Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination. — John Dewey
Product management is, at its best, a form of hacking.
Many companies still expect product managers to produce fully formed and detailed product specifications, sometimes right down to the level of saying exactly how every component of a software product should work.
In his famous article Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham pointed out many similarities between making software and making art. He said that, like art, “Great software .. requires a fanatical devotion to beauty.” Less well known are his thoughts on what happens when product managers control the software design. When that happens, one person is designing and another person is making — the what is decided before the how. And that’s not a good situation for creating good software.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a good situation for making great products either.
Good product managers are also makers — we are not, and should not be, ivory tower designers. We work hand in hand with our engineering teams, not to dictate, but rather to help guide the software into the shape of a solution to complex problems.
We shouldn’t be designing the software itself (that’s obvious), but perhaps less obvious is that we shouldn’t design the solution to the customer’s problem before building it. Designing and building are one and the same process, just like when making art.
As someone who is both a painter and a product manager, I understand this analogy really deeply and it is a good one.
When I paint I never start with an idea of the final image or design. Instead, I start by doing. I immediately lay down color and texture and see where it suggests I go next. There’s an element of chance to it, as well as expressivity and emotion. As I begin to refine the work, I continue to pay attention to every detail. I work and rework and change what I have as I go. The process itself creates the final painting, and the design is in the making, not something separate.
Part of what makes product management tricky, challenging, and fun, is that you do this product hacking as a team. There are product managers who convey their ideas to business stakeholders and tech leads and then disappear until the final build is ready. That’s a mistake.
As product manager, you play the role of the customer, using and testing every iteration of the software yourself. You help get it in front of actual customers at every opportunity. You watch them use it and you ask questions. That’s the process where you really find out what you are building. You can and should absolutely understand the customer’s needs ahead of time as deeply as you can, but the intersection of those needs with your solution always reveals surprising new insights. These insights can be rolled in iteratively, so that you end up with something that is functionally as well as emotionally beautiful.
That’s the art of product hacking.