A Product Manager’s Reading List
Reading is one of the few habits that you can binge, without you being worried about being addicted to (sorry Netflix!). Its all the more a good reason if you are in a role that is in a constant churn and has a very wide scope of work. Being a Product Manager (PM) is one heck of a roller-coaster ride!
While talking to like-minded PMs or industry professionals should be high on the agenda for a PM, an equally important thing is reading up, be it newspapers, blogs, articles, or books! It helps you stay abreast around the way you function, build products, develop yourself or work with stakeholders.
Here I try to list down some interesting books that I found very helpful in my career. Some are product-focused and some are quite generic with wide-ranging applications and I have tried to bucket them as per their primary focus as most of the books can be applied to a wide range of areas beyond products.
High-level or organization level
These are books which give PMs a great understanding about how organizations (should) work and thus help in driving processes much better. These books also guide you about general business challenges beyond a PM’s purview.
Measure What Matters by John Doerr: If there are some things that make life easy or structured, OKRs would be on the top. This book lays down in a simple yet powerful way how to drive alignment using Objectives and Key Results. This helps PMs not just prioritize but measure what they are building much better in a transparent and convincing manner. And more importantly, ensures accountability of the PM and clear prioritization framework.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz: A lot of people talk about starting up being tough. But what this ex-entrepreneur-turned-VC makes for a case is that running a successful business is WAY more tough! And the beauty about this book is its realistic and practical focus. This helps PMs navigate and understand key business challenges faced by leadership, something often ignored by many due to daily grind.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries: Startups are always struggling with budgets and time, a point that is often impressed upon PMs. What better way to understand than from a book that focuses on harping on outcome via simplicity. A lot of PMs, especially working on internal assets at startups will find this book to be a savior in understanding why process overheads can result in sub-optimal outcomes and missed opportunities.
Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman: You know a book should be on your shelf when its written by a founder of LinkedIn, a highly respected company globally. This is a book that drives home one point : focus on the outcome and not bureaucracy and trivial things if you truly want to scale up! And a lot of learning for PMs lies in this book where agility is the king and execution is the only path. A must read for PMs in consumer or scale-focused organizations.
Zero To One by Peter Thiel: If there is a book that gives you a great idea about building a startup, this is a must-read. Yes, a lot of what Thiel says is logical and rational, not revolutionary. Yet, the real world hardly mirrors that. A lot of PMs will appreciate its simplistic focus around finding insights in places often not thought about or ignored. And more importantly, there is always a lot more impact a PM can create than they imagine!
Product Management and its principles.
These are books that focus purely on building products across the stack, with primary focus on one of the stages : user research, acquisition, engagement or retention. I found these books helped me evolve as a PM a lot beyond what I used to do tactically.
Start With Why by Simon Sinek: This is one book that has had a very profound impact on a lot of PMs. And its not a book dedicated to PMs! The beauty of this book lies in its simple framework led by examples. This book elicits PMs to take ownership and drive action, as the title of the book rightly suggests, enabling value creation in alignment with objectives. Bonus would be reading this with Measure what matters for a greater impact!
Inspired by Marty Cagan: If there is one product primer AND easy to understand, Inspired would be that one! Its targeted at PMs and is a great book if you want guidance around how to approach it as a PM or how experienced PMs need refinement in their thought process. An icing on the cake are the illustrations, most of them very relevant and practical to a PM. Read it with an open mind and you will love it!
Hooked by Nir Eyal: If you have to blame someone for building addictive consumer products, Nir Eyal will be at the top of that list, in theory at least! Hooked takes you through a very structured framework around building habits in your users, an aberration among most books, which address problems at a very high level. Consumer-focused PMs love this book for its simplicity and structure and more importantly, its focus on engagement!
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick: You might not discuss your work with your mother but you SHOULD bounce ideas. If you can’t make your mother understand, how will people you have never known you understand your products! This simple premise and easy approach to user research really kept me interested, mostly because a lot of PMs (myself as well) make a lot of mistakes in user research, a great reason to be reading!
Sprint by Jake Knapp et. al: Most PMs don’t need an introduction to Sprint. But what will surely interest you is that the author covers how to solve problems, from ideation to implementation to customer feedback. Backed by Google ventures’ experience, this book gives PMs a great deal about how to quickly ideate, build and develop feedback in an iterative manner. There are very few books that go granular; so a must read for PMs!
