The Kabbalah of Technology Product Management

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By Yonatan Gordon

There is a recent long-form article published on Fortune Magazine entitled “The shared genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.”  I say long-form because its over 4500 words and goes into a many comparisons between these two business leaders.

Although you are welcome to read through that article, two are two specific terms that stood out in relation to product management. While it fits the current social trend to want to boil down a 4500 word article into five words or less, what is most intriguing is that these two product management approaches are actually complete opposites of each other. The first the author calls “first-principles” (a term quoted in the name of Elon Musk), and the second is “system-level design.”

Realizing the Dream

Probably the easier of the two to understand is “first-principles.” Here is how Musk explains it: “What I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there…”

So when Steve Jobs set out to design the iPad for instance, in collaboration with his product development team, there were several universal or core concepts that Jobs wanted to convey. A few were that the device should be lightweight, fast, and thin. Something perhaps more complex already is that this piece of metal should assist the user in accessing storehouses of information. These are all what Musk would call “first-principles,” or that “eureka” stage before the design, where the only thing that matters is the recognition of the dream.

Then comes the hours of deliberation behind closed doors during the product development meetings. While the initial ideas and invention concepts came in a flash, now takes the effort of actualizing the dream into reality. The ability to take the uncomplicated, pure concept, and bring it down into the particulars is what the author calls “system-level design.” Here is now he explains it:

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson has been making the comparison between Musk and Jobs for years. He was an employee of Jobs at NeXT and got close-up exposure to Jobs’ thinking during their one-on-one walk meetings. Jurvetson also became an early investor and board member of both SpaceX and Tesla and has had plenty of opportunity to see Musk’s mind in action. As he sees it, the approach of both men in designing hardware and the systems in which they operate is inspired by the way that great software is created: There’s a relentless drive to divide the challenge into simpler pieces, then reshuffle those pieces until the perfect mix is achieved.

Simple Results

Important for our discussion are these words, “drive to divide the challenge into simpler pieces.” For physicists, this means taking our complex physical world, and attempting to discover some grand unity by dividing particles into smaller and smaller parts. On the macroscopic level, this relates to the task of observing the “billions and billions of stars” in the cosmos, while striving to appreciate the Oneness of creation.

It is well known that Steve Jobs tried to make his products look as streamlined as possible, with the minimal usage of buttons and other user-interface methods (even though the end-result was a rather complicated  iPad, iPhone, etc…).

Although there are clear differences, the example for this in Jewish tradition are the mitzvot we perform with physical objects. While there are thousands of laws that need to be mastered before a sofer (Jewish scribe) can make a pair of tefillin, when the wearer says Shema Yisroel–the declaration of monotheistic belief–the result is the pure revelation of Oneness. Unlike tefillin, however, computers are not intrinsically holy objects, and weren’t commanded by God to “interface” with or wear every weekday.

Perpetual Upgrades

But this distinction also helps us understand the world of product management a drop better. While tefillin will always be tefillin, technology goes through upgrade after upgrade in an attempt to keep pace with “first principles.” Meaning that if an iPad is supposed to be symbolic of “thinness, speed, portable access to knowledge” and another thinner, faster and larger storage device comes along, then buyer dissonance begins to set in between these attractive universal concepts, and the actual manifestation of these concepts in the world.

This is the deeper reason why products, and technology in particular, change so rapidly. Since the attraction to the product began with “first principles,” the “system-level design” approach finds itself rushing to keep close to these founding eureka moments. But since the “product” of tefillin is perfect as is, not only is the object itself holy, but the “system-level design” of the tefillin (which was commanded by God and took the knowledge of thousands of laws) is always perfectly connected to the “first principles” of the product. This means that a kosher pair of tefillin will always help us to accept the yoke of Heaven, recognize the oneness of God, etc…

iPad vs. iPad 2

To end with a specific example again related to electronics. If there is ever a doubt as to what the “first principles” of a product are, a person can usually look at what was changed in the first upgrade. In addition to iPad 2 being 33% slimmer and 15% lighter, it also was given a more powerful processor, double the memory (512 MB), front-facing camera to enable video chat, new gyroscope for improved gaming, 80% faster browsing experience, longer battery life, etc…

While all these details may seem to complicate the dream or original “eureka” moment when it was first decided to design the original iPad then version 2, this doesn’t need have to be the case. For instance, one way to view these upgrades is an overall desire to be more productive in life and reach our fullest potentials. Although a person today may think that he needs an iPad to be productive, perhaps tomorrow he will realize that the main attraction was to the idea of being productive rather than the product itself. Also since productivity is central to the way we see our purpose and mission in the world, most of the upgrades relate to this.

If we conceptualize the improved gaming elements, we could add that while a person wants to be more productive, they also want to have fun doing what they love.

Finally, the conceptual or “first principles” concept behind long battery life is that we should all both live productive and long years.

Try this at home on your favorite gadget and you’ll be surprised at how simple this seemingly complex device strips down to be.

For some concepts behind the finger ID program on the iPhone 5s , please read: The Kabbalah of Apple’s New iPhone 5s Finger ID.

Photo Credit: onemoregadget.com

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