Hire Growers

Growers

Tech workers rarely take a job just because they need one. It’s a buyers market for the most part, and more so when the economy is booming. Rational job seekers – and I’d like to think they all are – choose positions that will allow them to grow and develop.

Finding the right person for the job is never easy. The hiring manager’s job is to hire people who are most likely to grow, and help them realize their potential. The ethical justification for a hiring decision does not revolve around saving the candidate from starvation or allowing yourself to take more days off. Instead, it centers on imagining a better future for the candidate and coaching them on their path to achieving it. Hiring someone only to fill an opening is as short-sighted as getting hired just for the paycheck.

Hiring people who want to grow and develop is the best option for both sides. Growers are people who constantly try to improve what they do and how they do it. Even though they think long-term, they don’t necessarily have to be young. Some employers use the euphemism “dynamic” to describe what is essentially a young person, hiding a discriminatory message in otherwise mundane job descriptions. Optimists see “dynamic” as a characteristic of growers of any age.

Growers want to assume increasing responsibility, and likely see the hiring manager’s position as their next career move. Understandably, hiring them can be intimidating. On the other hand, hiring candidates who are set in their ways is a sure sign of mediocrity; job seekers would be wise to stay away from such employers. As they say, A players hire A players but B players hire C players. Hiring an A player requires foresight and planning, but most of all courage, a rare commodity in many companies.

How do you identify growers? Look for these telltale signs:

1) They have a clear vision of their career path, and can articulate it.

2) They have a good understanding of your market and can envision your company’s next moves.

3)  They have the background required to base their growth upon.

The next time you’re trying to “fill a req”, be brave and hire a grower who will take your team (and possibly your company) to the next level. They will likely seek – and may eventually assume – your position, but if you manage it right this should propel you toward the next step in your own career.

Form over Function over Form

cloud
The technological revolution of the last decades created countless new products and services while burying many old ones. Things that once had physical presence are now done through software – documents (pdf), memos (email), pictures (digital), money (bitcoin), etc. Unlike previous revolutions in which one physical technology replaced another, this one is doing away with the physical altogether. Case in point: music moved from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. MP3s were first stored on handheld devices (like iPods), but these quickly gave way to cloud storage and streaming, reincarnating through invisible (yet audible) services.

Software is eating more and more traditional technologies. The cloud is swallowing software that used to run elsewhere, and products are giving way to services. As these trends become more prevalent, the lack of physical presence can be confusing and frustrating. Some companies try to counter that by adopting visual cues that remind people of physical equivalents, like Apple’s skeuomorphic design style. These are bound to be short lived not only because styles evolve, but because fewer and fewer people remember the technologies they depict. Take the floppy disk for example: a technology that died 20 years ago but still lives in the Save icon. I bet that the majority of people who use this icon nowadays have no idea what it represents. The reason this icon wasn’t replaced yet is simple: it’s not easy to represent “save” – sending bits from point A to point B – in a universally understandable icon.

The constantly increasing abstraction of everyday products explains the renewed interest in user interface design. Graphical user interfaces serve as means through which we interact with products that lost their physical form. Since the UI is the only thing left, getting it right becomes ever more important.

Every recent technological leap requires us to be a little more connected to our devices and the services consumed on them, and a little less connected to things of substance. Our brains, capable of rich imagination, are well equipped to deal with this abstraction. People yearn for a physical form but can easily get by without one. I suspect that before long we’ll get used to the absence of drivers in cars and the disappearance of coins and paper money from our wallets. What we now call “the cloud” will eventually lose any hint of physicality and be accepted as an ever present storage, computation, and communication infrastructure – much like the power grid is for electricity. When this happens we will finally focus on function and learn to care less about form. It might take a while, but I’m sure that my grand children will find it strange to go to the grocery store to buy food, drive a car, or sit through a lecture in a classroom. Doing all these things “virtually” will be perfectly natural to them.

I’m a Facebook Outlier, Charge me

fb
This is not your usual facebook rant. facebook is an important service that solves real problems for many. It’s a major tech company with a viable business model, bound for more growth and innovation. Yet I’ve grown tired of it, and I’m not the only one. Facebook: it’s not you, it’s me.

I’ve been on facebook since 2005 – back when social networking was still a novelty. I never liked it particularly, but kept playing the game and adding “friends”. The futility of this pseudo-social activity became apparent very quickly. Still, an unfathomable number of people find it interesting enough to engage with the site and mobile apps regularly, posting updates and reading others’. I, for one, don’t.

Judging by the vast popularity that facebook enjoys, I’m an outlier. My facebooking attention span gets shorter with consecutive visits, the frequency of which keeps dropping. So why not quit? three reasons:
1) I manage non-profit and for-profit pages.
2) This is how I keep in touch with real but distant friends.
3) At this point, quitting is just a weird act of defiance.

Now, I suspect that I’m not the only one feeling this way. so what’s next? using facebook is increasingly frustrating. I can’t pinpoint the exact issue, but it has to do with being bombarded with irrelevant content and ads. It just feels like a bad use of my time. Getting distracted by the endless drool of frivolous posts is not my idea of a good experience.

