Pumping the Brakes to Focus on Product Craft

Michael Heinley
Jun 29, 2020 · 5 min read

I’m in awe of Technologists.

Not their ability to magically turn a wall of gibberish on a screen into a magical experience. Or their mindset in designing systems that have more pipes and cylinders than an oil refinery. Or their panache for drinking ten store-brand colas in one sitting while they’re code binging.

No, I’m in awe of the discipline Technologists have to all get up at a designated time, migrate to a common area, sit down again… and learn something new.

That’s it! Technologists actually make the time to pump the brakes on their daily routine and focus on their craft. It is prioritized above all of the daily arm-flailing, hand-wringing, and collar-loosening characteristic of working in a product shop. It’s time that they set on a shelf that no one can reach:

“Brian giving a talk about Python programming? Reduce the capacity in the sprint to accommodate. Comp tickets to the AWS conference in town? Push the deadline to next Monday. MeetUp at a nearby office this evening? Well, let’s leave a little earlier around 4:30…”

It’s amazing. And true in every tech organisation I have been a part of. It’s the combination of admirable shared curiosity, dedication to professional improvement, and the practice of actually ring-fencing off time so no one can disrupt it (trust me, no one is disrupting it, I’ve tried). They seem to effortlessly do what we in Product make an annual resolution to improve on but generally cast aside around January 4th.

Obviously learning a new method of utilising Redis Caches is a hard skill that can be somewhat learned in a 2-hour talk. However, the Product professional relies more on absorbing volumes of case studies, tools, and product perspectives to build a better toolkit. While Product professionals are certainly not the cliched “CEO of their own product”, success does require a CEO-like breadth of knowledge. From creating financial models to business cases to navigating terrible HiPPO requests, to talking design in a meaningful way, to presenting to large groups.

Product Management is about developing a comically wide range of traits, but if you can’t change jobs every year to gain them, time must be dedicated to absorbing as much Product content as possible. There’s no way around it. There is simply too wide an array of situations and too short an amount of time in life to organically gain experience on the job. Said another way:

Growing in Product is about how quickly you can run up the experience curve, even when those experiences are not available to you.

Want proof? Pull up ten articles written by accomplished product professionals about the skills and traits needed to become a great product manager. Map them all out on a spreadsheet. You’ll likely see very little overlap, the range is almost comically wide, and they are all in some way, right.

Typically, most organizations don’t have many Product old-timers who have plenty of experience and time to sit down and share it with you. Also, many Product roles are sadly about being a “Product Manager of 1”, meaning the job forces expertise on how to do one specific job in one specific company.

To run up the experience curve and take time to learn, we have to take a lesson from our technologists: pump the brakes and focus on craft.

Pumping the brakes effectively has four key pillars: Realism, Relevancy, Opportunity, and (most importantly) Cover.

Realism: Be honest with yourself

Let’s be real: a “learning” block on your calendar from 3 pm to 4 pm is going to be used as often as plane seat floatation devices. The end of the day has a slightly better chance, but still casino odds at best. Instead, try (1) Scheduling a learning block first thing in the morning before you switch on any communication channels or (2) making a pact or formal recurring meeting with others to learn. This is the Technologists’ trick: learn together. A concept as old as gym buddies and as proven as gravity.

Relevancy: Understanding where you are now and what’s relevant to learn

Entering the Product world and immediately immersing yourself in a 5-week course about machine learning will likely not (read: not) get you where you need to go early in your career. Take a page from Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days and get your foundations right. Absorbing content about the role of PM in an org, the difference between Product Owners and Product Managers, and how to unearth customer needs or gaps will be infinity more helpful.

Been in the role a while? Find skills you don’t have to use in your current role or skills you are consistently bad at in your current role.… be real with yourself: It’s a hidden superpower.

Opportunity: Identify where to obtain knowledge

Videos provide the most obviously digestible and sticky form of high-level learning. Short-format books are emerging that can be read in one sitting. Ubiquitous blogs with decades worth of content (i.e. SVPG, anything Steven Haines) have addressed more nuanced and esoteric content for the mid-level professional. Remember podcasts too. There are so many good ones: Masters of Scale, The Disruptive Voice, Build, Inside Intercom and Rocketship just to name a few..

But please, don’t just start consuming content wildly. Find posts and blurbs that seem relevant, ask people who you respect what they listen to, and always bookmark something for later when you strike gold.

Professional development wormholes are just as real as TikTok wormholes. And equally unfulfilling.

Cover: Managers are the key

If you don’t manage anyone, approach your manager about making learning not just an activity, but an objective. Bring the plan, propose the focus, put craft development within your objectives and ask to be held accountable. Your manager should lean-in to help make sure your focus is correct and review that you are meeting your other commitments. If they are not supportive or threatened because you’re learning elsewhere… get a new job.

If you are a manager, proactively encourage a learning cadence with your people where they are able to log-off and protect their time. Don’t prescribe, but rather give leeway to self-direct their education based on curiosity.

At Booking.com, I host a weekly learning session for PMs in our track that is an hour dedicated to learning. We have roughly four buckets: craft, news about our company, news about our industry, and general commiserating about a problem. As well as two rules: no one can present a deep dive into their product and anyone can bring a topic.

Opening the forum to allow anyone to host has been the biggest driver for creating a sense of community and participation. Usually, PMs bring a guest speaker or a video that resonated with them and create a shared interest and empathy with their peers. Whilst attendance is always optional, it’s telling how many Product people, when given the opportunity, will routinely feed their curiosity with a relevant topic.

Pumping the brakes and focusing on craft is something Technologists have been getting right for decades. Now, it’s our turn. Carve out time to find the best resources, be honest with yourself, grab ten store-brand colas, and learn something relevant.

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