Why scientists make the best product managers

There are several startup reading resources that are practically holy. Venerated, perhaps, is a more appropriate term.

Among them are Bolt’s blog series, which includes the true hardware startup bible. I’ve probably read Hardware by the Numbers at least 20 times.

Another (wholly unsurprising) venerated resource is Paul Graham’s essays, especially on fundraising.

Lately, however, the best startup content is coming out of First Round. They dive deep into different professional roles at portfolio companies, offering value to all sides of the table. Their design and formatting is out ahead of Medium – clean, easy to read. Simply put, it’s founder-oriented content at its finest.

My favorite article from First Round’s Review compares the role of product manager with the role of chef. In my experience as acting product manager of a hardware startup, it’s excellent advice.

My experience as a scientist leads me to assert the synonymity of chef and scientist.

Here is First Round’s teaser checklist on the critical qualities of a successful product manager:


Being able to lead without authority.

Graduate students in the lab generally do not have much authority or respect. Yet if you are working on a multi-disciplinary project, you and your work will benefit from gaining respect from the other parties involved. As a biochemist, I had to learn many other languages, just as I’ve learned the languages of engineers involved in connected product development.

I benefited directly from interacting with the people caring for my chickens on the livestock farm, the people in the electron microscopy lab facilitating my tissue imaging, the people in the food science department facilitating my formulation of chicken feed with drug treatments, and more.

Yet, I was completely independent in the lab, with full creative and scientific freedom. And I was paid for it! This was in part how I ended up getting my Master’s instead of going to med school right out of undergrad.


Always taking blame while giving credit away.

Ok, so being humble may pose a challenge to the egotistical type-A chef or scientist.

However, it’s certainly not too hard as a grad student, or recent MSc graduate from Georgia who moved to tech startup mecca. I’m humbled every day (‘who cares about clinical trials? we want to see $1M ARR before you’re interesting’).

Further, a good scientist is constantly humbled by how little he knows. Every question answered raises ten more, and you can’t personally answer all of them. Science is in fact a team sport, in part because it is innately multi-disciplinary, just like product development.


Strong decision-making with imperfect information.


Every scientist works to uncover and disclose the imperfection of his assumptions and controls. Great scientists can get results and show progress regardless of circumstance. You can always move the needle.

Waiting for ‘perfect information’ is the imaginary endpoint of science. It’s a uselessly paralytic thought experiment.

Further, science rewards the (lifelong) student with a sense of complete comfort with questions. We’re comfortable with unanswered questions and uncertainty. We’re comfortable knowing that we may never know the answers to some questions. This doesn’t discourage our progress. In fact, it helps us focus our efforts on impact.


Valuing intense preparation.

Check. I don’t think I need argue hard on this one.

Ask any scientist you know to walk you through an example routine experimental protocol, including the required contextual information for you to perform the task safely. Warning: this conversation will turn into a seminar.

If we’re talking more specifically about mise en place, this concept rings wholly true for a scientist doing any experiment of substance. Experimental protocols are damn near the same thing as recipes.

Just as a great cook may study many similar recipes and cherry pick the best practices and ingredients to form their own magnificent version of a dish, a great scientist may read many experimental protocols and recombine different techniques and reagents to yield new results and publishable data.

Funny enough, my lab-mate in grad school had a physical post-it note with this phrase hanging above her lab station. (Like an ass, I corrected her spelling and added an accent mark with a pen.)


Methodical in how they recover from mistakes and crises.

Science is innately methodical. Often negative results can be just as significant as “successes” – it’s another data point.

Great scientists value the negative results – perhaps gaining some critical insight – and continue with a modified (re: improved) experimental roadmap that will likely produce more results, faster.

Scientists are trained to accept failure. We are comfortable admitting when we are wrong. It just means that our hypothesis needs tweaking. The only real failure is the failure to learn something, to gain some takeaway. 


Operating optimally under extreme pressure.

Science is low pressure – unless you’re worried about getting scooped by a competing lab, or running out of grant money, or trying to compress several months of experiments into a few short weeks, or juggling time-sensitive cell assays scheduled for 3am with your teaching load, thesis preparation, and grant deadlines.

In my case, there was also the shoveling of diseased chicken shit (literally) at 6am, immediately prior to terminating and promptly necropsying 200 turkeys in order to collect the final data.

The window for tissue examinations, assays, and many other science-related activities is incredibly tight, and the samples under examination are often the result of stringent adherence to protocols over the course of months.

Make a careless error, and screw up those assays? No problem, we just have to culture some more over the next three months before you have another shot at it.

I have a deep passion for both science and cooking. And while I have often compared scientists and chefs, the comparison of chef and PM framed by First Round opened my eyes further. I can now see why acting as PM has felt so…right.