Who "Gets" Product?

Like many in my field, I'm always amazed when poorly conceived or executed products find their way to market. While every case study of failure is unique, starting with a great product team is a variable we'd like to have under control. Finding people who work in product development with a compatible outlook and skillset is difficult, but identifying higher-order abilities in those people is hard. How do you know if someone “gets” product?* You want to find these people, but what are you really looking for? This is a deceptively hard question, and the easy (but unsatisfying) answer is that you can't. The other easy answer is that there are many answers. I've shared my own perspective, but I also asked a number of people to hear what they thought. What I Look For - The Short List

  • X-ray Eyes People I know that get product can "see through" a product along multiple dimensions to understand all of what goes into making it and where it can go. What the decisions were, the trade-offs and meetings during the process of development. How many times did they test a part, and did they fix it? What will happen over time? How are they planning for the unknown?
  • Mostly Makers Skills in making, editing, and curation are very important to me, but are only part of a holistic skill set and outlook (and many great product people aren’t makers). Curiosity about how and why things work and succeed (or fail - why does Hollywood make so many bad films?). A good track record helps, but being flexible about what success is may be necessary. Some of the best product people I know I’ve known for a long time, but its hard to get that insider perspective.
  • Well Spoken I like it when someone can articulate the stance a product takes. Is a company trying to break out or fit in? They see how people use it (can they use it, is it meaningful, do they like it, will they keep it) now and in the future, and everything orbits around that. More literally, can people talk about products with clarity and directness (and metaphor). Many fields have a specific language set so insiders can be very specific, and product people should be well-versed or be able to adopt the local language.

From the Experts I asked several friends and colleagues to share their experiences, and was delighted with their responses. Several commented on the difficulty of the question itself, but all took up the challenge. I’ve synthesized their responses below, but thanks to Charles Adler, John Borthwick, Dan Boyarski, Liz Danzico, Alex Rainert, and Khoi Vinh for taking time to respond. Here are their key points:

  • Its About People People that get product understand that fundamentally this is about people. Product people use products. They talk about products in the context of use (as opposed to the features) and about the emotional engagement that exists for them. Development is a human process, and requires an understanding of the interaction of the roles involved and, of course, who the audience is.
  • It Takes Holistic Thinking Getting product also requires (or may be an outcome of) holistic thinking. They think about all aspects of the product: market, technology, operations, support, design. They can talk about and balance the relationships among them.
  • Bring a POV Despite being able to balance across disciplines and requirements, they have opinions that they hold strongly and can trust and defend them. They can say smart things about products - their own and other people’s. They understand where they’ve failed and can build on that.
  • Prove It Being able to demonstrate the ways they go about solving problems is important. Seeing past work is one measure, and seeing the results of in-person problem solving is used often. They understand the roles required, and they actually have experience shipping something.
  • Legacy Perhaps the most elusive, but in some ways critical quality, is whether someone can be trusted in the future to continue, extend and grow a product.

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*By “getting product”, I mean people who can understand how and why products are made and succeed (or don’t), and can articulate and repeat that outcome.