Maybe you’ve read our book, Ship It: Silicon Valley Product Managers Reveal All. In it, Product People from all walks of life working at Silicon Valley’s biggest companies share their secrets for success.
But wouldn’t it be interesting to look to another Silicon Valley for our PM wisdom. Namely, Silicon Valley the hit HBO comedy.
The Emmy-nominated show, which ran from 2014 to 2019, won multiple awards including People’s Choice and Satellite. It’s a beloved parody of the US tech industry, with crazy caricatures of tech bros, eccentric CEOs, and wacky investors. As out-there as the show is, it’s actually a fairly decent portrait of life in tech.
Product people love it, mostly because it’s hilarious, but also because it hits pretty close to home. Let’s take a look at some of the very real lessons we can learn from Silicon Valley.
*If you haven’t seen Silicon Valley, beware! Spoilers ahead!*
1. Keep Calm And Be Prepared
If Richard’s handling of his pitch meeting with Peter Gregory (S1 E4) tells us anything, it’s the importance of keeping calm! Panicking about his lack of vision and feeling an overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome, Richard finds himself on the floor of a bathroom crying into the carpet.
Many Product Managers have likely felt the same way. Maybe not to the extent of wanting to cry into Jeff Bezos’ bathroom carpet, but we’ve all experienced that feeling of ‘Oh my god, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.’
For Product Managers, especially those in a position of leadership, your job is often to be the shield between your teams and the chaos around them. Which means that above all you need to keep calm.
And the best way to keep calm is to be prepared. This doesn’t just mean taking time to prepare for a big meeting that’s been in your calendar for weeks. It’s about always being prepared.
As a PM, you’re expected to have a top-down view of what’s happening with your product. You should have a pretty good idea of how everything is going, with facts backed up by data.
If you’re ever approached by someone very important and asked for information that you don’t have, don’t panic! Just say ‘I don’t have that off the top of my head, let me take a minute to find it and I’ll get back to you.’ It sounds like incredibly simple advice, but it’s very easy to forget in the moment and get flustered.
Oxygen is free, so never be afraid to just take a breath and calm yourself down.
2. Never Underestimate Your Interns
Throughout the series, Jian-Yang is the butt of many jokes. While Jian-Yang is one of the funniest characters in the series, his role in the Pied Piper crew is a parody of every intern ever. Given menial jobs, made fun of, insulted, degraded, and blamed for countless mishaps.
So it comes as little surprise when he turns out to be a corrupt, evil genius. He goes on to do a number of underhanded and sneaky things, including the takeover of Erlich’s incubator.
Is the lesson here that all interns are sneaky and underhanded? Of course not. The lesson here is that you should never underestimate your interns!
This is especially true in Product, as there are basically no traditional paths into Product Management. Almost every great Product Leader today had to fumble and stumble their way into it, sometimes accidentally. Essentially, everyone has to start somewhere.
Underestimating your interns, or even your APMs and Junior Product Managers is a big mistake. Talent comes from all corners, and you’d be doing both them and your company a huge disservice by not helping them realize their potential.
Maybe the lesson here is also, be nice to your interns or one day they might end up kicking your friends out of your house and putting out their cigarette in a bucket of your ashes (yes, he really did that.)
You might also like: Why You Should Hire an Associate Product Manager
3. You Can’t Cheat Your Way to The Top (And Metrics Matter!)
In Season 3, Pied Piper throws a party to celebrate hitting 500,000 downloads of their platform. But Richard notices something strange. While the number of downloads is very exciting, their number of DAU’s (Daily Active Users) is comparatively very low.
It’s then revealed that Jared decides to use a Click Farm to drive downloads, inflating the numbers and essentially making all of their data fraudulent. Pied Piper loses all credibility, and thus loses out on important investment opportunities.
We can take two important lessons for Product Managers away from this particular mishap. First of all, there are no shortcuts to the top. You can try Black Hat marketing and hope that you cheat your way to the top, but the consequences often outweigh the rewards. It might be tempting to fiddle with and inflate your numbers before a big investor meeting, but due diligence will always get the best of you.
Another takeaway is the importance of measuring the right metrics. Having a huge number of signups/downloads is great! But if you only look at that, you’re not getting the full picture. You also need to look at what people do when they actually get into your product. Do they make it through the onboarding process, or is it so complicated that people give up and delete the app? Do they stick around after the 7 day free trial? Which features do they use and which do they not touch at all?
Having this information to hand not only helps you make more informed decisions, but it gives you the power to explain the reasons behind your decisions in any given moment. Backing up your opinion with data is the most powerful way to influence without authority, and creates more alignment among your teams.
4. Kill Your Darlings
Sometimes, as a creator, you have to kill the things you love. And the boys of Silicon Valley learned this the hard way in the season finale. Richard uses AI to self-improve Pied Piper’s network, which leads to PiperNet becoming far too powerful and threatening global security. So they decide to purposely sabotage the launch, which turns them into laughing stocks and ruins everything they’ve been building towards.
For Product Managers the lesson is pretty clear, even if you’re not building potentially world-destroying AI.
When you love what you do, it’s really easy to get attached to a particular feature, or product, or process. And sometimes those things just aren’t working. You can pour your heart and soul into building a product a certain way, and it sucks when it becomes more and more obvious that you need to pivot.
It can even happen post-launch, when the thing that you thought your customers would love is barely being touched.
So as a Product Manager, you need to learn when to keep going, when to pivot, and when to shut down operations completely.