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📖 Four Novels That Product Managers Will Enjoy
Fiction books about building things, working in tech, or being part of large systems.
“As the week wore on, he contemplated the merits of inertia as a problem-solving technique with growing favor.” - A quote from one of these four books, or perhaps a typical Thursday in my life as a product manager? 😂
While I do love reading novels for their escapism factor, sometimes it’s fun to stumble across books with characters and plot lines I can relate to - especially those that deal with the joy and pain of tech product making and aligning large groups of people.
This week, I present four novels that will make product managers feel seen. The first two feature product makers as the main characters, set in contemporary times. The third transports you to the past - the late 1700’s - and the fourth to a space-aged future. All have strong themes of creation, accomplishment, and thriving within systems larger than the characters themselves.
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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Love Story meets Ready Player One meets Joy Luck Club. This is a book that enables anyone who puts their heart and soul into a product to feel spoken for. And it captures the chaotic early-in-career-what-am-I-going-to-do-and-who-am-I-going-to-love miasma as well. Add in a dash of heavy nostalgia for 1990’s nerd culture, and it explains why lots of folks in tech have been recommending this book (Indeed, recently Adam Mosseri was sharing it as his read-of-the-week on Threads).
The audiobook version is especially strong.
Here’s a few quotes that capture product making lessons well, so you can get a flavor for the intensity of craft and product making:
“If you're always aiming for perfection, you won't make anything at all.”
“But it is worth noting that to be good at something is not quite the same as loving it.”
“It isn’t a sadness, but a joy, that we don’t do the same things for the length of our lives.”
“There is a time for any fledgling artist where one's taste exceeds one's abilities. The only way to get through this period is to make things anyway.”
“He loved the intimacy of being in a tight group of people who had come together, miraculously, for a brief period in time, for the purpose of making art.”
“I love that world more, I think, because it is perfectible. Because I have perfected it. The actual world is the random garbage fire it always is. There's not a goddamn thing I can do about the actual world's code.”
“It occurred to Sadie: She had thought after [her first successful product] that she would never fail again. She had thought she had arrived. But life was always arriving.”
“But the best thing Marx did for them was this: He believed in them.”
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
It’s rare for a book to combine humor with a lot of deep meaning on friendship and adulthood, but Microserfs does just that. Written as a series of personal blog entries, it follows the trials and tribulations of a Microsoft employee in the 1990’s who, midway through the book, leaves for a startup in Silicon Valley. It’s a seminal piece of literature capturing the dawn of the PC era and you can trace tech’s culture today to themes the book explores.
Here are a few quotes so you can get a feel for the book’s depth:
“The belief that tomorrow is a different place from today is certainly a unique hallmark of our species.”
“It starts out young- you try not to be different just to survive- you try to be just like everyone else- anonymity becomes reflexive- and then one day you wake up and you've become all those other people- the others- the something you aren't. And you wonder if you can ever be what it is you really are. Or you wonder if it's too late to find out.”
“Letting go of randomness is one of the hardest decisions a person can make.”
“What is the search for the next great compelling application but a search for the human identity?
“One psycho for every nine stable people in the company is a good ratio.”
“We all had good lives. None of us were ever victimized as far as I know. We have never wanted for anything, nor have we ever lusted for anything. Our parents are all together, except for Susan’s. We’ve been dealt good hands, but the real morality here, Todd, is whether these good hands are squandered on uncreative lives, or whether these hands are applied to continuing humanity’s dream.”
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
If you work as a product manager in tech today, you’ve decided to be the “glue-things-and-people together” job inside the dominant economic engine of our times. Fair enough choice. Had you been born in 1850’s, you would have been a railroad designer. And had you been born on July 4, 1776 - like the main character in this novel - you’d had been an officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
I read the entire 12-book Hornblower series during my first year at Microsoft. It gave me perspective on how to thrive within a large, complex system and of course the notion of duty and commitment to a cause. Horatio Hornblower is also my favorite fictional character - bravery & cunningness partnered with introspection and self-doubt: He thrives on his wits in a world built around brawn.
You must take a couple leaps of logic to apply the situations and lessons to today’s tech world, but themes around large systems and motivating people are universal:
“We have no use for ablative absolutes in the Navy.”
“But now the navy’s fashionable—first time since the Dutch Wars. We’ve been winning.”
“...irresponsibility was something which, in the very nature of things, could not co-exist with independence.”
“Hornblower knew that the men were cursing him under their breath; he did not know they admired him as well, as men will admire a hard master despite themselves.”
“Never order your men to do anything that you are not ready to do yourself.”
“Service in a flagship might be the quick way to promotion, but there were many crumpled petals in the bed of roses.”
Bush could never understand Hornblower's disciplinary methods. He had been positively horrified when he had heard his captain's public admission that he too had baths under the washdeck pump — it seemed madness for a captain to allow his men to guess that they were of the same flesh as his.”
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Miles Vorkosigan has the moxie and never-tell-me-the-odds attitude needed to inspire any product manager to cross-the-chasm.
The Warriors’ Apprentice is the origin story of Miles, where you’ll learn how he accidentally created an armada of space pirates through an epic tail where “the only way out is through” becomes the primary strategy.
Much of my 2023 before-bed reading has been spent in Lois's Vorkosigan world and I find some of her observations on how to get humans to achieve and align spot on:
“Anything worth achieving is worth overachieving.”
“Yes," Vorkosigan agreed, "I could take over the universe with this army if I could ever get all their weapons pointed in the same direction.
All great human deeds both consume and transform their doers. Consider an athlete, or a scientist, or an independent business creator. In service of their goals they lay down time and energy and many other choices and pleasures; in return, they become most truly themselves. A false destiny may be spotted by the fact that it consumes without transforming, without giving back the enlarged self.
“I've always thought tests are a gift. And great tests are a great gift. To fail the test is a misfortune. But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune.”
“Since no one is perfect, it follows that all great deeds have been accomplished out of imperfection. Yet they were accomplished, somehow, all the same.”
“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”
“All the geniuses I ever met were so just part of the time. To qualify, you only have to be great once, you know. Once when it matters. I don't confuse greatness with perfection. To be great anyhow is…the higher achievement.”
“Not that I haven't leaped up into the blinding light of competence now and then. It's sustaining the altitude that defeats me.”
“[Koudelka] looked back, "You?! I know you! You trust beyond reason!"
[Cordelia] met his eyes steadily, "Yes, it's how I get results beyond hope, as you may recall.”
“I wanted to give you a victory. But by their essential nature triumphs can’t be given.”
“It's an ancient and honorable term for the final step in any engineering project. Turn it on, see if it smokes.”
Bonus: Watch The Diplomat on Netflix
Speaking of content that makes meeting rooms feel exciting, Helen and I both strongly recommend The Diplomat. It’s got heavy The West Wing vibes with the return of the rapid-fire walk & talk dialog format. It assumes its viewers are sophisticated and romanticizes the act of just getting a lot of people all on the same page. Five stars. Enjoy!