One option would be for facebook to offer a paid version with extensive filtering capabilities. I’m sure facebook has been contemplating this for a while and have paid-service pricing models in their back pocket, based on the vast amounts of data they collect.

So, my friends who are working at facebook: if you’re reading this, you know what to do. Even if I’m the only one who’d pay for that, why not solve this first world problem and make one poor soul a little happier.

Book Excerpt: Curating

curating

The following is a chapter from my newly published book Product Leadership.

“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”
– Frank Zappa

At the top of the long list of terms describing a product manager is a deceivingly simple word: Curator. Like curators of museum exhibitions, product managers collect outstanding features into an assemblage that exceeds the sum of its parts. Identifying that combination is in itself a work of art. Finding the right product requires generous helpings of creativity, persistence attention to detail. A good curator can turn an otherwise bland group of objects into a sellout. Outstanding curation is the epitome of creative product management.

Before starting to put together your show, identify a problem worth solving. What will it focus on? What will make it unique? How many other museums feature similar ones? To zero in on the theme, sort through all the data you can put your hands on. You will encounter conflicting pointers and sometimes have to dig deep to find an elusive piece of information. You will have to learn new concepts and understand multiple disciplines. The more you study your target market and audience, the more clarity you’ll gain leading to a better product definition.

With the patience of a Pointillist, put everything together and create a cohesive offering. Not every item can fit in; moreover, the relationship among the ones that make it is crucial. When choosing the features that make up your final product, insist on the essential. Each piece of art must have a clear role in the overall makeup of your show. Needless to say, you don’t want to choose only low hanging fruit. Favor quality over quantity and ruthlessly chop out features that don’t meet your standards. Garbage in garbage out.

When your masterpiece is ready to be revealed, don’t hesitate and open it up for the world to see.

Product Leadership Book Excerpt: Simplicity

Product Leadership

The following is a chapter from my newly published book Product Leadership.

“I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal

Simplicity is a design philosophy that prefers products leaner on features over loaded ones. The idea is that a simple product done right offers more flexibility and variety in usage options, and consequently more value to the customer. A simple product is more likely to become a platform for user creativity and extensibility, simply because the absence of certain features makes this necessary. It facilitates this by not fixating on specific features, leaving room for others to do so. On the business side, the hope is that a simpler product will enable upsell opportunities. Simpler products are also often (but not always) cheaper to build.

There’s something magical about simple products. They allow the user to focus on the essence with minimal distraction, thus making the product stickier and engagement deeper. They are often more elegant than their more complex cousins, and tend to have a longer lifespan.

As Blaise Pascal noted, getting to simple is complex. A typical creative process is additive in nature. People get attached to the features they have added and find it difficult to let go. Mature products are more likely to be elaborate patchworks than minimalist artworks. Add to that the ubiquitous engineering principal “If it works, don’t touch it” and you sometimes end up with an amalgam of old and new features held together with zip ties and duct tape.

How do you break out of this death spiral? By insisting on simplicity. Simplifying will cost you, but it’s worth it. Ruthlessly cut out deadwood. Redesign the product to be simpler. Refactor the code to be nimbler. Re-engineer your processes to be more efficient. Be the steward of simplification in your company. True to form, simplify your own (and your team’s) habits: write shorter requirements documents, hold fewer meetings with fewer attendees, and transfer ineffective employees to greener pastures.

Simplification is a constant battle, and too many people succumb to the complexity beast. If it seems too difficult to beat, it’s probably worth it. Don’t give up. Insist on simple.

The Case of the Vanishing Bookcase

Bookshelf

The bookcase in the picture has been our my house for the longest time, and every visitor is impressed. I designed and built it after being inspired by a leaning bookshelf I saw at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Getting the shelves to dovetail into each other was an intriguing challenge. It is made of painted pinewood and the structure is sturdy, much like a bridge truss.

In recent years with the rise of ebooks I’ve been pondering the future of my bookcase. Are bookcases going the way of the printed book? Will they remain a common piece of furniture? and if I had no books to put on it, what would I do with it?

Then I came across this study, claiming that ebook sales have plateaued at 30% of the market. Seems like the reports of the print book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. If 70% of book buyers prefer print books, their future is not so bleak after all. Printed newspapers are clearly going away (or maybe not?), but the researchers think that this trend doesn’t apply to books.

As much as I’d like to believe it, I’m pretty sure that some future disruptive technology will eat away significantly at print books’ market share. I can’t imagine bookcases being much more than an obsolete relic 30 years from now. Like vacuum tube radios and fax machines they’ll be cherished by nostalgic collectors, but won’t have a practical use – at least not the slanted ones.


See also this creative bookshelf

Dark Product Management

Ig Nobel awards mascot

If there were an Ig Nobel prize for product management, they should award it to product managers who march blindly toward failure. Those who toil endless hours (and have others do the same) to build a product that no one needs or that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. After all, this great resource spend should be honored in some way, and the market is certainly not going to give them accolades.

