Dan Crean

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Da Vinci and Edison - archetypes of product managers

At a product camp I asked the crowd, who was a better product manager: Thomas Edison or Leonardo da Vinci.

This is not just an academic question. Role models can help steer our actions and how we imagine our futures and places in society. Do we think of ourselves, and present ourselves to others as polymaths, problem solvers, salesmen, system integrators, talent wranglers, or something else? What is the time scale of our vision: months or decades? Are we leading the market, satisfying immediate customer needs, or focused on customer satisfaction.

None of these is the “right” answer. They are all viable strategies; you can be successful in a million different ways.

Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci both go down in history as product managers of a sort, but they were completely different. Da Vinci is remembered as the prototypical genius, while Edison was the 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration guy.

Leonardo da Vinci is recognized as one of the greatest geniuses humanity has produced. For much of his life he earned a living a military engineer in service of noblemen. In those days there wasn’t the formal engineering curriculum we have today and being a military engineer likely meant a combination of pragmatic knowledge of carpentry and masonry, ingenuity, and some imagination. Get your army over the river and your noble patron will continue to employ you.

Born in 15th Century Tuscany da Vinci was recognized for his artistic abilities at an early age. This was a time when being an artist meant dabbling in painting and sculpture, but also in leatherworking and metalworking. The line between artist and artisan was a fine one.

Thomas Edison was known as an inventor and promoted himself as an inventor - America’s premiere inventor of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. He sold an invention - an improvement to stock tickers of the time - when he was in his early 20s. Rather than retire, Edison started his own invention business, eventually employing hundreds of people in development of some of the most key inventions of the time. Although he did not invent the electric light, he was instrumental in making light bulbs that did not burn out quickly and in commercializing electric lighting.

Biography.com describes Edison as a “savvy businessman”. An autodidact (he probably had ADHD) Edison had little formal schooling.

Achieving fame for inventing the phonograph, Edison and his employees produced advances in mining, mineral processing, motion pictures, batteries, and synthetic rubber.

Edison was by all accounts not the nicest boss to his employees. He was an inveterate self-promoter and got into a lot of lawsuits.

To develop a product you have to be observant, we are told. You can’t rely on what the customer says he or she wants, you have to see what true unarticulated needs are. You can’t assume that how you use a product is how everyone else does; you have to closely observe how other people - your customers and people like them - actually use the product.

Nobody was better at observing than da Vinci. His drawings of the human body and nature were so recognized, they were still being used in medical textbooks hundreds of years later. Da Vinci was able to invent from his observations, too, and nature plus his knowledge of mechanical principles led to conceptualization of devices and machines no one had yet dreamed of.

“Real artists ship” is a mantra attributed to Steve Jobs. You can’t just be a genius’ behind closed doors; you have to deliver a product out the door. By that standard, Edison was the better Product Manager. He patented over 1000 inventions. Not only did he promote his electric light and other electric inventions, but he created a power company to supply customers with electricity. He interacted with other inventors and business people by selling patents and inventions, licensing technologies, collaborating.

Da Vinci was a genius, but too far ahead of the market and the industry to be a good product manager. His surviving notebooks contain sketches of helicopters and submarines, which took hundreds of years until they were developed into real products. His innovations in grain milling may have found their way to practical use - it’s hard to say - but his proposals for waterworks in central Italy were never brought to fruition. He was an idea guy, not an implementer.

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