5 Ways John Wick Made Me A Better Product Manager

“I once saw him kill three men in a bar…with a pencil. With a f$#^ing pencil.”

Directed by his former stunt doubles from The Matrix films, John Wick is an action thriller starring Keanu Reeves as a retired A-list assassin. He gets pulled back into the world after a thug steals his car and kills his puppy.

Yeah. A puppy.

The thug happens to be the son of a Russian mobster he used to work for.

The puppy was a surprise gift from his wife after she passed away.

What proceeds for the next 90 minutes is a revenge story on steroids, cocaine, and viagra. In early 2017, they released a sequel called John Wick: Chapter 2, and a third one already in the works. Yeahhh!

I’ve watched both too many times already and started to notice many parallels with my job as a product manager.

Sounds crazy? Maybe. After all, I do have a .lol domain!

Mr. Wick is the ultimate product in a world of undercover assassins. He’s the best of the best and all enemies fear him. Bringing up his name strikes fear in people. On the other hand, he also treats service staff incredibly well and they love doing business with him.

Also…he once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. A f$#@%ing pencil!

So what can we learn from this guy that doesn’t really exist?

1) Impact & Efficiency

Viggo Tarasov: “The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation for who we are now. And then my son, a few days after his wife died, you steal his car and kill his f$#^ing dog.” 

If you’re responsible for taking out hundreds of mobsters in New York your game better be TIGHT. In cinematography, a general rule for action scenes is to break the cinematic illusion as little as possible. Many directors overdo this with CGI, quick edits, and stunt doubles so it ends up looking pretty fake.

As Keanu Reeves was capable of performing many of his own stunts (see below), there was less need to swap him out during a fight. That meant the directors could film longer between takes with less edits, wider shots, and more credible action sequences. This subtle setup allowed the film to have a gritty, real, and very brutal feel to the action.

One of my first tasks as a new product manager was getting rid of bottlenecks, unnecessary work, and duplicate tasks in JIRA. I’ve learned from my developer friends that they need the proper headspace to focus and concentrate in order to deliver good work.

I hate inefficiencies myself and they usually signal a breakdown in people, process, or product. JIRA tickets that were over 2 months old and blocked with no progress were closed. The process for submitting a bug ticket was also modified with stricter criteria and a better troubleshooting SOP. This reduced the weekly bug ticket load for our developers by over 57%. Yes!

Going over the backend of a child app with our CTO.

I’d also look for patterns in support tickets, observing the language they used to describe problems that were encountered. From there, I’d spec them out for development with user stories, requirements, pass/fail criteria, and low fidelity mockups in Photoshop. Our scrum master would review the requirements with me, tweaking them until the final draft was ready for the developers.

2) Let Your Work Do The Talking

Viggo Tarasov: “John? Let us not resort to our baser instincts and handle this like civilized men to move on…” [John hangs up mid-sentence]

Shortly after mob boss Viggo Tarasov finds out that his son did to John Wick, he calls him at home attempting to resolve it before things get very, very sloppy. John doesn’t say a word and hangs up on him halfway through. He will let the dead bodies do the talking.

We’ve all been let down by a friend or colleague that says they’ll do something but have horrible follow-up and execution. It’s disappointing and causes you to lose respect for them if it keeps happening. As a product manager I was always diligent with my communications, especially with customer support.

From a business standpoint, it’s more efficient to keep an existing customer than trying to acquire a new one. Churn is the silent killer of all SaaS applications and it must be systematically crushed.

At the end of every day, I’d prepare a daily summary of the outstanding JIRA tickets and progress reports in Slack.

Updating our customer service team on release note and upcoming pipeline.

Even if some tickets didn’t have any updates, our support team appreciated the over-communication. They could have peace of mind knowing that their customers were being looked after by the product manager and developers. This freed up their bandwidth to help more customers, which ultimately reduced the monthly churn.

3) Respect Is Earned, Not Given Freely

John Wick: “You lost over 60 pounds? Impressive. Why don’t you take the night off?”

As the first film begins, we learn that everyone is utterly terrified of John Wick even though he hasn’t killed anyone yet. WTF?

His nickname “baba yaga” comes from Slavic folklore of a deformed being that’s the ultimate embodiment of terror. And John Wick was the one you sent to kill this guy.

How’s that for a reputation?

As a new product manager, earning respect from the engineering team, customer service, and marketing departments was something that needed to be nailed down. Nobody had any basis to judge my competence and those first impressions set the working dynamics going forward.

Going over more backend architecture with our CTO. Here we are trying to figure out how to develop version 2.0 of the main application in parallel using the same databases.

Before I first started, I had no idea what a LAMP or MEAN stack was. True story. That’s because my background was in digital marketing and barely ever touched software. But I wasn’t afraid to admit that and tried to learn as much as I could.

