The Martian: A perfect book for the casual Product Manager

About two years ago a couple of nerdy colleagues of mine told me of an amazing new book they were reading. “A man is stuck on Mars and must figure out how to survive by planting crops and re-engineering his habitat. It is very precise and it takes you step by step through his thought process by using his ship’s log entries.”, they explained. It didn’t sell me. Actually, it sounded pretty awful at the time. Although I have dabbled in some Sci-Fi reading I don’t seek it out, it’s either classics or learning books for me. So, I passed.

Fast-forward to 2015, and, as you probably have heard, Matt Damon was selected to play the lead (Mark Watney) in the new blockbuster movie of the same name. I was shocked to hear it. I began seeing “The Martian” on newsstands all over the world as we traveled. It altered my expectations of just how good this “nerdy” novel could be. The tipping point occurred when I found out my fiancé Jackie (a major anti-nerd type) had begun reading it as well. Soon after, I dove into my trusty kindle to see what all the fuss was about. The marketing had won.

As it turns out Jackie never made it through the entire novel, and I can see why. Although I loved the book, it was, as she put it: “full of acronyms and terminology that made it tough to keep up with.” (You can learn more about the termonology used in the book in the appendix below.) My initial perception of the book was correct, it is definitely a nerdy novel. That being said, Weir has done an amazing thing I can fully appreciate: he places you on mars in a very plausible and realistic way. The reader walks, step-by-step at times, through what a visit to the red planet would be like. Nerd or not, from my perspective that turned out to be pretty cool, and an emotional rollercoaster to boot! To keep you from feeling too much like you deserve a wedgie while reading it, Watney’s character constantly downplays his intensely analytical and scientific mind with wit and sarcasm.

The product manager side of me was constantly finding itself relating to Watney’s thought process as he worked his way through solving one life threatening challenge at a time. Sure, it’s a stretch to say surviving on a habitable planet  is a lot like building a product – but it is. You have a goal and are confronted with two sets of problems: ones that have mappable solutions and ones that have never been solved before that are full of unknowns. You need to run tests and create hypotheses to try and derive knowns from those unknowns so you can begin to generate a sense of effort and time. Some days you feel like you’re working hard for nothing and it is time to quit, other days you feel like you’re king of the world; the first to successfully solve a problem, a problem that no one has solved before. And, most importantly, you’re goal is awash if you don’t figure out how to prioritize your tasks one problem at a time as it relates to your mission.

I especially love hearing him think aloud as he works his way through each hurdle. First he imagines his goal (often one that has never been seen by mankind before) and then works backwards with “how can I get that done?”, dissecting each larger problem into smaller ones to attack; often putting some off for later. For example, here is an excerpt of him working out how he can get enough calories (vis-a-vis potatoes) to last another couple of years while he awaits a rescue mission.

I need to create calories. And I need enough to last the 1387 sols until Ares 4 arrives. If I don’t get rescued by Ares 4, I’m dead anyway. A sol is 39 minutes longer than a day, so it works out to be 1425 days. That’s my target: 1425 days of food…

Presuming I can overcome the problems, they net me another 20 square meters, bringing my farmland up to 126. One hundred and twenty-six square meters of potato plants. That’s something to work with. I still don’t have the water to moisten all that soil, but like I said, one thing at a time.

He also often exemplifies the iterative development life-cycle mentality, per the excerpt below. He fully understanding that his initial assumptions may not stand up to his tests, but recognizes that something must be done to be able to gather real data, and improve the plan from there.

Things weren’t 100% succesful. They say no plan survives first contact with implementation. I’d have to agree.

If you’re in the product development field (or interested in improving your skills in the field) I think you will find this book highly engaging. It’s educational while still being action packed and an emotional novel about space colonization to boot! If you’re going to nerd it up with a novel, I say The Martian by Andy Weir is the way to go.

The Martian Word Appendix

For those feeling intimidated by the Acronym laden read, here are a few words and their definitions to keep things flowing smoothly for you. Let me know if I am missing any so I can update the list for others.

EVA: Extra-Vehicular Activity. Describes both the space suit and the activities done while using the space suit.

The Hab: Short for the Mars Lander habitat: a high-tech tent astronauts can relax in without wearing a spacesuit. Their home away from home.

Sol: A Solar Day, which is 24 hours, 39 minutes

MAV: Mars Ascent Vehicle. Basically a ship used to leave the Mars surface. In the book a MAV was left behind in the previously failed missions. The MAV has tons of equipment Watney may be able to use to survive but it is far from his HAB.

MDV: Mars Descent Vehicle: the device used to land on Mars

RTG: Radioisotope Thermonuclear Generator. It is a radioactive electrical generator. Though, Watney uses it as a heater since it gets really hot and Mars is very cold.

ARES: Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey. A name for the Mars mission what is on. Just like the Apollo missions got people to the moon, ARES missions exploring different parts of Mars. Watney is a crew member of Ares 3. For him to get rescued he has to find a way to stay alove until ARES 4 as able to save him.

Mars Opportunity Rover:  A probe that landed on Mars in 2004, as of July 28th, 2014 it had traveled over 25 miles, which is about 40 kilometers. If the rover is able to continue on and get to 26.2 miles it will be able to examine what is called Marathon Valley.

Mars Pathfinder: Landed on Mars on July 4th, 1997- it seemed to be only effective for a couple of years.

Phobos: The innermost of Mars two moons. It’s also the largest of the two moons. Phobos is closer to any planet than any other moon in the solar system.

Deneb: brightest star in constellation Cygnus, one of the vertices of the summer triangle and the 19th brightest star in the night sky. It’s many more times illuminos than our own sun.

How Google Works: What is innovation?

My friend William and I started a book club – of two. So, I guess book duo would be more precise. Anyhow, our first book we read together was How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. One question that sparked a conversation at one of our meetings was was with the definition in the book on innovation.

The book states “For something to be innovative, it needs to be new, surprising, and radically useful.”

The questions that came up were:

  • Did we agree with that definition?
  • To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  • Is the innovation defined on a continuum/scale, or is the question of something being innovative a yes/no question?
  • How do you measure “radically useful”?
  • Why must it be “surprising?”
  • When do you determine when something is useful?

After some disagreements and concession this here is what we concluded:

Innovation is not binary, it can lie on a continuum.

We broke “innovation” down into invention (something new), innovation (an invention that is 2X or more better than what exists), disruption (an invention that is 10X+ better than what exists and that displaces, or noticeable begins to displace, something heavily used today.)

Using an example in the book, where does an improvement such as the auto-search functionality lie? Is what you are planning to do iterative? Is it 2X, 3X or 10X better?

I’ve had applied this more detailed perspective to some projects I am working on during the planning of potential roadmaps. In some cases this question hurt the iterative process, it caused us to overthink simple iterations that in aggregate could lead to something greater in the future. After all, sometimes *trying* to innovate kills the creative free thinking environment that breeds innovation. In other cases it helped us stretch our ideas into something more impactful, for example asking “How much better do you think that is than what we have, 2X, 3X ….?”