The Product Manager’s Essential Reading List for 2018
Two years ago, around the birth of my first daughter, I published a list of books that I’d planned to read while bonding with her during Facebook’s generous four-month paternity leave. That list got a lot more interest than I’d imagined — and garnered enough additional suggestions for me to publish an addendum.
It’s two years later, and my second daughter was born two weeks ago. With another generous tranche of paternity leave before me, I thought it was time to publish a new list of books that I’ve heard might be worth a read for new and seasoned PM’s a like. With the holidays approaching, it might also be a great time to add some of them to your Christmas list.
Unlike before, I’ve read none of these — so I can’t vouch for them directly. But all have been suggested to me by friends, coworkers or people I really respect and admire in our profession. I’m going to read as many as I can in 2018.
- The Information by James Gleick
We’re living through an information revolution — the quantity of information captured and stores, and the speed at which it can be transmitted and processed is increasing exponentially. This book covers how information has evolved across a massive timescale — from the jungle drums and smoke signals used for millennia, to the binary digit to Wikipedia. Nearly all of the products we build and manage today rely on storing or processing information at their core — so it’s worth having a grounding in information theory in a broad sense.
- Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
As PMs we need the skills to get people to believe in a goal, and work together to achieve it. This book is the story of two Navy SEAL officers and the leadership strategies they developed in the most challenging of environments — the war zone — and how many are applicable to running a team, department or company.
- Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham
A series of essays from the prominent programmer and founder of Y Combinator on how the world changes as everything becomes computer (amongst other topics).
- Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
Using the relationships between the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Gödel as it’s pivot, this classic 38-year old book looks at the surprising connections between things and what it means for the future of computers and society itself.
- Inspired by Marty Cagan
Solid cookbook on how to create a product culture that gets you and your team building things based on user needs and customer feedback. Avoids being dry by covering real-world examples from companies large and small and at various stages of their growth. Originally published ten years ago, it’s about to be updated: the 2nd edition that comes out just in time for the holidays.
- Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
Part of understanding how businesses work (and thus how to build a successful one) is to be fluent in the language and principles of finance. This book argues that debt as a concept came way before money as a concept, and thus to understand how people behave and the invisible incentives acting upon them, you need to understand debt: who owes what to whom.
- Masters of Doom by David Kushner
The story of John Carmack and John Romero, and how they built Doom and Quake — two of the most influential video games ever. There’s no better way to learn about building things than to hear the stories of the people who’ve ridden the rollercoaster all the way up and all the way down.
- Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
How much of success (or failure, for that matter) is luck vs judgement? For every successful company, there’s often several talented groups of people who were also pursuing the same idea. Why didn’t they win? This book breaks down the influence of luck on outcomes, thus how to think about both success and failure.
- The Visual Display of Quantitive Information by Edward R. Tufte
Data is a critical part of making product decisions and a powerful tool to influence people. Every top PM I know is fluent in using data to understand their products, and using data visualizations to tell stories. This book takes it back to the basics and helps you understand the fundamentals of presenting data in a clear, legible, and (most importantly) useful way.
- Emotional Design by Donald Norman
Follow up to the classic The Design of Everyday Things, this book attempts to explain why we love (or hate) the products we do: because they make us feel something. Once you understand this, you begin to understand why so many great products inject personality into their designs: to build a stronger, deeper relationship with you, the user.
- The Essential Drucker by Peter F. Drucker
Products are businesses. Peter Drucker is thought of as one of the key thinkers about business, organization and culture of the last century. This is a compilation of some of his most important writings and covers topics as diverse as personal time management, planning a career, the key information you need to run a business, and how society is being changing by the stronger role being played by entrepreneurship.
- Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Remember that memorable line from Game of Thrones: “Chaos is a ladder”? This book examines the concept of uncertainty and it’s role in building and shaping the things around us. Being able to survive (and thrive) in turbulent times is a common theme in the genesis stories of most products and companies.
- Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers
The book that introduced the concept of the early adopter over 50 years ago. If you want to start something new, you need to understand how ideas spread. People have different levels of tolerance for the new. Finding the right people to sell your idea/product/service too at the outset is critical to proving traction, and growing from the early adopters to the rest.
If you’ve already read, or get a chance to read these, I’d love to hear your key takeaways.
And if you have suggestions for other books that have moved your thinking as a PM forward, I’d love to hear them — please leave your suggestions in the comments below.