When I’d have lunch with our CTO, I’d pepper him with database questions and technical aspects of our architecture.

Working harder than everyone else was also a requirement to get the team’s respect. I believe respect sets the foundation for trust, and trust then sets the foundation for leadership. When I was able to admit something I didn’t know, people were always willing to help.

On the other hand, I’d look like a fool pretending to know something I didn’t.

4) Know When To Make Tradeoffs

Viggo Tarasov: “What happened John? We were professionals… civilized!”

In the finale of the first film, John Wick has to go 1-on-1 with Viggo Tarasov after killing all his henchmen. As the fight ensues, Viggo realizes he won’t win and pulls out a pocket knife to get the upper hand. #cheater

Now at an disadvantage, John needs to find a way to close the gap without getting slashed to death. He decides to let Viggo stab him directly in order to get close and break his arm. It makes no sense at all, but shows how hardcore John Wick can be.

He then pulls the knife out and with only one arm working, Viggo is defenseless. John parries his punch and stabs the knife into his neck ending the fight as rain pours down on both men.

 

In software development, there are often tradeoffs you have to make in order to ship things faster. Knowing how to make scope changes with the right evidence, business logic, and impact is something I learned as a product manager. Things always seem to go wrong at the last minute too. Thanks Murphy’s Law!

One of the last features I worked on was single sign on between three child apps and one parent app. Each app was coded by different developers, and everyone had to come together for two days to finish testing and deployment.

Each team already ran QA tests on their own staging environments. We had to do a final test before deploying the code to four production sites. However, it was quite a feat with many things that could go wrong.

Reconfirming some details about single sign on with our QA tester on reactivated Stripe IDs and how the logic works out.

Halfway through the first night, we realized one of the child apps was missing code that interacted with the parent application. Specifically, this had to do with customers that cancelled their accounts and reactivated at a later date. How would the SSO logic process the new Stripe ID?

We then had a choice to make:

Option 1: Do we spend another 3-4 hours fixing this problem, making the other team members stand by and wait? Since they were remote, what if they can’t hang around? This would jeopardize the entire project and push the timeline back.

Option 2: Do we drop this child app and move forward with a smaller scope while everyone is still awake? Is that acceptable from a business standpoint? How would marketing and customer support react to that?

After two days of late nights, we had to revert the deployment at the last minute.

After evaluating the total user base of the child app, I decided to reduce the scope and drop it. My rationale was that having single sign on with a smaller scope delivered to a majority customers was better than a perfect solution that would have been a gamble to even deploy across the board.

As we deployed the code, we ran into more bugs that weren’t accounted for because the environments in testing and production were not 100% identical. In the end, everything had to be reverted which was an unfortunate situation after two days of staying up until 3:00AM trying to get this deployed.

5) Attention In Details

Sommelier: “May I suggest…the Benelli M4. Custom bolt carrier release and charging handle. Textured grips, should your hands get…wet. An Italian classic.”

Compared to other big-screen flicks, John Wick didn’t have epic scenes of highways and cities being blown up with CGI. It was a deliberate choice by the directors to create an underground world of assassins living right under our eyes.

The choreography also feels authentic because a good chunk of it really is. Grounded in function over style, you don’t see Keanu Reeves doing roundhouse kicks or fancy moves that look cool. The fights also happen in short bursts with the intention to take down as many people as possible.

If you watch closely, he always runs out of bullets because reloading is built into the choreography.

One aspect of product management I enjoy is being able to discuss strategy at 35,000 feet but also jump into the documentation of an API to get something built.

A big challenge I had starting out was thinking like a developer. Coming from a marketing background, I was used to the gray area of psychology, triggers, and emotion. They’re difficult to explain with logic, whereas computer programming is the polar opposite.

The truth is both skillsets are important, and overtime I started to understand why most technical people despise sales and marketing. You need to be incredibly detail oriented when it comes to software as everything must be defined. But as the product manager, I was able to ride between both sides and think in different ways on the job.

Poking questions with the developer on a possible UI/UX change to a child app’s dashboard.

Once I was able to understand both mindsets, I was able to truly work between marketing, development, customer support, and even finance. This allowed me to write better feature requirements, pass/fail criteria, and user stories that ultimately gave our engineers and easier time with development.

Happy Hunting

I’m looking forward to John Wick: Chapter 3 when it comes out. In the meantime, I’m always down to watch either movie again as it’s become a cult classic for me

If you’re reading this in New York City and want to talk shop about product management, hit me up on twitter (@itsmeterrylin) or email (hello@terrylin.lol) and we can meet up on my treat.

Until next time, happy hunting…Mr. Wick.


Also published on Medium.

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