Product inspiration from the second tier of English football

second tier of English football
While hiring for our product team, I’ve always looked for individuals that can creatively juggle the ability to build a rock solid product that can be monetized, while relentlessly building the secret sauce. Product management is often thought of as a combination of three skills: marketing, customer engagement and engineering. Yet, a good product manager must have one other attribute that is, in my opinion, a real deal breaker.

To understand this, we need to make a short hike to the moors of Western Yorkshire. Tucked away amongst the heather in Leeds is a football club that, in its entire history, has not paid any of its managers as much as it is doing so now. Punching well above their weight, Leeds United have drafted in a charming and intense gaffer, an inspiration to everyone, but more so, to leaders across the technology world who, simply put, must try to emulate the genius of the man who once famously quipped: “a man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph”.

Marcelo Bielsa is an Argentenian football coach that has inspired some of the best managers in football today, from Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham Hostpurs to Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid. It is no coincidence that Leeds United not only top their league and, if the early signs are any indication to go by, they will be promoted to the top flight of English football come May.

Bielsa’s style of football is notoriously intense. El Loco — the mad one — as he’s known, focuses on a positional system that brings attention to spatial awareness, the ability to move the ball quickly, and an insatiable hunger for the ball.

That last bit — the hunger — is key to everything he does.

Footage on YouTube of his training sessions show him strutting around the green screaming instructions at his players. There’s sweat, tired legs, collapsing bodies, and at they end, the players are simply drained; both physically and mentally. A few of them can barely get off the ground. But they know, in their minds and in their hearts that they are well prepared for anything. Training days are the worst days of the week. Matchdays are easier. They are set up to win.

What Bielsa does is a perfect, perfect blend of philosophy, discipline and inspiration. He is unafraid to try out new ideas, yet he is pragmatic enough to prioritise victory over anything else. He is constantly changing and adapting, he has no fear of reversing his decisions, and he absorbs all the chaos associated with playing physical football in England week-in, week-out.

But deep down, Bielsa has one quality that makes him a true great of the modern era; his curiosity. He is constantly willing to learn, and while he executes his plans with no fear, it is hard to imagine anyone involved in the sport that is as intense and curious as he is. Like the Van Gaals of yore, he will not budge from his philosophy, yet he is more than happy to adapt, learn, tweak and perfect his art. Tirelessly, he goes through every pass, every kick; on footage and in training, and gets into the ears and heads of his players when they don’t do what he thinks they should.

This paradoxical blend of fearlessness, stubborness, flexibility, obsession and curiosity, this nearly magical ability to know when to put your foot down and when to change course, is a craft that we must all learn if we are to compete in the top of our tier with our products. It begins from doing the basics right; design, architecture, every click in the user experience, hide every unwanted textbox, work out the colours and then make the back-end so rock solid that it runs like clockwork. When that’s all done, after all the sweat has dried and the blood has flown, it’s time to pick up the laundry, fly in and monetize the product. And ultimately, take time off to savour the victory.

As one of the men he’s influenced, a certain Pep Guardiola, says of the Dutch genius Johan Cruijff who was both a father figure and mentor to Pep, “creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing.”

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