Good Robot, Bad Robot

Barracuda pool cleaning robot

Automatic pool cleaners, known as robots, are out of sight for most people. Even pool owners don’t care much about them – as long as they work. A recent experience with a broken one thought me an important lesson in product innovation and marketing. Although it happened in a niche market, this interesting case applies to other markets as well.

Traditional pool robots are complicated machines with dozens of moving parts. They roam around the pool floor and suck up water and dirt. Some filter out dirt right there, others send the soiled water to a remote filter for circulation. Legacy models of both types typically ride on wheels and have a mechanism that directs them to new territories across the pool, in addition to suction pipes and an assortment of other components. Most robots roam randomly and aimlessly, hoping to land on a new patch of dirt. Some even have a GPS receiver that guides them to places they haven’t been to yet. All in all, these robots have hundreds of components. Operating in a watery and sunny environment, they tend to break – sometimes very often.

And then there’s the Barracuda. A small player in the pool cleaning game, these robots’ cleaning power is as good as the competition if not better, but they have only one moving part. That’s right, one moving part and about ten parts overall. No cogwheels, no electronics, nothing that can break. And therein lies the problem – without parts that need to be replaced often, the business model is not very attractive. No razor-and-razorblade opportunity here.

The company that developed these ingenious robots was eventually acquired by Zodiac, the biggest player in the market. Barracuda robots are now a line of products in Zodiac’s arsenal, targeting the bottom of the market. It’s an interesting case of breakthrough innovation not backed by a solid business case, leading basically nowhere. Failing to make a dent in the market, I sure hope the founders ended up with a nice exit at the least.

Hire the Future, Not the Past

brand-names

A recent study (pdf) found that recruiters spend 6 seconds scanning a resume before making their go/no-go decision. The study looks biased and superficial, but if it’s even close to being true it must means that most of the reader’s attention is devoted to recognizable elements: brand names.

Famous brands grab your attention and make it easy to categorize candidates. “He’s a Googler”. “She’s ex eBay”. “He’s from Johnson & Johnson”. We learn to recognize brands like faces, requiring zero time and brain capacity. I see this as a hiring manager (who spends much more than 6 seconds reading a resume). Brand names always jump at you first; you’ve seen the word “Microsoft” a million times thanks to their billions of advertising dollars. This candidate whose resume you’re reading spent some time at that company, but what does it really mean for your business? probably not much.

In a big company people can hide and do mostly nothing. Some hiring managers think that by working at a big, successful company the candidate must have soaked in the secret sauce that made that company big and successful and will bring that know how with them. Good luck with that. Hiring a cog does not a machine make.

The real challenge a hiring manager faces is finding exceptional candidates, regardless of the brand names mentioned on their resume. This is challenging, especially if you spend 6 seconds or even 6 minutes evaluating them. You’re looking for high performers who’ll take you to the next stage. These gems often hide in plain sight, having followed a career path that meandered around big brands. Give them the time they deserve and you’ll be rewarded.

Domain Expertise – a Must?

3-monkeysA common hiring mistake is to insist on finding someone who has significant domain experience. While such a hire – if one can be found at all – has its merits, the drawbacks often outweigh the advantages. The common belief, to paraphrase an old meme, is “no one was ever fired for hiring a candidate with domain expertise”. Hiring managers think they play it safe by ignoring “foreign” candidates whose career path did not cross their specific domain. To their defense I can say that it is, indeed, easier to vet candidates who have domain-specific keywords on their resume. It just feels right. But is taking the easy route the right way to go?

The perceived upside:

  • Shorter learning curve – in reality, it depends on the individual. Some people are faster learners, others are slower on the uptake. Regardless of how many years they spent in the industry, your specific business is different than the competition and a new hire will have to learn that. Dogmatic thinking – “been there, done that” – may actually make it more difficult for them to learn your business.
  • Someone who “speaks our language” – most tech businesses are not rocket science. If you invest in training your new employees (and you should), it would not take them more than a few weeks to speak your lingo and understand the mechanics of your business.
  • Industry contacts – this is a real advantage, mostly for sales people. But remember that a rolodex full of contacts may actually be full with very loose connections – people the candidate have met briefly in a tradeshow, for example.
  • Bringing big company know-how to a smaller one – there’s value in that, but the skill set required for succeeding in a big company is very different than in small ones, so the candidate’s  other skills must be carefully vetted.

The downside:

  • Needlessly limiting the number qualified candidates – this is particularly significant in small, niche markets, but holds true in wider segments as well. If you want to find the best, why limit your choice from the get go?
  • Maintaining stagnation rather than introducing out-of-the-box thinking – hiring a guy who “knows the market” out of your nearest competitor may run ripples of excitement down your spine, but is not likely to be a game changer unless this particular candidate actually made significant contributions in taking that competitor to the position your company wants to be in.
  • Hiring yet another yes-man rather than someone who will ask tough questions and make things happen – if the candidate hitched a free ride on the competitor’s success and is now hand-waving vigorously trying to demonstrate his competence, you’re in for a major disappointment.
  • Compromising on a sub-par candidate after giving up on finding one with domain expertise – this is the biggest risk: being dazzled by the candidate’s experience while turning a blind eye to their drawbacks.

