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The Product Manager’s Essential Reading List for 2016
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As a PM at Facebook, I’m about to take advantage of our incredible 4-month paternity leave to bond with my new baby girl. While I’m away I want to use the time — in the rare spare moments between feeding and diaper changing — to maintain and extend my thinking on how to create, build, shape and ship products. More broadly, I want to stay current on the wide range of analytical and empathetic skills and industry knowledge that it takes to be a great PM.
Apart from actually building things, reading is one of the ways I’ve tried to hone my craft as a Product Manager. Similarly, most PMs I’ve met can instantly recommend two or three books which transformed their way of thinking, illuminated new perspectives and gave them analogies and mental models that have proved invaluable throughout their careers.
So, in November, I asked the venerable Facebook PM corps for their book recommendations — and they came in thick and fast.
The most striking thing to emerge was the sheer breadth of subjects, styles and premises. The suggestions spanned fiction and non-fiction, war stories, architecture and city planning, design, psychology, management, economics, marketing and algorithms. In hindsight, it’s not that surprising: product management is an incredibly multidisciplinary role — inspiration does and should come from everywhere.
While I collated this list to keep me on my toes between now and May, many folks will be looking for a new intellectual endeavour to start the New Year. So, here, in no particular order, are 26 books to make your 2016 reading all the more nutritious:
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman
A seminal design classic — reminds you how much the little details matter. You’ll never look at a push/pull door in the same way again.
How To Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard
Helped me realise that there are ways to quantify and value even the seemingly unmeasurable. It also sets up the important principle that measurement isn’t necessarily about certainty, but rather decreasing uncertainty — something I think about in every discussion about metrics and goals. Essential skills for data-inspired product management.
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
One of the founders of Pixar shows how to build a culture of creativity and create space for people to excel — both through general principles, and vignettes from his experiences at Pixar and Disney Animation.
Understanding Media (aka ‘The medium is the message’) by Marshall McLuhan
The simple idea that the medium shapes how information flows as much if not more than the message itself. Pithy examples being a letter you mail vs a WhatsApp message, or the space to share created by Snapchat’s self-destructing messages vs Twitter’s permanence and indexability.
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
How to go to market with the right message. The book continues the idea of “stickiness” popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.
Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner
A history of the creation of the Internet. Super-interesting and useful to understand how these systems — on which our entire industry relies — were built.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
How social dynamics can make or break products and teams.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Solve a problem, then solve another one.
What Every BODY Is Saying by Joe Navarro
An ex-FBI agent’s take on how to look at body language, and how to adjust your approach for working with different people based on the unconscious signals we send out.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Great examples of how urban planners build spaces and city blocks based on core human behaviuors/interactions that also seem to hold true when we interact online.
Thunder Below by Eugene Fluckey
Fluckey transformed submarine warfare as the captain of the USS Barb in the Pacific during WWII. Impact-driven mission with high stakes? Check. Diverse and highly skilled team of ~100 in close quarters for months on end? Check. Flaky technology? Check. Constrained resources and a limited number of opportunities for test/launch/feedback before success or failure is declared? Check. Need for constant innovation in tactics and strategy in a dynamic environment? Check.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
A study of how we make decisions. Equally useful in understanding our own thinking and the thinking of the people we work with — but also in understanding the customer or end-user we’re building products to serve.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
The seminal pop-economics book. In a subject which has a reputation for dryness, Freakonomics cuts through by using the principles of economics (markets, supply and demand, incentives etc) to explain why things are the way they are, and how they could be different.
Getting Past NO by William Ury
The negotiation bible.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Sounds like a low-budget listicle, but over 25 years and with over 25 million copies sold, its definitely more than that. Trusted by leaders across business, politics and beyond.
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
A book on how big companies become irrelevant. Many examples from the steel and computer chip industries but the book applies to all industries and is timeless. The gem in this book is to know “what is the ‘job’ your company is trying to do”.
It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by Michael Abrashoff
How a captain turned around the USS Benfold to become one of the highest performing ships in the navy. Written by the man himself. Leadership style is very applicable to less hierarchical organizations so a lot can be taken from this book.
The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison & Craig Walsh
Focus on the pre-requisites to achieving your goal and be relentless in your preparation in order to increase your probability of winning. Establish a Standard of Performance and stick with it.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
2011 bestseller which describes the cognitive biases that impact our thinking, judgment, and decision making processes (which PMs especially face in their day to day). Goes through dozens of experiments that had a profound affect on the field of psychology, reasoning, and decision making.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Lessons from the front line of running a company. While some PMs mis-characterise (in my opinion) themselves as the CEO of their product, there’s lots of direct and indirect lessons about being a great PM — particularly around leadership and working with groups of people. Pacy, witty and full of real anecdotes.
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte
William Whyte was hired by the city of New York to figure out what makes a good public space. He filmed thousands of hours of footage and came up with some pretty crazy insights. Sounds unconnected, but the best products are built around how people naturally want to react with their environment.
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander
How to build good physical spaces, based on facts about human nature that never change. And the meta-lesson: how to make “pattern languages” for designing many different instances of a thing.
Algorithms of the Intelligent Web by Haralambos Marmanis and Dmitry Babenko
This is one of the best starter books for those looking for an approachable introduction to the mysterious topic of “ranking”. Really useful read to start building intuition about how dynamic content and data systems operate. New version coming out in March 2016.
An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill
Although a somewhat controversial figure in life, Eric Gill’s impact on typography is hard to deny. Not only did he sculpt Prospero and Arielwhich adorn the headquarters of my former employer, the BBC — he designed Gill Sans, one of the most widely used sans-serif typefaces. Typography can communicate much about a product’s personality and promise, so lessons from a master are worth hearing.
Of this list, only the first three were initially recommended by me, and I’ve personally only read 10 of them — that’s the point of a great book list. The 16 others are included because they were recommended by people I trust and respect — other PMs at Facebook. In the cases where I’ve not read the book, I’ve copied or paraphrased the reason why that person suggested it should be on the list. I’ve omitted people’s names not to take credit, but while I await their consent to be identified.
This list is really just scratching the surface. If you’re a PM and you’ve read a book that changed the trajectory of your career, I’d love to hear it — please post your own recommendations in the comments below and I’ll consider updating this list to include them.
Bring on 2016!
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