My Take on 'Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager'

After taking three or four months off from work, I’ve been looking around for my next landing spot after leaving Pantheon in November of 2023. That amount of time bought me a lot of clarity in how I want to practice the art of product management. It also gave me a lot of time to read! I’m still cranking through a lot of books, but one that I’ve been thinking about a lot is Ben Horowitz’s “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager” essay, especially as I’ve been interviewing again and it’s hard to avoid thinking about what makes me a good (and bad) product manager.

First off, the current version of the article comes with a caveat that everyone should take to heart. This was written 12 years ago. Have you ever gone back to something you wrote 12 years ago and thought, “Nailed it. No notes.”? Yeah, me either.

That said, it’s an interesting exercise to go through the article to muse both on what has changed in 12 years and how your experience with the position maps with these concepts. Context is king. Not only has the industry radically changed, but if you’ve worked at a variety of companies, you’ve undoubtedly seen just how different the role can be based on culture, process, product, team, stage, etc.

These are just my thoughts (and many are designed to be counterpoints), but if you’re a product manager, I would urge you to read the article and develop your own take and philosophy.

What is a good product manager?

  • A good product manager can’t act like the CEO of the product because they lack the authority of that position. Instead, a good product manager is a hunter of value (for the business and customers) and develops strategic relationships and alliances (with coworkers, customers, and executives) to aid them on that hunt.
  • A good product manager simplifies all of the important factors in an overwhelmingly complex equation. Strategy, leverage, power, execution, process - there are so many factors that go into building a successful product. Your job is to abstract that complexity into a story that everyone can understand.
  • A good product manager documents, but recognizes that keeping up a PRD with the shifting nature of product development is less important than building alignment with a host of other artifacts and tools (because we all know that reading a 10-page PRD is not high on anyone’s to-do list).
  • A good product manager focuses on value, not KPI and OKR theater.
  • A good product manager keeps the whole picture of the company in their mind. Not a single deal or loud customer.
  • A good product manager delegates and trusts partners to achieve the biggest impact.

Some of these counterpoints were more difficult to write than others. For example, I agree that a good product manager knows the inherent advantages of their context and exploits them. One of my favorite books on strategy - Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt - hammers this home. If you haven’t read this book, I would highly recommend it. You can also check out his podcast with Lenny Rachitsky, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: A Conversation with Richard Rumelt.

Similarly, there’s no argument from me that a good product manager works hand in hand with sales. However, I view that relationship as less a chummy “we’re best friends” partnership, and more from a “we’re trying to do the best thing for the company, but from slightly different angles” perspective. How much friction you have between sales is also a function of the stage of company. In my experience, later stage companies have a more established product, putting you in the position to say “No” more often. Early stage companies are searching for stickiness and product-market fit so you’re looking to say “Yes” to anybody to see what sticks.

I also agree that a really good product manager is paranoid. Shipping is hard. Getting customers to use products is difficult. Threats to success come from all angles, be on the lookout.

Oddly, the “bad product manager” points were much more resonant. Potentially because it’s easier to see when the position is poorly leveraged rather than when it’s succeeding.

Overall, I still love this article, even if only to use it as a strawman. Thinking about what you do and why you do it is an essential part of this job. Being reactive in your career and path through this position is a recipe for disaster.