• Audra Gold

The Well Rounded Product Manager: Book Recommendations For The Thoughtful Builder

Great books for product managers
Diversified set of books for the diversified thinker

Continuous education through reading is critical to intellectual, spiritual and even mental health. It bothers me that most business people's recommended books are all specifically about business. There are many other themes, observations, insights and information that are equally important to being successful at whatever you pursue. That said, my list contains books that all have an angle of relevance in building something, growing something, and doing so in very difficult environments, as in the world of the venture funded tech start-up.

I don't have enough time in the day to read the many books on my list, but I am able to get through books at a decent pace by listing to them in the car - via Audible, in my case. Since I talk about books and ideas so often, I am often asked for book recommendations. I'll maintain this as a living document and continue to add to it as I discover them.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Summarizes basically everything we as humans know about the history of the world from a scientific perspective. Absolutely fascinating stuff that any non-scientist can understand. I call out history here as well to remember that there are many lessons to be found in the history of how great products and businesses were built, and the circumstances in which some had much longer, more prosperous lives than others. It's also really important to honor the history of whatever industry and/or discipline that you are working in - to know how and why its in the current state its in, there are almost always lots of really good reasons.

The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health, by David B. Agus MD. A no bullshit guide to what we know and don’t know about major health issues today, and where we are going to be very soon using big data. Cuts through the media noise that tends to confuse people about treatments, health issues and the like. Without health and an acute awareness of what's going on with your body, a health crises caught too late and can derail even the greatest of ambitions.

The Story Teller’s Secret, by Carmine Gallo. It seems to be missing from Audible right now but it is a great book for anyone that ever does public speaking, pitches ideas or products, wants to persuade or sell, or generally be an effective group communicator. Great, simple tips for how to tell a moving story. Without the capacity to paint a narrative that people care about, it is very difficult to convince anyone to follow, believe-in and support your efforts.

Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. I love Ryan Holiday books. He has a way of articulating some rather dry philosophical texts into exciting and inspiring stories and ideals to live by. I have to say that his books have influenced my thinking, behavior and perspective on life more than any other book I have read to date. This is especially great insights for those of us that deal with the many ego maniacs we encounter in both the finance and tech worlds - which remain dominated by white males with large egos.

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I know I said these recommendations are for “everyone” but ok, maybe this one is only for somme. I recommend this book to people that are “in the business”. Its hilarious and totally confirms everything I ever experienced in tech, but will be totally irrelevant and probably boring to those of you that do not work in tech - or even specifically, in ad tech. Note: This book does not even begin to scratch the surface of even more horrific data practices that continue to come out about facebook, unfortunately, because the author was never very high up at facebook.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. This book is full of insanely honest and candid advice that you won’t ever hear, anywhere. Seriously shocking stuff with seriously frank, honest, heartfelt and ultimately very useful advice. It’s also endlessly entertaining due to the shock value of the content. I like it as a business read because are just random bits of unexpected wisdom here that are applicable in many situations.

Thank & Grow Rich: A 30-Day Experiment in Shameless Gratitude and Unabashed Joy, by Pam Grout. This is a fun and beautiful play on “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hall. It’s a guide to being thankful, appreciative and full of gratitude every day, and the benefits that potentially follow as a result. Good, positive reading for anyone, anywhere in the world. Pure love and inspiration — read it! Builders of anything need tricks to keep them optimistic in even the most dire circumstances.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz. A brilliant recounting of Ben’s riveting experience founding and running a start-up in the first bubble. It’s packed full of business lessons that too many people I have encountered in business have not yet learned or don’t understand. His real-life stories are intertwined with practical advice on what it really takes to survive in the commonly brutal world of tech - and hits home the fact that there will be nothing easy about it.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. This book is great for understanding the importance of communication and sharing information. Obvious great lessons for team building, inventing, breaking barriers and moving fast.

Shoe Dog, A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight. The best book I have ever read that gives such insight and method required to build and maintain one of the most iconic, well known, most prolific brands that ever was. Phil's relentless focus on a singular vision - to build a great shoe - ensured that he was always pushing on the right things at the right time. This is an absolutely fascinating and moving story.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. While deeply sad and depressing, it is also a great reminder to the many builders amongst us that life is precious and short. The book makes a great case for making sure that whatever it is you are obsessively contributing to is something you are passionate about, believe in and feeds your soul. When you remember that every minute (can) count, your actions take on deeper meaning and have a more deliberate effect. Another one in this category is Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.

The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man and the Secret History of the Internet's Rise, by David Kushner. Because we should never forget how the internet was built, and how little the "rules of the game" have really changed over the last 25 years. Those of us building businesses online will benefit from remembering that much of the same logic still applies from the very early days of publishing content, monetizing that content, and growing audiences. The irony is that it actually does not take genius at all - it takes an adherence to the laws of the Internet and knowing which ones are ok to break, and which are indispensable to your company's longevity and health. You know the saying: don't ever forget where you came from ;).


And, here's a really odd one. I have this on my list because it's had the single biggest influence on my life of any other book I've read, and I read this when I was only 13 years old... It's stayed with me for that long! Diet For A New America, by John Robbins. It may be slightly dated but this is a book that was talking about all the things that people are just learning about today (although impartially) through the mass media. We've been aware of the detriments of the meat and dairy industry for decades, its just that no one was talking about it. This book is a great lesson in how everything (not just meat) has impacts in multiple directions, and there is rarely only one reason for doing or believing in anything, much like building Products holistically. You must be aware of the multitude of implications - good and bad - that any one decision, ingredient, practice, team member, or belief, has in its entirety. Usually, the biggest problem in a product management-less environment as that decisions are made too silo'ed, without enough context or understanding of all the impacts each and every decision has on the company, the user, the environment, and more.

I've read plenty more that were also highly recommended to me that I thought were overrated. Here's a few and why I think they may be a waste of your time:

  • Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg. Completely un-relatable, no actionable info or insight (from a "regular person's" perspective).

  • Hooked, Behave, Triggers, Inspired, Thinking Fast and Slow, Lean...anything for that matter: All completely obvious if you've been building products online for a decent amount of time. Probably useful to those that have not been doing so as a career. These are always on "Product manager recommended books" lists.

On by current list that I'll review here if they are good:

The Trusted Advisor, The Big Leap, The Art of the Memoir, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of A Good Society (Gates reco), Zucked: Waking Up To The Facebook Catastrophe.

Please submit your thoughts on these, and your own favorites, in the comments below...

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