What you are really looking for (in tech, at least) is someone who can learn and evolve while applying their horizontal experience to grow the business. A myopic approach to hiring is not going to make your company great. If you are a middle manager and are just trying to protect your turf and survive another day before your promotion is due, this may be the right approach for you. Any other hiring manager should take a step back and think carefully before writing a line like “Domain expertise – a must” in a job description.

Fear of Letting Go

let-go

Companies find all kind of excuses to not ship software products. The main reason is typically fear that the product is not ready for prime time. Guess what – if you don’t expose it to real users it never will be. With new versions of existing products, it usually goes like this: “customers won’t like it. The new version is not differentiated enough / too differentiated from the existing one”.  The argument is similar when dealing with new products: “customers won’t like it. Compared to the competition, the product is not differentiated enough / so different that it’s probably bad”.

Cloud based software provides the luxury of continuous, selective deployment of incremental versions to a subset of users, occasionally rolling them back if things go wrong. This about-face has an operational cost, of course, so clear criteria have to be developed to minimize retraction rate. Not all products are a natural fit for continuous deployment, however – especially when regulations and compliance are at play.

Many factors lead product managers to hesitate before pushing the “Ship” button. Steve Jobs famously stated that “real artists ship”, and this from a man who was the consummate perfectionist. If he could ship anything, so can mere mortals like you and me. So what stands in our way? Fear. Fear for our company, for our job, for our future. Nobody wants to be associated with a flop.

If you don’t have enough data to decide which features to build, build data collection and analysis into the process. Holding off on releasing the product is not the solution as it will result in even less data being collected. If anything, hold off on releasing the product until data collection and analysis are an integral part of it, then release immediately. If you think the code is not stable enough, build better testing into the process. Not letting the code out of the building will make bug tacking longer. If anything, hold off on releasing the product while building automated and manual testing procedures, then let it out the door immediately.

Releasing your baby product is much like letting your child go her own way. Separation anxiety is a powerful force, capable of paralyzing you. If you wait until your kids are ready, they never will be. You have to instill this ability in them through a long bring-up process. Many of the actions you make as a parent seem unrelated, but at the end of the day most of them are geared toward fostering successful independence, making your kids the pride of your later years. Same with products – your real goal should be to let go and have the product support itself, becoming the shining star of your P&L.

Joel Gascoigne suggests turning fear of shipping into fear of not shipping. Brilliant idea. Mark Zukerberg recently posted a picture of his desktop with a sign saying “Stay Focused and Keep Shipping”.  I couldn’t think of a better way to capture the sentiment.

Onward Mobility

Reflection

A recent fall resulting in a fractured collar bone reminded me how fragile we are. We literally don’t know what we have until we lose it. We tend to take mobility for granted; having it taken away turns our world into a living hell. Losing your ability to perform basic daily functions for a few weeks is a priceless reminder of how crucial it is to be fit and healthy.

In this digital age we seem to think that all we need to be able to do is read, watch, listen, type or swipe. These allow us to consume information, shop, share, and be entertained. To create products, companies, campaigns, and collaborations. Technology became is so accessible in recent years that it is, in fact, possible to live productive lives lying in bed. However, if you are in too much pain to think straight you are miserable no matter how cyber-capable you are.

The same technologies lead us to believe that we don’t need any other people and can rule the world from our iPad while lying in our iBed. This works as long as your body is functioning. If you need somebody to help your get out of bed and carry you to the bathroom, it changes your perspective on life. Robotics technology is nowhere near the point where we can rely on it for help and support.

Reflecting on this short period of disability, it was a great learning opportunity. I’m grateful I don’t have to endure the mental and physical strife of being permanently  handicapped; I can only imagine what that must be like. This ordeal was an excellent reminder of what I have and what I must preserve and develop. If it wasn’t for that careless slip down the stairs I might have never realized how lucky I am.

Fly by Notes

Diamond DA20

I recently received my private pilot license. It feels great to be able to fly like a [noisy] bird; I can’t wait to go on bay tours and longer cross country flights.

One thing that kept me focused during the learning period was to maintain a document that captures everything I learned. It’s like the Cliff’s Notes of a private pilot course, and I decided to make it available to other student pilots. You can download it here. It wasn’t reveiewed by anyone yet, so don’t treat it as the single source or truth. If you find any mistake, by all means – let me know.

Why Managers Should Learn to Fly

First powered flight

Many of the qualities that make a good pilot also define outstanding managers and leaders. Product managers in particular can benefit from learning to fly. Taking your product off the ground is not an easy feat, and learning to fly can hone your skills and help you excel. Here’s a list of ten skills you’ll get better at while learning to fly:

1)      Risk management. Managers take calculated risks all the time, and so do pilots. The consequences of miscalculating business risk are often severe; pilot errors can be catastrophic. Learning to manage risk and optimize reward is an invaluable skill.

2)      Appreciating the value of time. You quickly learn that time is money when each hour costs you around $100 plus instructor fees. Plan wisely and make the most out of the time and resources you have at your disposal, or you’ll end up wasting loads of money.