Every time I see a dead-on-arrival product I think to myself “someone must have known about this well in advance.” That someone should be the product manager, and if they didn’t see it coming they are twice at fault. The healthcare.gov debacle is one very public example; other failures usually remain in the dark. As large a project as that website ecosystem is, someone – a product manager or whatever their title is – must have been tasked with seeing the big picture and understanding the details. Or maybe there wasn’t such a person (or people) assigned? Scary thought.

Product management usually gets little visibility, positive or negative, other than among the people closely involved in creating the product. It’s a shame, because product managers contribute to significant achievements and spectacular failures. These often make for great stories, seldom told beyond that small team. Such a waste of notoriety; someone ought to write a book about it.

Bay Area, Inc.

The San Francisco Bay Area in a picture taken from the ISS by Astro_Soichi
Why is Silicon Valley so successful? How long will its reign last? Answers usually include the deep rooted engineering culture, cross-pollination through talent mobility, and funding availability. Other oft quoted – albeit lesser – reasons include the business-friendly regulatory environment, the fair weather and the power of the Silicon Valley brand to attract innovators. Here’s an alternative explanation: the Bay Area acts as one big company rather than an array of competing ones.

All the corporations that make Bay Area, Inc. happen to be headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, with branch offices elsewhere. The main business of Bay Area, Inc. used to be semiconductors, but like any good business it adapted to the changing tides and is now focused mainly on software. Although the company is not centrally managed, the executives of its various subsidiaries (Facebook, Google, Apple, HP, etc.) share ideas on strategy and growth while sitting on each others’ boards and meetings at social functions.

Take Google: a large company that makes phones, self-driving cars, fiber-optic networks, websites, programming languages, and – that too – a search engine. Other Bay Area companies are equally enterprising. But if you zoom out and view the entire area as one company, you see a conglomerate more diverse than Google and several other companies combined. This giant is extremely prolific, and yet the majority of its business revolves around software. This enables the sharing of means of production (read: engineers), which is an enormous benefit.

Bay Area, Inc. has a uniform mission statement. If you saw it hanging on the wall in some corporate office, it would probably say:

Bay Area, Inc.: Mission Statement
* We live and die on technology and strive to be at the forefront of progress.
* We believe that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
* Our most important asset is our people.
* We are not afraid to change and quickly adapt to new business models and technologies.

Sounds convincing? If you zoom back in, you will see that this idealistic view doesn’t hold water. Some CEOs will gladly wring their competitors’ necks if they only could. Employee poaching abounds, and trade secrets are stolen left and right. Back stabbing is as prevalent as back rubbing – but always with a smile. Still, that co-opetition has a positive effect on collective success, producing a healthy pressure that pushes us all forward. The magic is in this equilibrium, not one extreme or the other. Hopefully this balance is not interrupted by some major outside force in the coming years.

The Generalist

Swiss army knife
A product manager should ideally be a generalist. Yes, some specialization is required, but in what area? Statistical analysis of research data so you can draw better conclusions? System architecture so your feature specifications make more practical sense? Front-end programming so engineers don’t rebel against you? Graphic design so you can faithfully model the product? The short answer: all of the above and much more. Needless to say, you also need to be a pro at project management and people management (even if you don’t have direct reports.) Having poor knowledge of what’s really going on and relying blindly on others is a recipe for disaster. You must work well with others and be self-sufficient at the same time.

To test how good a product manager you are, ask yourself: can I replace any of the stakeholders I work with on a daily basis and be reasonably good at it? And will I become really good after six month in that role? If the answer is *no*, identify your weaknesses and work toward improving. One way to do so is to actually take some of their responsibilities. The best way to learn is by doing, and the best way to do anything seriously is to have a deadline and work on a real product or service. Offer your help without stepping on anybody’s feet and you’ll be surprised how cooperative even the most aloof and unfriendly people can be.

To drive progress, researchers need to become increasingly specialized and engineers must focus on particular technologies. Product managers don’t have this luxury, and have to remain equally comfortable at everything they deal with – sales, marketing, engineering, quality assurance, or what have you. Increased complexity makes their lives difficult but not impossible. They don’t need to excel; they just need to speak the language and know enough to be dangerous (and then some.)

The best product managers are Jacks of all trades and masters of *all*. This allows them to delegate effectively, being able to trust and verify. The biggest time wasters are people who earn your trust and don’t deliver, selling you stories instead of results. It’s ultimately your fault, however; you should sense that something is wrong and realize what’s going on well before it’s too late. Not understanding what the other person is doing is a feeble excuse. If you use it too often, product management is not for you.

Take Kindly the Counsel of the Years

Many years ago in a land far far away there was a radio station broadcasting from a ship anchored beyond the territorial waters. The Voice of Peace was forced to broadcast offshore because the Israeli government chose to forbid NGOs from going on air. It was operated by Abie Nathan, an activist and a pilot who once landed a small plane in Egypt bringing a message of peace. Nothing came out of this, but that’s a different story.

Every day at sunset the station played a recording of Abie reading Desiderata. As an avid listener throughout my formative years I almost memorized it. The world would be a slightly better place if people read it, and significantly better if they implement it. I remembered it today while walking placidly in the streets of Milan, watching the relaxed Italians who seem to not have a worry in the world. Salute!

Abie Nathan reading Desiderata

Desiderata
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.