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Product Management Lesson From Ralph Baer, Father Of Console Video Games

Ralph Baer, inventor

Decades before the first PlayStations or Xboxes took over our living rooms, there was the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s very first home video game console. The Odyssey’s inventor, Ralph Baer, passed away earlier this week at age 92.

PBS interviewed Baer at age 89 and he talked candidly about outliving his wife and his friends, and the thrill he still gets from inventing things.

He said something really profound to me in that interview.

As he’s talking about potential retirement, this lifelong engineer and creator and thinker says:

“I’m basically an artist, no different from a painter who sits there and loves what he does. Would you ask a guy who’s been painting all his life why he’ll keep painting? ‘Why don’t you retire?’ Retire to what? Stop painting? This is insane. Why would you want to do that?”

Which made me think about my own career.

So much of a Product Manager’s life is about making decisions with the data you have — or don’t have! — and developing a track record for making the right call. You must understand people and their problems. You have to be comfortable — and good at! — interacting with customers, salespeople, developers, designers, marketers, and more — and be able to synthesize all that data into something meaningful and understandable so your team can create profitable solutions.

All while knowing, in the back of your mind, that most products fail to get off the ground.

And that all products eventually die.

Except, maybe, Baker’s Chocolate. But still.

The odds are stacked against your success, but you still keep going. Why?

Because It’s Not A Job.

At a certain level, product management is not a job; it’s part of who you are.

You’re invested in specific problems, and trying to understand the impact of those problems on a specific group of people.

You like exploring new ideas and new solutions, and evaluating how effectively those solutions help solve meaningful problems.

If you’re not into either those things, you’re probably not going to be very effective as a PM because you’ll tend to be like a pitbull with lockjaw, obsessing over a particular approach regardless of user feedback or market movement.

But if you have that passion for people and their problems, and can translate that into meaningful activity, that passion and energy will be palpable. And transformative.

Just like the work of any other artist.

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Bonus Content

Listen to Baer talk about the Odyssey, the death of his wife, and his desire to invent in this three-minute clip from the PBS show Inventors:

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