March On

Fremont High School Marching BandBack in high school I had many opportunities for extra-curricular activities, but marching band wasn’t one of them. In fact, I don’t think I even knew such a thing existed. My son graduated high school this year after four successful marching band seasons – one of the most rewarding activities he engaged in. I can’t imagine his high school experience without it.

Marching band teaches you team work and discipline, requires you to work hard, and gives you a hands-on (and feet-on) experience in shipping a product before it’s fully baked. Marchers practice for hours on end, day after day, rehearsing each detail over and over again. They build their product step by step, bar by bar, and movement by movement. When it’s ready or when the deadline hits – whichever comes first – they start their performance tour. Feedback starts flowing in even before the formal launch, but the critical one arrives in the form of competition judge reviews. Leveraging this feedback to drive product enhancements is a priceless lesson in continuous improvement.

Next week I’ll be dropping my son off at Cornell University where he will be studying for the next four years. Many factors led to his admittance into one of the world’s top engineering schools. His marching band experience played a significant role, helping him cement his academic and technical experience through solid work ethic and product-oriented thinking.

My daughter will be starting her marching band Journey in high school this year, playing the Sousaphone. I can’t wait to see where it takes her.

How to Move Ahead: 9 Rules

photo-1416339276121-ba1dfa199912These are rules to live by for people who aspire for more at work. They may sound pessimistic but I’d rather call them realistic.

Focus on what matters
Distance yourself from anything that is not part of the core value creation process. Make meaningful things happen. Don’t waste your time and your company’s. Don’t waste your resources and your company’s.

Have an opinion
No one hired you to shut up. Don’t just stand there, echoing what others are saying. Develop original opinions and don’t keep them to yourself.

Know when to shut up
When talking to people material to your career advancement, don’t say everything that comes to mind. And for goodness sake, don’t beg for promotion. Instead, plant seeds – useful and memorable actions that will make people think of you. Leave it up to them to check with others and arrive at a conclusion about you.

Be a skeptic
Don’t believe your own hype nor others’. Assume that everything you hear is an exaggeration meant to make someone or something look better. Only after cross referencing multiple independent sources can you be sure that the information is authentic. Even after you verify that it is, remember that facts can go stale very fast. Don’t base your decision on information that was once true; make sure it still is.

Have a healthy dose of paranoia
Yes, some people are out to get you. Disarm them and make their game irrelevant rather than fighting them. If you fight, you expose your vulnerabilities and are much more likely to lose (this fight or the next). Win the war before it starts.

Be your own mentor
Having a mentor is great, but don’t wait for one to show up. You can find plenty of resources online and offline, join meetup groups and consult with friends and colleagues. However, none of these understand you completely and works solely on your behalf. Be your own mentor and coach yourself to success.

Do your homework
Try harder. Work smart and focus on what’s important (see #1). Pay attention to details and don’t cut corners. If two people are up for promotion, in most cases the more productive one is likely to get ahead.

Forget about job security Love your company? the people? the pay? the location? it can all end in an instant. When you go home in the evening, don’t assume you’ll have a job the next day. This may sound bleak but it happens all the time. Always have a plan B. Don’t burn your bridges, keep your eyes open, and most importantly: don’t be afraid to quit. Non-exempt goes both ways.

Be resilient
Everybody says “don’t give up”. Well, don’t give up alright, but know when giving up is the right thing to do. “Have a thick skin”, another cliché, is more relevant. Keep calm and don’t let the shit through no matter how “interesting” things become.

10 Sure Ways for Giving a Lousy Presentation

Slide

There’s no shortage of resources and opinions about how to give a good presentation. At a risk of repeating what others have already said, here is my list of presentation faux pas. These are guaranteed to derail any pitch regardless of how relevant, important or interesting the message is. I skipped obvious mistakes that I haven’t seen in a while like adding audio or animated GIFs. Good riddance.

  1. Meander between random topics without a common thread. This will keep them guessing, build tension, and deliver a stronger message. For maximum impact, end with a bang – preferably unrelated to anything you mentioned earlier.
  2. The more slides, the better. You have a captive audience so be sure to make the most of the time you’ve been given by going through as many slides as you can. Cover every nook and cranny to make sure all their questions are answered before they even ask.
  3. Put a lot of text on each slide. The more the merrier. The more the better. The more the greater. The more the awesomer (use a thesaurus if you run out of words.) While presenting, be sure to read every word. The font is so small that they can’t read it themselves anyway.
  4. Jump up and down levels of abstraction. Talk about the overall picture, then about some specific detail, then jump back up and down again – this time in a different direction. Do it fast to keep the audience on their toes.
  5. Ignore the audience. After all, you know your stuff better. Their job is to listen, and since you did your homework and rehearsed several times, you know exactly what they want to hear. Who cares if they are bored or can’t keep up; just keep talking.
  6. Sprinkle tyypos, wrong letTer Case, and, bad, punctuation throughout. Grammar and language don’t matter when the presentation is so fascinating and the speaker is so engaging.
  7. Don’t bother with the visual design of your presentation. A good design is a distraction, masking what’s really important. Black Times New Roman bullets on a white background are fine. It shows how focused you are, not wasting time on trivialities.
  8. Give plenty of irrelevant examples. Examples directly related to the topic are lame. Think creatively and come up with examples that have nothing to do with the message you’re trying to deliver, to get the audience to think out of the box. Like eating cheese in the dessert.
  9. If you’re pitching a product, don’t actually show it. Who says a picture is worth a thousand words? Who says a demo is worth a million? Your presentation is so good that they should understand what your product does without seeing it. And if they can’t, they’re not the right customers anyway.
  10. Mumble a lot. If the audience asks you to speak up, ignore them. They should make an effort to understand you. If … you … speak … clearly … and … slowly you won’t be able to cover all the material you worked so hard to prepare.
  11. Run over time. The audience is there already so you might as well take advantage of that and drone on for a while. They’ll be thankful; their next meeting must be worse than this one.
  12. You promised 10 slides? give them 11. Every presenter is a sales guy, and as such nobody expects you to say the truth. If you do, they’ll be surprised and confused. Believe in yourself even when you lie.

Tastemaking: The Art of Product Management

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Product management is an obscure art. Many people, especially outside the tech world, have no clue what it is. When I tell someone what I do, they often reply with “You mean project management?” The lengthy explanation that follows sometimes falls on deaf ears.

In an effort to explain it effectively I realize that I have to use a few words that everyone understands, put into a succinct, easily digestible sentence: “product management is like x for y.” The object (y) is the overall experience or quality the product provides. Even if the product doesn’t have any user interface (like an API or a power supply) it is a part of something people use, and their experience is the ultimate goal. But what is the subject (x)? Before we get to that, let’s talk about taste.

taste
a: critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation
b: manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation

After all the data is processed, customers consulted, competitors studied, and engineers brainstormed, the essence of product management is to use good judgment and make the right roadmap decision. In other words – and referencing the dictionary definition – a product manager should have a good taste. Not just general taste – a good taste in the subject matter and the market they play in. Good product managers are connoisseurs in their field.

con·nois·seur
an expert judge in matters of taste.

Outstanding product managers are tastemakers, setting a trajectory and influencing others to develop a good taste as well. This brings us to the ultimate definition: a product manager is a user experience tastemaker. Not all product managers are, of course, but it’s a noble goal to aspire to for everyone in the trenches.

taste·mak·er
a person who decides or influences what is or will become fashionable.

Crosscheck: Steve jobs is considered one of the best product managers ever. “User experience tastemaker” is an apt way to summarize his life achievement.

 

Paul Graham published and excellent post on the topic several years ago: http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

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

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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