The Startup
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The Startup

A scuba diver’s guide to product management

Last year I got scuba certified. Diving for the first time and every time since has been amazing. During my scuba course and first dives, I constantly caught myself telling my dive instructor how many parallels I could see between product management and diving — each new one that I found excited me more. He was not the right audience for all my product thoughts since he told me repeatedly he did not know what product management was, but I think your fellow product people will get me. I’m writing this as I’m leaving a great few days of diving in Puerto Vallarta.

Dive site information as a product team’s hypothesis: when you’re diving, each site is special for different things: turtles, reefs, sea horses, rays, etc. When you dive you’re constantly looking out for those — sometimes you’ll see them and sometimes you will not. Just because they might be there doesn’t mean that they will be. The same goes for product management — we set hypotheses as teams based on prior information we have about our users, product stage, etc. When we go and test our ideas and assumptions with real people, they sometimes pan out and sometimes don’t. Both in diving and product management, you should know what you’re looking for, and know that sometimes you’ll find it and other times you won’t.

Divemasters as product directors: every group of divers has a divemaster, they’re normally responsible for 6–8 divers. They know the diving spots well, know the currents and the swells, know what to look for, and have more experience — they’re also equipped to help rescue divers if anything goes wrong deep in the ocean. Divemasters are like product directors — they should keep the product teams aligned, make sure product teams have what they need to be successful, and lead the way. They should be equipped to “rescue” product teams in case they need it. Product teams should follow their product director just like divers follow their divemaster.

Diving plan as roadmaps: Before going on any dive the divemaster will talk to his diving group, and together, they’ll make a plan on what they’ll do underwater. Underwater you have limited communication, so it is crucial to get everyone on the same page beforehand and make sure that people can ask any questions or clarifications and that they have space to say something if needed before going underwater. Product teams also need to plan what they will do, figure out what the most important thing to do is, review important concepts, the “why” behind doing things and communicate all of this to their team and stakeholders. A diving plan is like a roadmap — it is a plan that both divers and product teams follow (under or over water) and that they adapt to depending on the circumstances.

Diving buddy as the balanced team: when you’re diving, you always have a buddy. The buddy is there to take care of you, and you’re there to take care of them. The vast majority of accidents in diving happen when buddies get split up, so it is one of the core rules of diving always to stay close to your buddy and to take care of each other. You’re always communicating and checking in since you’re both different, and the environment affects everyone in a different way. The diving buddy practice is directly related to how product managers engage with their balanced teams. They are all different as you have engineering, design, product marketing, data. Everyone has different needs. You’re constantly communicating and making sure that you’re all on the same page, and, most importantly, you’re all in this together. There is no teammate left behind on a balanced team, same as in diving. Your buddy is there for you just like you’re there for him in diving and product teams — you’re stronger and safer together!

Diving as launching products: there is a lot in a dive that you cannot control — you can pick the site, the thickness of your wetsuit, your equipment, but you have no control over the tides, the swell, the currents, and on what animals and wildlife you will see when you get down. The experience of jumping in the water and diving is similar to launching a product — you have hopes, and you can control a limited number of things, but once your product is “out in the wild” the strength lies on adapting, staying calm, and fixing issues in their natural environment. This happens in diving as well — sometimes, water comes in your mask, or you lose your breathing piece, or you need to adjust your equipment. All of this is uncomfortable, and you need to resolve it underwater because going up just to take water outside of the mask is simply not an option. Our products, once launched, are “out in the wild,” and we can rarely roll them back completely without any repercussions, so we need to make changes and adjust them while they’re in production.

Learning by doing in Diving and Product: There is a lot of literature, courses, tools, and frameworks in product management. Those are all helpful for us to start developing a mindset of what product is and to learn different tools that we can apply in our work, but they do not replace “doing” product management. The biggest advice I give for people that are interested in product or that want to improve their product skills is to do the work and put it into practice. This is very similar to diving — when you’re learning how to dive you have theory lessons where you learn the concepts, but the vast majority of the course is done in the pool with diving equipment and in open water dives. Both product management and diving are learned through doing — the theory will only get you so far, it is all about living situation in its real context, being in the moment, and combining instinct with theory and monitoring.

As product people, I believe we rarely stop thinking about our products and about overall creating great experiences for users. It is inspiring to me how we can flex our product muscles through daily life activities like going to a restaurant or a store, having interactions with our friends, and even underwater when scuba diving!

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