5 Lessons from SpaceX for Product Managers in 2020

What would it take to put humanity on Mars? Apparently it’s going to take six thousand passionate employees, and one real-life Iron Man CEO. Welcome to SpaceX.

Humanity has looked to the stars for centuries, but we’ve been exploring it for ourselves for less than a hundred. Tech and engineering move fast and, thanks to SpaceX life on Mars seems less like a pipe dream for future generations to worry about and more like an engineering problem to be solved now.

According to SpaceX’s Mars transportation infrastructure, the first crewed flight to Mars will take place in 2024, four short years away.

Elon Musk SpaceX quote

As we approach 2020, those of us in the tech/product world are looking to the future and SpaceX’s ambition for our new decade can teach us some valuable lessons.

1. Find Your Why – And Make It a Good One

There are a lot of reasons to dream about going into space; to push the limits of human potential, to find life on other planets, to find new resources, to further the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

SpaceX has a pretty singular goal: the colonization of Mars. Why do they have this goal? Musk argues it’s the next natural step in human evolution.

Others believe that we need to go to Mars as a question of survival. At the whims of a single planet, we are simply too vulnerable.

The evolution and continuation of the human race are a pretty good ‘why’.

In Product, the most successful projects are the ones that solve a real problem. If this problem isn’t your ‘why’, then what exactly are you building for?

Building Products, launching them, and sticking with them takes care and passion to get right.

Get to know your customers, care about their problems, and make solving them your North Star…or your Mars in this case.

Astronaut graphic

2. Even Rockets Need Relationships

In an interview with TED, Engineer and Employee #7 at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, talk about how her organization managed to get billion-dollar deals from NASA, despite the fact that the last three SpaceX rockets blew up.

How can you sell something you don’t have?

Gwynne Shotwell quote

SpaceX has the guts to sell rockets they don’t have for millions of dollars to possibly the most famous aerospace company in the world.

If your prototype isn’t working the way you hoped it would, and you need something to show to your stakeholders, focus on what you can show to them.

There’s always something you can showcase, whether it’s your vision, the skill of your team, and the answers you’ve found so far. Even if all you have is the story, you have something to sell.

3. The Product is Not the Problem

When speaking with Everyday Astronaut in October 2019 – Elon Musk dropped a little pearl of wisdom for Product people.

Elon Musk quote on Product errors

Questioning your constraints is key to making progress. While it’s important not to undermine the talents of people in disciplines which aren’t yours, if something just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to question what they’ve told you.

Looking at our businesses and seeing where we might be sabotaging our own products with broken communication channels and silos, can be the difference between success and failure.

Your Engineers may know much more about coding than you do, but if you suspect there’s a fault or something just isn’t working, you have to have the confidence to approach them about it.

4. Dream Big and Let Go of Fear

Whether you believe that we’ll walk on Mars in the coming decades or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ambitious goal.

Because SpaceX is a relatively new venture in terms of humanity’s obsession with the cosmos (the company was established in 2002 and we’ve been star-gazing since Babylon) it can feel like everything they’re doing is happening very suddenly, and is therefore unrealistic.

In reality, several generations of engineers, physicists, and cosmonauts have been laying the groundwork of the Mars missions.

If you showed the latest iPhone to Jobs in 1976 when he and Wozniak were selling the first Apple computer, or any recent Triple-A game to William Higinbotham when he invented Pong in 1970, what would they say?

Seemingly impossible things don’t stay that way forever. 

Rocket in space graphic

5. Test, Fail, Test Again

Failures always feel worse when you’re still halfway through the process.

Once we succeed, we can look back on our failures with pride, knowing that they paved the way for us to get to where we are.

Failure is part of progress, and an inevitable one at that.

We put a lot of emphasis on dealing with failure with humility, but what if we started celebrating our failures with pride?

Failing means you tried something. Knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what you should do.

That’s not to say that SpaceX are dancing and jumping for joy when their million-dollar projects crash and burn.

But maybe you have to have your rocket run out of liquid nitrogen to know exactly how much it needs. (You don’t have to be building rockets to apply this logic, but if you are it’s certainly more helpful.)

Planet graphic

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