Product Culture Marty Cagan

The Nature of Product

I spend so much of my time coaching, writing, and talking about how different it is to build products at strong product companies versus the rest.

When a product person, or especially a product coach, has not yet had the good fortune to work on a strong product team at a strong product company, then one of the most essential concepts of all, is to try to convey the fundamental nature of technology-powered products.

People often think they understand this, but they usually don’t.  And in truth, until you’ve personally experienced it, it’s hard to grasp.  I often feel like I’m trying to describe what the Grand Canyon looks like in real life to someone that’s only seen photos.

So much of what I’ve written is essentially trying to describe this concept from every angle I can think of.  Trying to capture the dynamics of the necessary collaboration.  The source of real inspiration.  The obsession with innovating on behalf of our customers.  The rapid and persistent prototyping, testing and iteration.  And how fundamentally different all this is from what roadmap-driven feature-teams do.

In this article, I’d like to share how Steve Jobs tried to explain this concept.

In 1995, after he had been fired from his own company, and had some time to contemplate what he’d learned, he was interviewed for a PBS Documentary called Triumph of the Nerds.  They only used 10 minutes or so in the eventual documentary, but it turns out that the full 70-minute interview was lost in shipping.  

It wasn’t until after Steve Jobs passed away years later that the director found a copy of that full interview buried in his garage (in Silicon Valley there is always a garage in the story ;), and watching the interview in light of how he had saved Apple from the brink of bankruptcy, the director realized the treasure he now had in his possession.

You can – and you absolutely should – watch the full interview here.  I consider the hour you’ll spend watching this very likely one of the most valuable hours of your professional development.

He covers a wide range of product topics, including the nature of technology-powered products, but also the dynamics of strong product teams, what he considers “the disease of process people,” the perils of product roadmaps, why so many companies lose their product mojo, and the consequences of a CEO that comes from sales or marketing, rather than from product. 

While this interview is from 1995, it is remarkably, distressingly, relevant today.

But for this article, I’d like to highlight one particular segment, where he speaks to the nature of technology-powered products.

In this discussion, he is trying to point out that the common problem of stakeholders or customers picking their favorite ideas, and putting them on roadmaps, and how just telling their feature-teams to “build it” is destined to result in bad products.  He is trying to contrast that with how product works in strong product companies:

“There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between a great idea and a great product.  

As you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows.  It never comes out like it starts, because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it.  And you also find there are tremendous trade-offs you have to make… 

Designing a product is keeping 5000 things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want.  And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.”  

This is as good of a definition of product discovery as I’ve seen.  

And it’s worth pointing out that he’s emphasizing solution discovery.  Too many product managers and product designers want to spend all their time in problem discovery, and not get their hands dirty in solution discovery – the whole nonsense of “product managers are responsible for the what and not the how.”

He goes on to provide some great analogies on the type of collaboration, and the type of people that are necessary, in order to evolve an idea to a great product, but hopefully I’ve convinced you it’s worth an hour of your time to watch this.

As you listen to him describe his view of the essential nature of product, try to contrast this with the way your company thinks of product.  Are the product teams just there to implement features for the business?  Is the company more concerned with following a process rather than discovering a valuable solution?

If so, and if you believe you need to transform in order to remain competitive, then I’d urge you to consider what he has to say.