The Product Manager’s Reading list 2019

At the beginning of 2018, I was trying to invent a mechanism to motivate myself to read more. I studied habit formation (this framework by BJ Fogg is actually quite useful). I even made a bet with a friend on who would read more books by the end of the month, and lost as you might have guessed. What I realized as a result of all these manipulations is that no trick or framework is good enough when the book you are reading is boring or irrelevant. So I came up with a few principles:

  • Don’t try to read every page of every book. Don’t be afraid to skip some if this specific chapter is totally unrelated to what you are trying to learn.
  • Internalize. Reading a book doesn’t have any value without you reflecting on the ideas and integrating them into your life. Quantity of books doesn’t matter nearly as much as the quality of your thoughts afterwards.
  • Ask people for recommendations. To be more precise, ask people you respect/are inspired by. It would save you lots of time on searching for and choosing only the best books. There is always a chance that the book was relevant to this person when they were just starting their career so make sure to have recommendations from a few different people.

With this in mind, I read 17 books in 2018 and hope to read a little bit more in 2019. Here are both of these lists.

What I read in 2018

  1. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson

One of the best books on public speaking I’ve read so far — concise, practical, captivating. Chris Anderson, head of TED for almost 20 years, shares his thorough observations on how to prepare for and deliver a great talk — and, given the success of the conference, it seems we can trust him. As the book itself is quite short, be ready to spend not so much time reading but watching — most of the methods described in the book are accompanied by links to relevant TED talks where this or that method was used.

2. The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox

This book, regularly named as their favourite by multiple entrepreneurs, was also included in the list of the most influential business books by Times Magazine. Impressive!

The whole plot is built around the Theory of Constraints invented by Goldratt and it being taught to the main character. He experiences business and family crises at the same time, and his thinking process allows readers to internalise the key concepts better.

While I quite enjoyed the read, I completely disagreed with the main idea of the book. I wouldn’t go into details in this blog post. Instead, why don’t you give it a try, so that we could have a discussion later? :)

3. Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

Legendary book on communication, and if you just became a manager, it should be a #1 on your list. You’ll find advice on how to share feedback, organise your 1–1 meetings and even handle more difficult situations like firing people. Each section in the book comes with multiple examples and links to videos giving you a feeling of being in a workshop.

4. Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Timothy Ferriss

Tim Ferriss did a very simple thing: created a list of 11 questions and sent it to successful and famous people — entrepreneurs, actors, scientists, sportsmen. As a result, he collected a number of insights on books, habits and lifestyle. Some of them might sound trivial to you, and others might change the course of your life. I feel that I will come back to this book more than once to use it as a benchmark of my personal growth.

5. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

This book is a mix of autobiography and “lessons learnt” while building a company. I’d say it would be more useful for CEOs and entrepreneurs rather than Product Managers as it mostly covers people and processes — hiring the right people, building company culture, selling your company at the right time. While some of these insights (for example, on leadership) might still be applicable, most of them are quite specific. If you are trying to become a better PM, read “Good Product Manager/ Bad Product Manager” by the same author instead.

6. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

A short but fascinating read on motivation, rewards, and punishment. This book will help you understand how to be a better leader even if you don’t have a direct authority over people you work with.

7. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

This book was one of the first ones to talk about focus as the main criteria of success at work and fight the idea of “constant connectivity” that is widely encouraged by companies nowadays. I’d recommend you to complement it with “Make time” (next one on the list) to learn more about specific solutions addressing the problem.

8. Make Time: How to focus on what matters every day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

An amazing book by people who wrote “Sprint”,one of the best books on quick hypothesis validation, and built the Inbox app at Google. They created a solid framework for managing time and shared around a hundred practical suggestions on how to actually make it work.

9. INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan

If I had to recommend only one book on product management, it would be this one. It’s a comprehensive guide to the job: beginners will appreciate the solid structure and a high-level view, experienced PMs will love all the little details and tips that only senior colleagues would know about. Theory is nicely combined with practical advice and real-world use cases from Google, Apple, Netflix, etc.

10. Game Thinking: Innovate smarter & drive deep engagement with design techniques from hit games by Amy Jo Kim, Scott Kim, and Raph Koster

Game development is one of the most challenging and at the same time most advanced areas in product development so I had high hopes about this book — but it didn’t deliver. If you’ve already read “The Lean Startup” and “The Power of Habit” and also are familiar with design thinking, you won’t find either new ideas here or the depth for any of the old ones. On the other hand, it’s quite a short and easy read so beginners in product management and design could use it as an intro level textbook.

11. Designing Products People Love: How Great Designers Create Successful Products by Scott Hurff

Yet another author’s framework for product design coupled with specific product examples and historical anecdotes. It could have been a miss for me if not for all these little touches:

  • The author interviewed a dozen famous designers who provided an interesting perspective on questions in discussion.
  • Some of the topics (for example, content or emotions) are rarely covered in such books, and this one is a nice exception.
  • Each chapter is wrapped up with a summary of key ideas and action items to try out next.

12. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters by Richard Rumelt

Best book of the year — maybe even of the last few years for me.

One of the key skills of Product Managers is product strategy: if you have no idea what it is or would like to upgrade your skills to the 80th level, then look no further. Richard Rumelt, business school professor and strategy consultant, uses multiple business, product and military examples to show the difference between good and bad strategies and teach you how to create the former. To be honest, it is not the easiest book to read, and you’ll have to work hard to internalise all this information but it’s totally worth it: it has all the chances to become your career lever.

13. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor

Another brilliant book by a Harvard Business School professor. Christensen walks us through jobs-to-be-done framework and the innovation theory uncovering the differences between sustaining and disruptive innovations and giving multiple examples of both in the business world. In addition to the theoretical part, the book contains a lot of practical advice on how to create a good strategy depending on your position in the market and how to structure your team and operations to support this strategy.

14. Designing for emotion by Aarron Walter

Working on products that users love is much easier than working on products nobody cares about: that’s why emotions are a super important part of every design project. Unfortunately, this book is not a very useful resource if you’d like to learn more about it: there are some examples and some theory but in quite an unstructured way.

15. Crossing the chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore

Even if you haven’t read this book, you should be familiar with concepts of “early adopters” and “late majority”. Unfortunately, you won’t learn much more: the author goes on for 300 pages, describing each type in details and differences in product positioning for all of them. Moreover, if you’ve read “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, you’ll have many questions for the categorisation itself. Doesn’t “crossing the chasm” simply mean finding the product-market fit? If it does, does it really make sense to have 5 categories when, in fact, it’s only two — products that do solve a specific problem for specific market and products that do not. In any case, this book might spark an interesting thought process but I wouldn’t add it to the ultimate PM’s book list.

16. HBR 10 Must Reads on Communication

10 articles on communication-related topics: how to pitch ideas, persuade your colleagues, talk to top managers, and so on.

I’m a big fan of all HBR products…except for this one. Maybe it’s because all these articles are more than 10 years old or because I was already familiar with these ideas from other books but I can’t say anything in my communication style changed due to this read.

17. Product Leadership: How Top Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw

A collection of thoughts on product management by three prominent PMs and their interviewees. If you still don’t understand what makes a great product manager, authors of the book thoroughly decompose their own (and their fellow PMs’) experience to share the most successful tactics and approaches. Read “Inspired” and then “Product Leadership”, and you’ll have a perfect basis to start in the job.

Books I’d like to read (or re-read) in 2019

Leadership

Strategy

Finance

Writing

Classics

Share your reading lists for 2019 in comments — if there would be enough, I’ll make another post about other PM’s recommendations :)

AI/ML Product manager at Facebook (ex-Intercom, ex-Yandex).