. I've been an ardent follower of Perturbator since 2012, I've also been lucky to see him live (plugging the live video I took in 2015). In that regard, you could call me a big Perturbator fan so my expectations were quite high. Synth-wave as a genre can get very insipid and boring very fast, and hence experimentation is key. Perturbator does just that with different vocal delivery on songs, by slowing down sections and playing around with various industrial elements. New Model makes it difficult to pigeonhole Perturbator as just another retro-synth wave artist, which is great in my opinion. 
Full album stream: https://perturbator.bandcamp.com/album/new-model

3. Shaarimoth - Temple Of The Adversarial Fire
This was the first release of 2017 that caught my attention. Very early on I proclaimed it to be AOTY material and it's survived a whole year retained in my top 10 list. Shaarimoth are from Norway, a place where underrated death metal bands are ready to burst into the scene. Temple of Adversarial Fire is an album which would appeal to black metal fans too, as it rubs off heavily with that characteristic atmospheric sound. While still being very riff-heavy, the band experiments with lots of vacant instrumental doomy passages, tremolo riffing and fast thrashy sections. The production is perfect for my liking where it's finely balanced between murky-sounding and "good clean discernible" sounding. I wish more metalheads listened to Shaarimoth because the album quality retains its consistency from start to finish, making it a truly memorable record.
Full album stream: https://wtcproductions.bandcamp.com/album/temple-of-the-adversarial-fire

2. The Ruins of Beverast - Exuvia
Exuvia is the remains of an insect's exoskeleton when it has shed it off. Is it a metaphor for the new album by Alexander von Meilenwald (the genius behind TRoB)? It could be. TRoB have an extensive discography spanning close to 14 years and Exuvia, in my opinion, gives the early albums a run for their money as TRoB's best work. Exuvia is like a journey into shamanic rituals (look at the album art as well). It is psychedelic, doomy, atmospheric and retains TRoB's characteristic black metal sound. Similar to TRoB's older material, Exuvia's songs meander long and winding, almost merging into one another and they're best consumed from album start to finish. I can't think of a better album in 2017 if a listener wants to immerse herself into a meditative state. Truly hypnotic and highly recommended! 
Full album stream: https://theruinsofbeverast.bandcamp.com/album/exuvia

1. Elder - Reflections of a Floating World
Well well well, here's my favorite release of the year. Elder's 2015 album was highly rated, which I'll admit I missed out on and hereby regret not including it in my list. I'm making amends this year because Reflections of a Floating World is if not better but as good as their previous album. The album is primarily an instrumental stoner/doom masterpiece. It crests with beautiful guitar melodies and then troughs (in a good way) with heavy pounding guitars and drums. I think what makes this album a masterpiece is its wide-appeal. Fans of rock (heavy rock, progressive, rock n' roll), doom metal, psychedelic/stoner music and anyone who appreciates great musicianship will dig this album quite a lot. I see myself still revisiting this album many more times in the future. How will Elder top two successively brilliant releases? One can hope. Until then, enjoy the full album stream below! 
Full album stream: https://beholdtheelder.bandcamp.com/album/reflections-of-a-floating-world

 

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.