What product management taught me about releasing an album

Last Tuesday, I released an album of music. It’s something I’ve worked on part-time for almost a year. Each track is inspired by a natural phenomenon.

I initially thought of this as a creative venture fairly different from my day job. Surely nothing from my day job would carry over, right?

Wrong.

While the end product is music someone listens to and not software someone uses, it turns out product management skills and techniques were very much in play as I went from early idea to published work. Here are a few that I used along the way:

Working backward

Product visions illustrate what changes in the world when the product exists, and what success looks like when the product is released and adopted. Some, like Amazon, write this vision down in the form of a future press release.

While I didn’t write a press release for my album, I did think ahead to what a release it would look like, and anticipated the things I would need to figure out:

  1. I knew I wanted an album that combined electronic with acoustic and electric instruments, so I had to research the best ways to get the sounds that I wanted.
  2. I knew I had a fair bit to compose, so I knew I had to research MIDI controllers and other input mechanisms for my setup.
  3. I wanted it to be released on streaming services, which meant I had to figure out what my options were for self-publishing through a distributor.
  4. I knew I wanted it to be listened to, so I had to come up with a plan for how to get the word out.

Defining a schedule

Work often fills available time, and for my album I had no hard deadline. To avoid working on it indefinitely, I set a personal goal of releasing it before end of 2020. This artificial deadline helped motivate me to spend time working on my music. It also ensured I wasn’t spending too much time tinkering, rethinking, or dwelling on parts of the work that were effectively done.

Making hard cuts

Early on, I had desires to have fifteen or even more tracks to my album. I had dreams of doing field recordings, and maybe even collaborating with other musicians. All of this takes time. That, combined with the reality that the last 10% of a project often takes the most time, made me cut back to something that was more reasonable: a 10-track solo album created in my home studio.

Beta testing

Often customers are asked to use a product in advance of it being released, to help the development team find and fix issues. As I was nearing completion of my album and doing final mixing and mastering, I listened to the music on various speakers including earbuds, car stereos, smartphones, and cheap monophonic Bluetooth speakers. I also shared the music with a few people to listen in advance. This all helped me uncover and fix small issues that I otherwise wouldn’t have uncovered.

– – – – –

While there are many differences between shipping software and making music, my day job doing the former certainly helped me figure out the latter.

I welcome your thoughts on how your day job may have helped you with a creative side venture. And, if you’re interested, take a listen to my work.

Don’t piss off your power users

I’m one of those weirdos that listens to podcasts at twice the normal speed. I do this because I listen to hours of podcasts a week, and I consume them more quickly this way.

I use Apple’s Podcasts app to listen on my iPhone. When I recently upgraded my iPhone to the beta of iOS 14.3, I was surprised to find this 2x playback feature broken. No matter what setting I chose, podcasts would play at regular speed.


Needless to say, I was quite disappointed. This bug effectively cut my listening efficiency in half. Plus, suddenly everyone seemed to speak s-o s-l-o-w-l-y.

While this was a bug, and Apple did fix it a few days ago, let’s imagine it wasn’t. What if Apple decided to remove this feature intentionally? After all, most people listen to podcasts at normal speed. Those weirdos like me are just the small minority of outlier users. Apple needs to focus on the mainstream, right?

Not quite.

Power users are free advertising. They laud your product to others. They email you feedback at 3AM. They buy a lot of your products. They’re a small minority of your user base but wield an outsized level of influence over the success of your product.

The 2x playback feature is an example of a power user feature. It’s something most people don’t use. But of those that do, chances are they’re fairly serious about podcast consumption. Take a feature like this away intentionally, and those users will, at minimum, likely complain loudly and switch quickly to another podcast app.

The moral of this anecdote: when looking at features to add, extend, or remove from your product, don’t just look at how frequently the feature is used. Also look at the broader behaviors of the users using that feature, including level of engagement. If you have a small group of users enthusiastically using a feature, don’t take it away. You’ll just piss them off.

Treat your time like investors treat money

When we review strategic plans at Redfin, Glenn reminds us that he wants to behave more like an allocator of capital. This means he wants to evaluate different ways Redfin can spend its money, the potential return for those investments, and then decide what will return the most.

That may seem like a cold way to decide what to do and not do. In truth, we consider much more than just return on capital invested when making strategic decisions. We’ll pass on investing in something that doesn’t make a customer’s buying or selling experience meaningfully better, or an agent’s work experience better. But thinking about return on capital is a good balance to avoid getting too attracted to interesting ideas that have a low chance of paying off.

Time is your scarce resource

As a product manager, you inevitably have more to do than there is time in which to do it. You have user research to conduct, designs to review, specs to write, metrics to evaluate, and roadmaps to put together. You have asks from other teams to manage. You have new people to ramp up. You have random issues in production that your team needs guidance on.

For this problem, I like to think of myself not as an allocator of capital, but as an allocator of another scarce resource: time.

Do your due diligence

When faced with a decision about where to spend your time, think about what return you’ll get for that time investment. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Cost: How much time will this take? Is this a high-confidence estimate or could it take much more or less time depending on unknown things?
  2. Value: How valuable is the thing that gets returned for putting the time in? Why?
  3. Expertise: Will you be the most effective if you spend time on this? Or, is there someone better suited that can do it faster and/or better?
  4. Opportunity: What else could you be doing, if you weren’t doing this? Are those things going to return something that’s more valuable?

