How To Learn Product Management

Back in the old days, you had to read a lot of books to learn product management. (Photo by mer chau, via flickr, CC iicense)
Back in the old days, you had to read a lot of books to learn product management. (Photo by mer chau, via flickr, CC iicense)

How did we learn product management? In this episode Rob and I share some stories about how we learned product management, how we learn new things in general, and what we’re focused on learning right now.

How Did Nils Learn Product Management In The Dark Ages?

I start out by talking about how I learned product management. When I started there was no Product School, no General Assembly, not even Pragmatic Marketing. So a lot of it was seat of the pants, learning on the job. In my journey I learned from everything and everyone, but there are a few key influences, several of which I mention in the episode, especially a few books that I still recommend.

  • Crossing The Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore, is the classic. Key concepts from Crossing the Chasm that will always be important for product managers include “the whole product” and understanding the customer’s pain points. And it has the canonical template for a value proposition. (I talked about about this at length in my “Mental Models for Product Managers” blog post over on my Secret Product Manager Handbook site.
  • Marketing High Technology, by William Davidow, about how Intel succeeded in the early days making the transition from memory to integrated circuits. (This book was also a huge influence on Crossing The Chasm.)
  • Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. A great book to help you make better decisions.
  • Positioning and Marketing Warfare, by Al Trout and Reis’
  • Advertising by David Ogilvy – fun to read, and full of great ideas about how to be successful at selling things.
  • Anything by Peter Drucker, but some especially Managing In A Time of Great Change (which of course is always!)

Tying this back to my recent blog post, you could say I spent my time learning about all kinds of mental models. This worked because in product, everything is relevant. Today, rather than focus on product-oriented books, I tend to learn mostly from non-product management-specific sources.

How Rob Learns New Things

After we exhausted ourselves talking about me, Rob describes his general learning method, and what he’s using it for right now. He has a specific approach that has worked well for him:

  • Once he knows the domain he wants to learn, he starts a wide-ranging survey to understand the boundaries, learn the lingo, and get a sense of the big questions and best practices.
  • He’ll often focus on tutorials, spending time learning and taking notes.
  • At that point, he knows enough to start speaking intelligently to experts, whom he seeks out for more in-depth learning.
  • At the same time, he’ll work on explaining the concepts to others – this is one of the reasons Rob signed on to teach some product management courses at Product School.

Rob is currently using this process to learn more about machine learning and artificial intelligence, partly for intellectual curiosity, partly to determine if he can make use of it in his product.

There are many others methods for learning. Rob points out that one of his friends has a very different approach – he finds an expert and pays them to teach him new things. We realized it’s something we generally just don’t think about – “Oh, there’s a shortcut to learning this?”

What You Can Do Today To Put These Ideas Into Practice

Three key takeaways from this episode – and things you should start doing today:

  1. Continuing to learn is critical to every job of today or the future.
  2. Learn from great books – especially Crossing the Chasm and Decisive.
  3. There are different sources, and everyone is different. Find your own methodology. But do it.