User Story Mapping by Jeff Patton at. al: There are a lot of books around UX, user research and products, separately. And it goes into a good amount of detail! What interested me in this book was its practical and hands-on approach to understanding user needs, a structured framework and simple examples. This book will help PMs develop a much clearer understanding of user requirements and capturing the same in their process.
Personal Development and improvement.
These are books that drive you to become better, not just as a PM, but as a better professional! I have found that they have a massive positive influence on our working style and allows to build better. A small list of books I have found relevant for PMs.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink: SEALs are one of the world’s most elitist military units. And they don’t reach there by working in an ad-hoc manner. They are structured, disciplined and plan for EVERYTHING. Individuals have a lot to learn from SEALs, especially around leadership and people management. A book that truly helps PMs become great people managers!
Atomic Habits by James Clear: A lot of us want to get better but very few end up doing. This book is based on a simple premise : if you become 1% better a day vs. becoming 1% worse, the outcome can be really polar opposites! And breaking down the problem into smaller tasks is the key. It’s a great analogy about how a PM can go about improving their output metrics by breaking down the problem and tracking incessantly.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: PMs are often called the CEO of their product, largely because they are responsible for it. This book is a hard-hitting reality about how Ownership and Accountability should be above anything else for a PM! And be ready to take responsibility, even if things go bad. Blaming your engineering won’t help. A great (counter-intuitive) read around owning up things as a PM!
Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss: This certainly isn't the first book on negotiation or psychology. But its one of the few that develops realistic and practical suggestions based on human psychology. And more importantly, it has been tried on criminals! This is a must read for PMs, especially internal products who spend countless hours in convincing stakeholders for every feature. Use this to close things faster!
User behavior and psychology.
A key component of a PM’s life is understanding users and managing (altering as well) expectations. Understanding human psyche is a critical step towards working with your users, be it your stakeholders like engineering or business and end consumers.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: We are shaped by psychology and consequently behavioral economics is a lot more than we concede. This is a simplified version of complex human behavior and how we are far from the rational creatures. Its a great book for PMs in consumer domain or in people intensive roles. You will love this book for its simplicity and genuine insights from pedestrian events!
Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahnemann: Research books are very hard to read and this is no exception. But there are very few books that can delve in as much depth and research in applied psychology as Thinking! This is the ultimate primer and should be a good read for PMs who want to understand in depth user behavior. This book will teach you how to attribute key product events to human thinking, a critical need at times.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: The concept of virality among consumers is still largely an unexplored area, from a product standpoint. I loved this book for attempting to identify user personas who drive virality in the user ecosystem and helps PMs (and marketing) drive adoption. This is a very good high-level read for PMs in consumer products and helps you exceptionally in user research and persona development.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: As the name implies, habits can make or break a person! While most other books focus a lot around consumer behavior and its psychology, this book actually looks at both the core psychology as well as its application in a modern world in a corporate setup. This is a great book for PMs to work on behavioral changes they wish to bring in their users. Talk about being manipulative!
Inspiration and motivation.
I strongly believe product management is a thankless job. And its easy to get demoralized or demotivated very quickly. Hence, a large portion of my reading list hedges on understanding high-achievers. I have tried to collate a short list of books that might be relevant from a PM context.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: As the name itself suggests, this book is about exceptional figures and some common attributes that connect them, mostly hardwork and upbringing. While Gladwell does a decent job about identifying these high-achievers, what interested me is the individuals themselves. Read this book for true inspiration and how perspiration is more important to reach the top of your class.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Steve Jobs needs no introduction but what this book essentially does is put in one place his professional life. Despite not being an Apple fanboy, I have come to love this book for the way Jobs drove things and got people to follow him, period. Being a well know book, a lot of PMs can aspire to be the next Jobs-like visionary or someone who can be similar to him in their organizations!
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight: Knight might not ring a bell, but the company he founded will surely do! Yes, Nike it is. If you want to understand how a Stanford grad slogged to transform the sports shoe industry without raising funds coupled with product challenges, this is the book! An amazing book about Nike came about with practical challenges faced by the early team and how they resolved it. A great read for PMs aspiring to achieve more!
Innovators by Walter Isaacson: If you want to know how a ‘revolution’ was created by rebels who truly believed in their conviction, this is the book. A lot of people believe this is a great chronological take. But what I loved this book was the way these rebels thought decades ahead, something similar to what has come to be expected of PMs (not decades maybe, but years?)! An excellent generic read for product folks!
I hope you liked the list. If you would recommend, which I am sure, most of you would, do drop a comment. You can find my reading list, well beyond the above books on Goodreads.