Saying no is necessary

Investors want to put their money in more things than they are able. They have to say no to some investment options in order to say yes to others.

As an allocator of time, you’ll need to do the same. Saying no to doing something means you get to say yes to something else and give it your full focus. Saying no also may mean you need to find someone else to do it, or get agreement that it can wait.

Make your investments public

Make a list of the main things you’re driving, and where you draw the line below which items remain unfunded.

If your manager or a colleague wants you to invest in something new, share with them your list of where your time is currently allocated, and ask the above questions: what’s the new item’s cost and return, who’s best for it, and is it worth more than current investments?


Having a focused, high-return list of investments of your time is the way you’ll make the most impact as a product manager. As a bonus, it should also help you stay balanced and avoid overwork.

A Few Product Thoughts on Cryptocurrencies

Relying on other people to tell you about a product you’ve never seen or used is like having someone describe to you what it’s like to ride a rollercoaster; you can sort of imagine it, but you can’t form an opinion of whether you like being hurled up and down a track in a little buggy until you try it.

I was ignorant about cryptocurrency as a product. So, I recently decided to get hands-on and think about it from a product perspective.

Dipping my toe in

I did what I think are the very basics with cryptocurrency: I acquired, transferred, and exchanged.

  1. Acquired: I used an online exchange to convert some US dollars into one cryptocurrency. I also found some places online that would give a small amount of cryptocurrency in exchange for viewing ads or letting a browser “mine” for coins.
  2. Transferred: I used a couple of ways of transferring cryptocurrency from one place to another. Specifically, I transferred from an exchange into an online wallet.
  3. Exchanged: I used a few different means to exchange that one cryptocurrency into another.

In the span of minutes, I witnessed my US dollars being converted into a digital store of value and be sent over to a virtual storage place. I watched as a distributed ledger running on a bunch of different computers confirmed the transaction. I also watched fees paid to those running the computers that helped me do the transfer or exchange.

First impression: it works, but it’s hard

I was impressed that the technology worked and worked quickly. Transferring money was much faster than an Automated Clearing House transfer between banks, and in some cases was lower cost than a credit card transaction fee or a Paypal merchant fee.

However, most options to buy, transfer, and exchange cryptocurrencies are not well documented, not easy to access, and confusing. I ended up committing several hours of research and experimentation with about a dozen different websites to do what I did. And I feel I was just scratching the surface.

The walls are up, but there’s still no running water

If cryptocurrency was a house, it would be far from ready to live in for most people. Sure, developers will point to the walls and say “look, they’re standing!” and take pride in the tarp roof they’ve stretched across the walls. But most people will point to the lack of a toilet and ask, “where do I go to pee?”

Developers are busy addressing infrastructural problems, like how much information is part of each section of the distributed ledger, how fast the transactions are processed, how the transactions are verified or proven, and how time- and energy-efficient the verification process can be. There is demand for this work because coins are racing to differentiate from each other in order to get adopted by those running servers to verify transactions and those interested in buying the coins.

So. Much. Hype.

As of this writing, there are over 1,400 cryptocurrencies listed on CoinMarketCap. The barrier to entry is low. Can you fork an existing open-source project, setup a server running that code, and create a reasonably nice-looking website? Congratulations, you’ve just started a cryptocurrency.

Also as of this writing, there are over 1,000 books on Amazon about cryptocurrency.  Many focus on cryptocurrencies as an investment vehicle, promising some insider secrets that others don’t have.

So, what’s it good for?

Right now, not a lot. You can buy some coins and keep them, speculating on their future value. You can buy them to send money to people, but the transaction fees sometimes make this unappealing compared to Paypal or Venmo or just a simple check. You can also go online and argue about why one coin is better than another, in various forums.

So what about the future? Optimists say cryptocurrencies will replace gold as safe stores of value. Others think they will upgrade or replace the banking system, and expand money services for those unbanked and for those wishing to send money overseas. Still others see the distributed ledger as a way to create a new computing platform, complete with file storage and information transfer.

And then the pessimists point to the crazy state of the product today: lose your private key? Congratulations, you’ve lost your money. The same congratulations is warranted if you keep your money in an exchange and the exchange gets hacked. Oh, and you can lose your money trying to buy a cryptocurrency from an ATM because the transaction fees are too high.

I think that both optimists and pessimists are right; currently, cryptocurrencies aren’t ready for the mainstream user. What I don’t know is whether the innovations will hit a critical mass that will free developers to focus on building things at the application layer, solve end-user problems, and allow for everyone to easily adopt the technology.

This could be another BitTorrent

Remember BitTorrent, the distributed file sharing system, letting you quickly download files from multiple other computers that had all or part of those files? Movie studios and music labels were shaking at the prospect of everyone downloading films and albums for free with this technology. Then, the streaming revolution happened, and people realized paying a few bucks to Netflix and Spotify was much easier than spending time downloading a pixelated version of a movie with Portuguese-dubbed audio only to then receive a stern letter from their ISP.

Or, this could be the future.

Cryptocurrencies could follow the same path as BitTorrent: a lot of hype around a cool technology that remains in the margins, outside of most people’s everyday life. Or, it could be the beginning of the next platform in computing, creating a new way to store, transfer, and transact value and information without a central authority with killer apps yet to be imagined.

Only product people’s creativity, developer’s ingenuity, and what customers ultimately spend their time and money on, will tell.