It takes just a few minutes listening to Marty Cagan to realize he effortlessly oozes with brilliance. Marty is the bestselling author for the book “Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love” and one of the Silicon Valley Product Group partners.
He is the inventor of product discovery, a reference to activities necessary to determine whether a product team should develop a certain product. Product discovery reduces uncertainty around an idea or problem to ensure that the product created meets the intended users’ needs.
In this podcast, Tobi engages Marty on his intriguing journey in the world of business, from his stint at Netscape to founding the Silicon Valley Product Group. His geek path goes back to when he was seven years old. His father-- the first Ph.D. in Computer Science in the United States-- introduced him to computer programming, which interested him enough for him to want to pursue it in college.
Building Products That People Want to Use
He started his engineering career before the internet, in the age of desktop computing and client-server computing. His first job at HP Laboratories allowed him to create tools for other developers, which he says is still one of his favorite categories of products. After a decade in this space, he felt the need to do more than engineering: he wanted to build products that people want to use.
“That's not something they teach you in computer science, and it seemed to me that it was very important, at least as important as how to engineer,” he says. And so his journey into product management had kicked off.
“My interest is not, really, product management. My interest is product teams. And so to me, that's product management, product design, and engineering. When those three come together, that’s when interesting things happen.”
Waterfall Repackaged as Agile
Today, Marty does little coding. His focus now is helping technology companies rethink their product teams toward building innovative products their customers will love. Tobias asks him what he thinks agile companies are doing wrong today. Marty goes into great detail about how agile is interpreted wrong in 90% of companies. He explains that what most companies call agile is the waterfall model repackaged. Often in these scenarios, none of the principles that matter in agile are included.
“To me, (to be agile,) every product team has to be good at both discovery and delivery. In delivery, we care about things like scalable, reliable, fault-tolerant, performance, secure. (In discovery), we have four big risks. We've got to come up with a solution that's valuable, usable, feasible, and viable. It's just important to realize agile is really about delivery.”
The Real Definition of Failure
Marty explains how minimum viable products (MVPs) have become common pitfalls. Many product teams waste months creating them.
“We don't need to do it in months. This is just a sign of an amateur team where they basically asked their engineers to build out all their MVPs,” he asserts, “If you fail in discovery, it's not even considered failure. It's just considered learning. If you actually use your engineers to build out a commercial product and ship it and it fails, that's failure. Because now we've really wasted those engineers.”
“And, you know, you could say, well, it was only two months, but look at what those engineers could have been doing for the last two months.”
Leveraging Empowered Teams to Solve Problems
Marty is not a fan of roadmaps. He sees them as outright damaging because they give product teams a list of features to build instead of a list of problems to solve. Instead, Marty recommends taking an OKR (objectives and key results) approach.
“The idea is you're giving teams problems to solve rather than features to build. So OKR is supposed to be the alternative to roadmaps.”
Tobias and Marty discuss autonomy and empowerment in teams and the secret sauce of companies like Apple and Google: empowered teams. Marty insists that what sets such companies apart has little to do with hiring the best engineers.
“The difference is both of those companies provide an environment that normal people can do great work. And to me, that is the most important key to their success.”
His advice to entrepreneurs and startups?
“Find somebody that has a serious problem that you can help them with. You know what, if you can do that, you're already in the top 10% of startups.”