Book Review: The Secret Product Manager's Handbook

This last week, I eagerly bought a copy of Nils Davis’ newly published book, “The Secret Product Manager Handbook”, and eagerly read it. While it isn’t strictly targeted at newbies, or folks who are interested in joining the ranks of Product Management, it is both a great introduction, and a guide that even very experiences members of the Product Management community can find value in, even if it is just to re-focus them on the basics.

Starting at the beginning, it tackles the never ending question of “Just what is a product manager after all?” a question that every (and I do mean EVERY) product manager has to answer, be it from friends and family, or to justify their existence to a skeptical development team (many of whom honestly believe that product management is a function to prevent them from creating the cool stuff they dream up).

The three boxes of product management

In a refreshing twist, Nils uses a “box” paradigm to tell the tale, starting with the nuts and bolts, the “product” box, but quickly adding that a product is there to solve a problem. The Problem is the second box, and really, without a business problem a product really has no raison d’etre. Of course, the word problem is not all encompassing, especially as the digital transformation is driving significant re-imaging of business processes and models, the concept of “business outcomes”, either desired, or flailing, is a significant part of the calculus.

However, a particularly brilliant add to his box paradigm can be argued to be the most important box of all, the “Go to Market”, for, even if there is a fantastic business problem, and you have a fabulous product to address that problem, if customers aren’t interested in giving you money for it (aka buy it), you have a hobby, not a business.

The mantra that Nils rallies around resonates:

I find market problems, guide creation of solutions to those problems, and take those solutions to market

Crisp, clear, concise, and relatable. That is the essence of product management.

Nils then dives into expansion, and offers a simple value ratio for how to measure the impact of a product manager on the organization.
Nils then heads into what are the attributes and skills that define a great product manager, heavily emphasizing areas like communication, technical credibility (note: this isn’t the same as being able to sit as a developer or engineer), numeracy (it is a business that you are running, and having analytical and financial skills are essential), empathy, the ability to see both the big picture and the small picture (as in, can dive into the minutia when needed, yet able to remain at the 30K foot view simultaneously), and being very good at task switching (in fact, I suspect that all good product managers have some ADHD)

From this introduction, Nils then goes into key skills, with illustrative examples both from the wild, as well as his personal experiences. All relevant, all well documented, and all, immediately relatable.

General Thoughts

Nils has captured the essence of the field of Product Management, and cast it in a relatively compact, immediately useful, and spawning in the product manager some nuggets that can be of immediate value, but also with enough depth that it leaves the reader pondering how to improve.

In particular, I appreciate how he makes the marketing side (analysis, segmentation, research, and investigation) an important part of the 3-legged stool (Product, Problem, Go to Market). Far too many product managers I have worked with, and have interacted with, seem to neglect the strong marketing component (to be fair, marketing has become dominated by the transactional communications, and lead generation/funnel where it is becoming a service, not an ally in the product management realm). I have always intertwined marketing and product management, but I have never captured it as elegantly as Nils has.

Nils takes it from the theoretical to the practical, and gives the reader some actionable exercises to build skills, and to begin improving immediately.
While the book is targeted at the role of product manager, I can clearly see another constituent who should read this, the development team. Much angst is experienced by the tension between the engineering team who often views product management as a barrier to their efforts. While strong teams, with good (or great) product managers intrinsically know the value of solid product management, the majority are ad odds over this.

For this reason, I will be buying several copies to distribute to my dev leads, and even some functional department heads who scratch their heads about the concept of Product Management.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book as a solid investment, and worthy of space on your shelf (or your Kindle).

Author image
Product Manager, physics educated, avid cyclist, dog rescuer, guitar noodler.
San Jose, Callifornia Website
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