- Laura Stringer
The Symphony of Product
I get a lot of questions about why Ninth Fourth is called Ninth Fourth. The name is a reference to the Fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In part, I chose the name because I’m the kind of nerd who has a favorite musical movement. But there’s a deeper meaning as well. A symphony reflects a core tenet of my product business philosophy: that many strong parts must work together.
Each musician, individually, is a master at their craft. However, the beauty of an orchestra is the teamwork. Everyone knows how their particular part fits into the whole. And while each musician plays, they are also paying attention to the other instruments, to ensure that they fit in correctly. Software products are built and maintained by an orchestra of engineers, designers, analysts, scrum masters, marketers, tech writers, product managers, and others. Each must be very good at their own individual job, and must pay attention to what other roles are doing.
In a symphony, the composer’s work serves as a template for each musician, dictating what notes to play and with what attitude and volume. In customer experience, that template takes the form of a roadmap, or perhaps a refined backlog.
The conductor guides the interpretation of the music and keeps the orchestra working together on tempo, which enables each musician to do their best work in service of the larger whole. The conductor knows enough about each instrument to understand how each contributes to the whole. Similarly, product management requires a leader to interpret the vision, roadmap, and backlog, and keep everyone on track. That leader must also be familiar with many disciplines in order to understand how each contributes to the bigger picture.
With some practice, you can hear the “conversations” that occur in many musical arrangements. The instruments speak with each other in little call-and-response moments. Each section takes turns “owning” the melody before handing it off to the next; sometimes they perform it together for a little while. To a customer, they have one experience with a product, and indeed with a brand as a whole. That experience needs to be carefully handed off, smoothly and reliably, from one touchpoint to the next, from one feature to the next, from one version to the next.
In a symphony, pulling out individual instruments is rarely the point: the best seats for a live orchestral performance are usually in the center of the room, where all the sounds meld into one. Seventy to over 100 instruments combine to create a structured, comprehensive musical experience. They do that by working together under the guidance of a skilled leader. Similarly, product is not about any single department, nor is it the sole responsibility of any specific person. Everyone has a part to play, and if they work together, they can create a beautiful experience.
By the way, if you think of Beethoven’s Ninth as simply “the Ode to Joy”, I highly encourage you to listen to it in its entirety. It is SO much more than its famous theme. From the first opening notes, which mimic the orchestra’s pre-concert tuning, to the multi-part and complex Finale culminating in triumphant scales, it is a stunning and exhilarating piece of music.