Brayden Haws

January 20, 2023

Power, Large Systems, and Data: Product Lessons from an Unlikely Source

Two caveats here (always a fun way to start an article):

  • I’m not trying to make any type of statement with this one. People can and should each do their research on Ed Snowden. The same thing goes for Joe Rogan. I’m not sharing my opinion on either person just some things I found interesting. More than anything sharing some tangential thoughts they sparked
  • It feels like I am walking into a classic trap here. We want everything to be a lesson or an analogy. But sometimes there isn’t a lesson. Or if there is, it’s a stretch. That’s what this may be. But I was interested (or dumb) enough to put the time in. So I figured I might as well hit send.

I had something of an odd experience this weekend. In the midday downtime, I started watching Ed Snowden on the Joe Rogan podcast. I’m not exactly sure how I got started (jk I am, thanks YouTube algorithm). Next thing I knew it was 5 hours later. I’m still not sure what my wife and kids were doing that entire time. But this isn’t about my parental neglect, that story could fill volumes.

Anything involving one of these individuals is a hot topic. The two of them together are a potential powder keg. But I’m leaving the political stuff aside here. As I listened, I saw parallels to the work we all do (on a less serious scale). They covered tons of interesting topics including power, large systems, and data. Things that we as Product Managers all have to worry about every day.

With all the caveats above and some trepidation in my hands as I type, here are the things I thought were relevant.

System Inertia is Real

Most things start small with the assumption that they will stay small. But assumptions have little power. Left unchecked, systems and programs will grow and grow and grow. Before you know it that small thing is huge and sprawling. At that point, no one knows everything that exists inside it. Or what everything inside it does. What it was meant to do is often lost. What it does now often has little or no connection to its origin. …

Product managers face this type of problem all the time. We start with a small product serving a particular customer. Then the company starts to grow. And the customer base grows. Then the customer base changes. And guess what? The product grows and shifts as well. One day you wake up and realize you don’t know everything your product does, and you may not recognize it at all. Despite that, you have to keep “managing” it. You are pushed to add more and more stuff. I’d like to say “here are the 5 guardrails that will keep this from happening to you”, but I don’t know what to do here. I am hoping someone smarter than me can tell me how to prevent this.

Stakeholder Management

Many of the spy programs that were revealed during this time were found to be illegal. Despite their legal status, executive leaders asked for agencies to continue the programs and they did. The agencies deferred to the judgment of the stakeholder over the desires of the people.

Product managers often face a similar (less serious) dilemma. We are barraged by requests from stakeholders that often do not align with the best interests of the customers and product. It is an acquired skill to know how to negotiate in these situations. When to push back and when to relent. In a perfect world, we would always side with what was best for the product. But sometimes you have to do something less than ideal to keep stakeholders on your side.

Technical Ability is an Advantage

After the military, Snowden was a security guard on a college campus. It happened that some of the buildings on that campus belonged to government agencies. Due to his technical interests and some military training, leadership thought he could do more than walk around the buildings at night with a flashlight. He started to move up the ranks due to his technical prowess and expanding skillset.

He didn’t start in a job where he’d ever have access to information that he eventually leaked. But he moved into those types of jobs because of his technical skills and his desire to learn new things. Desires that are valiant no matter the outcome.

Product managers can apply a similar model to their careers. No matter where you start you can always learn more and try new things. It used to be common that PMs would be technical, many were ex-engineers. Today the emphasis has shifted. But technical prowess is definitely still a differentiator and gives you another vector for advancement.

Security and Data Management

Snowden gave a deep review of how our data is exploited. How we are subject to security holes. And what we can do as people to protect ourselves.

I think security and data management are sometimes afterthoughts in product management. We think of them as best left to others. While there are more qualified people. We should still be doing all we can to protect our users. Security and user management should definitely be discussed as we spec new features and design systems.

Of anything I heard this was my biggest takeaway, I’m going to be spending a lot of time researching why security matters and how it should work. Trust is everything for customers so we need to ensure we do everything possible to earn that trust.

You might love or hate this one. I’m frankly not sure if I love it or hate it. Regardless of the source I found some things that matter to me and hopefully they might help you too.

Links to podcast episodes:

About Brayden Haws

Healthcare guy turned tech wannabe. Doing product stuff at Grow. Building Utah Product Guild⚒️. Created the PM A.M. Newsletter. Curated the Patchwork PM Bible. Built SpeakEasy. Constantly tinkering on my 🛻. Occasionally writing poor takes on product strategy and technology.

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