Product Marty Cagan

Best vs. Rest FAQ

In my last article I discussed the two different product worlds that I straddle, and I heard from quite a few people from each of the two camps, as well as several that shared that they’ve worked in both.  I thought it might be useful to share the most common follow-up questions and my responses:

Q: I want to learn more about the best companies – not just the techniques that you share in your writing, but more about their cultures and their broader views on product.  How can I learn more?

A: The four large strong product companies I most commonly cite are Apple, Amazon, Google and Netflix.  Many books and articles have been written about each, but of those that I’ve read (I have read quite a few but certainly not all of them), these are the ones that I think do the best job of sharing what’s important.

There is an important caveat here.  When an author writes a book, she is sharing what she considers most important and relevant.  When I write a book or an article, I am doing the same thing.  In my case, I’ve been heavily influenced by my discussions with current and former product people from these companies, and obviously I also bring a strong product bias.  So, realize you are always getting a view on the company through a particular lens.

Apple is the most secretive commercial company I know.  Most books that have been written about them are about their colorful co-founder, and much less about the inner workings.  My favorite book on how the actual work of product is done at Apple is Creative Selection by former engineering lead Ken Kocienda. Ken worked on some of the company’s most important products and technologies, during what I’d consider the peak innovation period for the company (so far).

Amazon is the least secretive, as their founder Jeff Bezos has been sharing truly valuable insights into product and leadership since the early days of the company.  The new book Working Backwards by long-time Amazonians Colin Bryar and Bill Carr does the best job so far in highlighting the important aspects of how the company has created such a consistent machine for innovation.

Google is a tougher one because it’s a very large and sprawling company where one team in one group can often work very different than another.  But there are common principles and my favorite book (so far) is How Google Works by former CEO Eric Schmidt, and former head of product Jonathan Rosenberg.

By far my favorite book on Netflix is the newly released No Rules Rules by co-founder Reed Hastings along with Erin Meyer.  Most of what’s been written prior on Netflix is more origin story than innovation engine, and this book gives you a good look at a company that sets the empowerment dial to 10.

Q: I want to give my CEO some books on the value of empowerment as a general leadership strategy.  Are there books like that?

A: There are so many.  These are my top 10 favorites:

You might be wondering if there are so many good books about empowerment in general, why would we need to write the book EMPOWERED?  The reason is that these books make the argument for empowerment, but none of them even try to show how to set up a product and technology organization that lives these principles.

Q: “Why are you spending so much effort trying to help old companies transform?  The entire startup ecosystem we live in (and have benefited from) exists largely because these old companies have no real desire or ability to take care of their customers.  If those companies knew how to work and innovate like Amazon, it would be infinitely harder for us to win over their customers.”

A: This turned out to be the toughest question.  I think there are several reasons:

First, I have friends at many of these companies, and if their company fails, their lives and careers will be impacted.

Second, I admit I am bothered when it’s not a fair fight.  If the company knows what they need to do, but chooses not to, then that’s one thing, but in many cases their leaders are genuinely in the dark.

Finally, and most importantly, I think of the literally hundreds of thousands of product people – engineers, designers, product managers and others – where their talents are at best underutilized, and at worst, wasted.  The untapped potential out there is massive.  Could they leave and join a better company?  Sometimes, but in most cases not easily.