Book Review: Inspired

INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love (Silicon Valley Product Group)

An interesting observation from four years in tech is that most orgs are absolutely dysfunctional when it comes to product. Teams don’t have autonomy and metrics to strive for, rather they’re feature factories who’s success is measured by how many epics they can pump out, irrespective of how much those epics actually contribute to the business. Products are planned out months in advance by managers rather than made and remade hundreds of times in response to user testing and feedback. Even on the technical level, most orgs and teams have to burn half their time fighting through technical debt and tangled systems to actually deliver value. I still remember working for a major bank where deploying code to production took months (not including the mandatory change review process), developers had to work on slow and buggy remote laptops and our software ran on windows server 2000s as any change to newer version would have had to go through a laborious security review. (For the non-technical, Windows 2000 is more than a decade old, is no longer supported or updated and hence has dozens of know severe vulnerabilities. Any hacker with two brain cells and a copy of metasploit can break into a windows server 2000). The core problem with the world is that most firms are dysfunctional and broken. And this is just from the highly selective sample I’ve had of large, successful companies with large tech departments and a willingness to admit that something was wrong. I assume the average level is far lower outside my bubble.

Inspired is a book which does something very important. It explains what good looks like in product. That is, what the correct way of doing product development is. It does this in a writing style akin to that of a smart 14 year old. It does it in short, bite-sized chapters that are absolutely clear. It does it without equivocating. It’s one of the best books on product development I know of and you should probably read it if the topic interests you in the slightest.

I think that roughly speaking, there are two kinds of people who will read this book and two different things you can take from it. If you work in a high-performing tech firm you’ll probably already know, at least on an intuitive level, what good looks like. In that case Inspired will not be a revelation. In fact, most of the things it talks about will seem obvious, trivially true and uninteresting. I still think it’s a useful read for a few reasons:

  • It will help you solidify your vague intuitions about what good looks like. You’ll go in with a rough feel for how product should function. You’ll leave with clear and precise concepts, organizational structures and processes.
  • It will help you understand why things work the way they do and why alternatives are worse
  • It will teach you at least a few things. Even in a high performing org, you won’t do everything well. Weather it’s product discovery, communicating product vision or any one of a number of sub-areas, chances are you’ll have a few useful takaways

On the other hand, if you haven’t worked in a high-performing org then Inspired is a glimpse into the promised land.

  • It can show you what good looks like. This is always useful. It means you can help move your team or org in the right direction. It means that when you look for jobs, you can choose the right orgs to move to.
  • It can show you the arguments and reasons for abandoning inefficient processes such as change boards or feature teams. Reasons you can use to help drive change at your workplace.
  • It can help you understand the fundamental problems behind product (e.g: How do we know what users want?). This is important because processes, even processes that are tried and tested, do not always generalize. Businesses differ greatly and it’s important to understand the core problems of product and why the processes in the book solve them so that you can adjust those processes to your business environment or potentially come up with different, better ways of solving the same problems.

Another interesting thing is the writing style. It’s very different from most business books in a few key ways:

  • It’s short and to the point. Whereas most business books have a single fairly simple core idea or gimmick they try to sell and complexify, inspired has dozens if not closer to a hundred ideas or best practices and spends no more time than necessary on each.
  • It’s comprehensive. Again, many business books focus on a single technique or strategy. [[Inspired (Silicon Valley Product Group]] instead goes through pretty much every facet of product from the top level down to the nitty gritty.
  • It doesn’t equivocate. Most business books are written by people who have risen through the ranks of large organizations. This creates a strong selective pressure for authors who are never too critical of others and will never specifically say "This thing that most people do is bad and wrong and a red flag" as that kind of openness and criticality is a quick career killer in most orgs. Inspired is nothing like that. Again and again good behavior and practices are contrasted to bad behavior and practices and the latter are often ruthlessly deconstructed.

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