The product manager corollary to @bhorowitz’s Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO
Ben Horowitz’s definition of war and peace in business is perfect:
Peacetime in business means those times when a company has a large advantage vs. the competition in its core market, and its market is growing.
In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources including competition, dramatic macro economic change, market change, supply chain change, and so forth.
This piece is about what great product managers do when they’re at peace versus at war. Spoiler: most PMs, especially PMs at anything resembling a startup, are at war almost constantly.
Even when I was a PM at Google working on search in 2010–2011, we were at war against Bing. Its “decision engine” put answers to queries above links, which was an existential threat to Google’s dogma about what search results could be — until the Knowledge Graph, the product I helped start, finally launched.
Peacetime PM writes vision docs about where the industry is heading and dream use cases for 5 years out. Wartime PM focuses on near-term execution since their company might not be here in 6 months.
Peacetime PM thinks other competitive products are complements that will grow their market. Wartime PM suspects every product is a substitute that will steal her users.
Peacetime PM reads TechCrunch all day looking for companies to buy. Wartime PM skims Techmeme every other day to watch their back.
Peacetime PM avoids conflict and lets ideas percolate throughout the organization over months. Wartime PM embraces disagreement and pulls everyone into a conference room to make a decision that afternoon.
Peacetime PM hates to ever take top-down direction. Wartime PM relishes clarity of focus, even if it comes from someone else’s idea.
Peacetime PM runs a 41-way multi-variate test to find the perfect shade of blue for links. Wartime PM trusts her designer and knows there are bigger hills to climb.
Peacetime PM creates dashboards and runs experiments to improve feature-level vanity metrics. Wartime PM optimizes for top-level active users.
Peacetime PM wants development to work like a waterfall: write a spec, get designs, build it, test it. Wartime PM tries to parallelize everything.
Peacetime PM writes 25-page comprehensive specs. Wartime PM writes 3-page specs that addresses non-obvious issues and contentious questions.
Peacetime PM encourages teammates to take a month to explore far-fetched ideas. Wartime PM keeps her team focused on speed to shipping.
Peacetime PM trades time to launch for expanded scope. Wartime PM can’t afford the time or extra complexity from scope creep.
Peacetime PM thinks it’s always worth adding extra polish to a release. Wartime PM understands what the minimum acceptable quality bar is.
Peacetime PM asks UX research to do a 3 month, 25 person diary study. Wartime PM asks UX research for relevant findings from past studies and for an 8-person, hour-long cognitive walkthrough to validate an idea.
Peacetime PM builds complex Excel models. Wartime PM uses napkins.
Peacetime PM thinks building a feature 5% of people will use is worth doing. Wartime PM focuses on only the features 80% of people will use.
Peacetime PM likes a comfortable pace. Wartime PM knows that’s a temporary luxury.
Am I at peace or at war?
Can you ignore your dashboards because key metrics always go up? Do you get 5 more engineers on your team just by asking? Do you never get involved in closing a candidate? Does your team build custom animation frameworks for new products before validating there’s user demand? Does a +0.1% result from an experiment get your boss excited? Do you have the Stocks app on your homescreen so you can track your net worth from your public company RSUs every day?
If so, then congratulations you are one of the lucky few PMs working in a peacetime environment! Otherwise:
Welcome to war.
Want to work at Slack — in NYC? We are hiring talented engineers, product managers, and designers. Visit slack.com/jobs to find out more, or email me directly at nweiss @ slack-corp . com.