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10,000 Hours of Product Management

Have you read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell? It takes a lot of thinking about success and turns the thinking upside down. It's a quick and easy read, but I found it quite thought provoking and it's full of great stories.


Malcom GladwellOne of Gladwell's insights is this: To be "world class" at anything requires 10,000 hours. We tend to think that successful people are born with innate talent and while they work at things, they also have it sort of easy. Gladwell turns that theory on its head and says that any practitioner of any skill requires 10,000 hours of practice to become truly world-class.

To illustrate his point he draws from very famous people who are viewed as prodigies. Based on his interviews with Bill Gates, for example, he shows that Gates likely spent 10,000 hours programming before founding Microsoft. Furthermore, Gates likely started before almost anyone in his generation; in his wealthy Seattle neighbourhood, Gates had access to "time sharing" on a mainframe in 6th grade ... in about 1968. As such, Gates estimates that only 50 other 6th graders in the world had that kind of access. Certainly Gates was smart and fascinated by computers, but he put in his time too. In high school, he and a few buddies would sneak out of their homes to go access the computers during the computer down time between 3 and 6 AM every night. Mrs. Gates (the mother) later recalled that Bill could never get out of bed in the morning.

Another example is Wolfgang A. Mozart, who everyone believes to be a prodigy, composing songs as he exited the womb. In fact, Gladwell points out, Mozart's first truly world-class work were produced much later in his life, after he put in 10,000 hours of composing and playing music. "Genius" aside, Mozart was a late bloomer, and put in his time.

(Saeed blogged about Gladwell's book a while back, and pointed to a nice video and blog entry that describes this idea further.)

10,000 hours of what?

One thing I question is whether 10,000 hours is really a sufficient criteria to become world class. I'm not sure Gladwell really claims this, but his ideas could be taken that way. If 10,000 hours is 5 years at 40 hours per week, that might imply that someone could be a world class product managers after 5 years on the job. How many PMs have you worked with who are world class after 5 years? (For that matter, how many of us stay in the PM role for more than 5 years?)

Product management requires 10,000 practice hoursI've heard Steve Johnson josh about people with 10 years experience, who really have 1 year of experience repeated 10 times. These people do the same job with little advancement, and falling into the same old traps, every day for 10 years. In the end they are not always wiser, let alone world class.

What are you doing with your 10,000 hours?

Which raises a question for you. I think the 10,000 hour idea has a lot of merit. But I would like to dig a little deeper for what it means in product management and product leadership.

First of all, Gladwell assumes that your 10,000 hours are spent growing. You have to take on greater and greater responsibility, and you should seek out and surround yourself with coaches, mentors, guides. Look for people you want to be like and get to know them.

Secondly, pay attention to what you are actually doing with your work time. If your title is Product Manager, but you are really managing projects for 5 years, at 40-60 hours a week, you may become an excellent project manager but it doesn't qualify you to do strategic work in product management. Similarly, if you hang out in development for 5 years, who's to say you belong in front of customers?

Finally, when do we start the clock on your time as a leader? I would argue that if you are "requirements boy", "demo girl", or spending most of your time doing some kind of tactical work, you are not logging hours in leadership.

Where are you spending your next 10,000 hours?

You are definitely going to work 40-60 hours a week. Which means that, in the right circumstances, you could be really really good at something in 5 years.

What do you want to be really really good at? Are you surrounding yourself with mentors and coaches who will give you 5 real years of progressive experience? Or are you going to repeat the same 1 year of experience 5 times?

   
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