I’ve been writing a case on Opower for Harvard Business School which is centered around the role of the product leader. Opower is a wonderful example of a company with a complicated product, that is scaling quickly, and brought in an experienced outside executive to lead the product organization. It turns out, that product leader is my friend and former colleague Ben Foster, who worked with me at Ebay many moons ago.
To understand the rationale and impact of an experienced product executive in a scaling startup, you’ll have to read the case J But one concept that came up in our interviews is the profile of a really great product leader. The challenge of this role is that it requires the combination of two very different baskets of skills that are not often embodied in a single person.
Tom Eisenmann at HBS brought up an analogy he picked up from Drew Houston at DropBox, and I thought it was really helpful in illustrating this dilemma. The idea is that great product leaders have attributes of both a POET and a LIBRARIAN.
POETs are product visionaries. They often are deeply in tune with the problems they are solving, and are instinctive about how to build products that succeed. They are extremely creative and are willing to trust their own gut over the reported needs of customers who might think they need feature x, y, or z. They often think many moves ahead, and see the implications of individuals feature in the evolution of the holistic product experience. I’ve also observed that poets can sometimes pivot more easily as they search for the right feature mix, design, and marketing message that really resonates with their users. Usually, one of the founders of the company is a product poet. Otherwise, the company would have never come into existence. And sometimes, the poet can lead the product team for a very long time, but other times, you need a second basket of skills to really make the company successful.
LIBRARIANs are organized and systematic. They are data driven in their decision-making, and work to design teams and processes that can reliably ship quality code in line with the priorities of the company. As the product and engineering team scales, a Librarian can figure out how to create a structure that can coordinate the efforts of many while maintaining the creativity and information flow between teams. A librarian is also obsessed with the details and data. They understand how small things can make a huge impact, and understand how to unlock the value of data to optimize a user flow or build a beautiful new feature.
Most product leaders I know tend to fall into one camp or the other more naturally, but a successful company needs both over the course of its life. When I was at Ebay, I’d argue that we were way too heavy on librarians over time and short on poets. But I think much of Zynga’s success stems from the fact that they have terrific librarians optimizing every detail of their games. Tumblr is let by a Poet (hope David doesn’t take offense) and you can see it in the creativity of the product and some of the non-obvious moves the company has made over the years (like not having a native commenting system).
Generally, I think the skills of a Librarian can be taught, especially for quantitatively oriented folks. Not so sure about the skills of a Poet, I think it’s much much harder to develop.
By the way, the case is for Launching Technology Ventures a new course taught by Tom Eisenmann. It’s a terrific course, and Tom posted some great online resources for the concepts that he is teaching. I’ve reblogged it once, but it’s so great, I need to share it again here.