Camping Trips and Creating Products
Building Better Products By Learning Each Time Through
Camping Trips and Learning
Having a good multi-tool when you’re camping is critical. You learn that pretty quickly when you do a lot of camping. But a multi-tool has its limitations. You also learn that pretty quickly.
I always loved my Leatherman, which I still have years later. It has a knife along with pliers, a can-opener, screw drivers, etc. It’s a bunch of tools in one, which is great when you’re short on space but still potentially need a variety of options.
I used to do a lot of camping and backpacking when I was younger. Each trip was a learning experience.
Starting with a multi-tool is great, but it doesn’t cover everything you’ll need. For example, if you need to cut branches, or really cut anything substantial while camping, you’ll need something bigger. Which is why having a bigger knife or a bigger tool is something you’ll learn you need.
And so it goes with each trip you take. You learn more about yourself and more about what is important while you’re camping or backpacking. What you need to pack and what you can safely leave behind.
I remember early on my parents insisting I take a foam mat to put under my sleeping bag. That was great advice at the time, but those rolling foam mats were difficult to carry around. I had to strap it to the outside of my pack since it was so big, which I didn’t like. So I tried leaving it behind. Which was also a terrible idea. A sleeping bag alone does not make for a good night's sleep. So I eventually found a small inflatable mat that I loved. It fit easily in my pack but also inflated quickly for a good night’s sleep.
With younger kids, we now have a trailer we use for camping. But the idea is the same. Each trip we take, we learn about what we need to improve our experience. That includes tools and items for our trailer, as well as things to do better.
For example, being able to roast marshmallows around a campfire is quintessential and critical for camping. But it’s not always possible to have a fire everywhere for a variety of reasons (weather, fire restrictions, etc). So we bought a gas fire pit we can use to ensure that we can make s’mores every night. We didn’t realize how important this would be until we couldn’t do it.
So it goes with camping. Many of these things are only things you can learn by doing. It’s great to read or watch videos, but that can only prepare you so much. Until you actually get out and hit the road, you can’t know what you really need.
Some of the handiest items we keep in our trailer now are a box of screws and a box of rubber washers. We’ve probably used those more frequently than many other items we have. But that’s not something you’ll realize until you get out.
Every time we go camping, we also make a list of things we wish we had on hand as well as things to change to make the next time better. We learn something each time to improve, and over the past few years our trips have gotten better every single time.
So what does all of this mean for building products?
Building products is a learning experience. Much like camping, each time you do it, you learn a little more about yourself, the product, the process, and how to do it better.
When you first start, you rely heavily on the advice of others. That may come from videos, books, courses, etc. Those are great resources. They can help form the basis for what you need. Like a multi-tool, you’ll be equipped with a variety of tools to use.
But as you build each new product or feature, or even go through each sprint or iteration, it’s like taking another camping trip. You learn a little more about what other tools you might need. What could be better next time. What you can take with you and what you should leave behind.
Of course, this isn’t just for those new to product either. Good product people continue to rely on resources like books, newsletters, mentors, and other product people to inform their product-process. To help add to the tools in the pack (and to discard tools they may not need for a certain trip).
And every product is different. Every team is different. Every company is different. Every market is different. That is why it is so important to understand and adapt. And why learning and gaining that experience is so critical, across many teams and industries.
A backpacking trip differs greatly from a camping trip in a trailer. What you take and how you plan for it differs. Even backpacking trips can vary from one to the next depending on the destination, length, purpose, etc. Which is why it’s good to have equipment that can be used across a variety of circumstances and the experience to understand what you’ll need.
Many product principles and tools will also broadly apply. But it’s learning how and when to apply them that takes time and experience.
For example, how and when to use roadmaps and roadmap tools is top of mind for me right now. I’ve written about roadmaps, particularly in my article Roadmaps: Love, Hate, and Hate. The principles broadly apply, but when do you introduce a dedicated roadmap tool to your team? It is a question we’ve been grappling with recently. I’ve led several teams as we’ve reached inflection points and needed to upgrade our tools, but seeing the timing and understanding the pain before it becomes acute makes all the difference.
It is also important to take time frequently to understand what is working and what isn’t. We often have this baked into our process as a “retrospective.” But often these can become rote ceremonies that don’t add value. Rather, we need to approach them like our camping trips. What did we learn from our last sprint that we want to apply to our next one? What did we learn building the last feature that we want to take with us in building our next? What didn’t work that we should leave behind because it is extra baggage we don’t need to pack?
I’ve gone through this personally with many products and projects. Recently, I was reviewing the work my team and I had done, compared to what we had thought at the beginning—how it compared with our expectations, the hypotheses we had, and customer expectations. We exceeded several of our own expectations of what could be done and the results we could achieve, but we also had a miscommunication midway through that derailed part of our work. I would have done things quite differently knowing the outcome now, and in the future won’t let that sort of issue go unresolved for several sprints. It was a good learning experience.
Camping trips are each a learning experience. So are each time we create a new feature or new product. We add to the tools we have in our packs and the experience we can draw on for using those tools in the field.
With each trip, it’s important to understand what’s working and what’s not, what we need for next time and what to leave behind, and how to get better. You can get lots of insight from everything you read and see, but nothing will replace getting out and doing.