Ep. 11: John Cutler – Writing and Thinking on Product work

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John Cutler at work

This time my guest is John Cutler. He is the hardest working man in product business. At least he is the hardest and most writing man in product business. Since ages he writes, thinks and muses about things he observes and wonders about in what we see as our jobs in product work.

John might actually really be one of the hardest working men in our business. On top of writing on a nearly daily basis, he has a plain normal day job. Well, what’s normal. He is Senior Product Manager for Search and Relevance at Zendesk.

Asked how he gets all of this done, he says he needs it. He says, he accepts mediocrity in his writing to get anything done. That’s close to the things Denise said in the last podcast.

What I really love about what John writes is his (in the best sense of the word) pragmatic and un-ideological view. I see this in many people who still have a day job. Not being connected to and being reliant on consulting and methods and marketing sometimes helps bring things to the point.

Not only does John write a lot, he writes good stuff as well. A couple of months ago, he wrote a blog post on feature factories, places where we don’t feel the impact of what we are doing. Listen to how that came about and how we take that topic to more interesting insights on how innovation in product might soon occur in unexpected places.

And now, please join our chat! Have fun!


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  • 00:03:10 Why and how John writes such a lot
  • 00:12:08 Context and tensions in the product world
  • 00:14:54 How the most common sense things can be useless in a different context
  • 00:21:25 The common thread in John’s writing and viewpoints
  • 00:25:08 Tangible vs. digital products
  • 00:29:30 The huge story of the feature factory and what we learned from it

Chapter Notes

00:03:10 Why and how John writes such a lot

” I am a pattern matcher … I go through my pattern library”

“The first thing I had to do was to accept I wouldn’t get it right every time”

“It starts with an emotion in lots of cases”

“I like to ask why! When I was in school, I was part of a performance and my costume was a question mark on the top of my head.”

00:12:08 Context and tensions in the product world

“I think as product professionals one of our core skills is understanding the fitness landscape.”

“When I think of hiring, the No. 1 thing I look for is ‘does the person display a strong ability for sense making and understands systems thinking and how things are fitting together’?.”

“You know, systems thinking can be a bit of a curse, too … there’s the ‘why-askers’ and there’s the ‘shut-up-and get-this-shit-done-people’ and you need this balance between those things.”

00:14:54 How the most common sense things can be useless in a different context

“When we put up a large portfolio board, all the frontline engineers immediately loved it, as they could see what’s coming down the line. When the first executives saw it, they resisted, they actually wanted it to be taken down.”

“You have to be yourself. Because if you’re trying to not be yourself – unless you’re really good at that – you gonna be less than yourself.”

00:21:25 The common thread in John’s writing and viewpoints

“I like all the crazy diverse engineers that I work with, the UX folks I work with, I like the hackers, I like the problem solvers, I like the designers. And if there’s one theme – I guess I have a point of view – I think we make better products that way.”

“It was actually a satire on how people can act like they let their team participate while they’re not. Like: tell your team that you build an MVP to iterate on it and then don’t iterate on it. And you’ll steal their soul. Or take credit all the time without mentioning the team. Or: organise a hackney for one day so that everybody feels great for one day and then get back to work.”

00:25:08 Tangible vs. digital products

“It’s a service ecology. And when I say that I like that, because I think products may be like touch points. But if you think about it, I think that this might bring back the idea of craftsmanship. The idea of being people again and again. … and I think that many designers … there is something beautiful about delivering the thing … and I value this idea. But what I also love is to see this thing evolve.”

“And often designers and other people see agile development as a curse. They think that this is antithetical to delivering a wonderful experience. And meanwhile I see it as an amazing opportunity. The problem is not to reduce the complexity in your product, not to make it a Frankenproduct. But it doesn’t need to be that way.”

00:23:00 The Story of the Feature Factory

“Not everybody wants to take the adventure the same way”

“I think we do junior product people and people working in this a little bit of a disservice by training them on the highly transactional type of work in exclusion of some of the systems thinking stuff.”

“A feature factory is an environment is optimised for output. And which is optimised for output over understanding if those things work.”

“It is optimised for output but on a human level you’re not sensing the impact, you’re only sensing the cost.”

“An interesting problem is rapid growth. Let’s say the problem you’re trying to solve requires 160 people to work on your particular problem. … If you want to copy Spotify, what you should copy is to get Agile Coaches in. … What I love about Spotify is that they say they are bad at big projects.”

“We’ve moved past custom and genesis type efforts. We’re in the product/commodity era. And so the innovation might come in other dimensions to do that. And, again, it always comes at a cost.


Oops, this ending sounds like more and it seems we have to explore a little bit more at some time on how different stages of genesis, custom, product and commodity require different vectors of innovation. So, let’s see and hope that there will be more on this in the future!

This chat really was a fun experience and incredibly easy to edit.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And I hope this also made you a little bit hungry for more :) And I also hope that – if you didn’t know John before – what I meant with pragmatic and un-ideological. But I also see these statements also so including and inviting.

If you enjoyed this episode as much as I did, please recommend us, send us feedback on any of the channels we are available and give us that review on iTunes and whatever helps us to reach out!

I hope you listen again in a couple of weeks, when it’s time for episode 12!

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