3)      Healthy fear. When you’re the single pilot in a single engine airplane, mistakes can be fatal or just very expensive. This is a good forcing function for keeping you on your toes and ensuring you do your absolute best at every situation.

4)      Attention to detail. Cutting corners, hoping for miracles, and ignoring the facts are all very dangerous when flying and while managing and organization. There’s no substitute for facing reality and paying attention to every little detail.

5)      Planning ahead. A flight plan is much like a product road map in that it deals with optimizing resource use in order to reach a well defined goal. Having a plan B in case something goes wrong is a good practice.

6)      Be flexible. Even the best plan often fails and has to be altered. Plan B may be obsolete by the time you need it. Being able to quickly adapt and correct your course is an essential skill.

7)      Coordination. Being able to control your aircraft at various conditions is key. Same with an organization you manage – coordinating the various functions and balancing the forces that act on it and within it is key to success.

8)      Technical aptitude. Understanding what’s going on under the hood is very important. Being hands-on is even better. The higher you are in the corporate ladder the less you’re expected to know about the technicalities, but some managers (like this guy) have been known for being very particular about them.

9)      Continuous Learning. A good pilot is always learning. You can never rest on your laurels and assume you know everything. This is true in any endeavor. It’s particularly important for managers to keep abreast of new information and trends.

10)   Stabilization. Inherently stable systems take less effort to control. If you manage to bring your organization to a state in which – just like an airplane – it follows the same trajectory when no force is applied on the controls, you gained yourself considerable peace of mind. When the route changes, course corrections have to be made, but a well structured organization will stabilize quickly again.

The Job’s Not Done

Flags at half mast at 1 infinite loop

“Risk more than others think is safe.
Care more than others think is wise.
Dream more than others think is practical.
Expect more than others think is possible.”

I love this quote attributed to a West Point cadet. I think Steve Jobs would have agreed with every word, but I couldn’t be sure about the “care more” part until I read the obituary Eric Schmidt’s wrote, where he quotes Jobs as saying “It’s your heart running around outside your body” when referring to his children. I often feel the same as a parent, but he stated it so elegantly. This, in my view, completes him image as the ultimate embodiment of this quote, which everyone in the tech field and beyond should strive to fulfill.

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book

Borders going out of business

For many of years, bookstores and libraries played a significant role in the lives of many people including yours truly. We even have a special word for them: “bookstore” (one word) as opposed “barber shop” or “shoe store”. Due to our increasing reliance on electronic media, bookstores are rapidly disappearing. Most small ones are already gone, and larger ones are gradually following suit.

So, what’s next? Where will we browse through books? How will we get a sense of what’s interesting, and more importantly – how will we get that “bookshelf level” breadth of view that seems to only be possible in a bookstore? Electronic books answer these questions through searching, filtering, and viewing recommendation. The technology works seamlessly on the Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and other e-readers, and I believe the written word has a great future indeed.

Before paper books vanish from the face of the earth, though, someone has to solve the following problems:

Book lending: Libraries are evolving to feature more internet stations and such, but how will a library look like without printed books? Like a coffee shop? Indeed, some libraries have opened coffee shops to lure visitors. Still, it’s not clear how e-books will support lending and borrowing.

Used books: This market will die, but the popularity of new books will follow the same decreasing curve it has been following for decades. What to do with less popular books? Sell them for half/quarter/eighth of an already low price?

Hanging out, sipping latte, and browsing books: Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble have coffee shops inside their stores, but they won’t last long. Coffee shops can carry loaner iPads and Kindles with limited access to e-books, magazines, and news sources. Most people who hang out at coffee shops bring a laptop or an iPad anyway, so I’m not sure it’ll fly.

Touching and smelling printed books: People will probably have to get used to touching and smelling other things.

Home bookshelves: It’s hard to impress your friends with your collection of Kindle books, unless you have a collection of Kindles to show for (but that can get quite expensive). Ikea re-purposing their iconic bookshelves must signal the end of an era.

Coffee table books. Put a couple of iPads at the dentist’s waiting area? Not a bad idea.

Explaining Expletivists

BeautifulSwearWords.com

You know those people who use curse words not to insult anyone but to emphasize their message? Like a respected business man who says f%$! every few minutes in a conversation about oil futures or hiring or saving panda bears. A young mother of three living in a posh neighborhood who spices up her endless blurb about shopping and nail salons and house maids with an occasional curse.

I’ve been puzzled by this behavior for years. Why did these words, which cause a strong, often negative reaction in many people become such a common part of our language? Thinking about this it dawned on me that this is just a defense mechanism like being cynical or condescending. They swear in order to hide something. I’m not talking about people who suffer from Tourette syndrome (or more accurately, Coprolalia) – just normative folks who use expletives often, hiding fears or insecurities. By revealing part of their inner self and exposing their weakness they give us an opportunity to leverage what we have just learned about them.

One option is to help them. Try to figure out what’s on their mind, what’s bothering them, intimidating them, or stressing them out. Then see how you can help by making it easier for them to handle the situation. Offering a solution is probably the wrong thing to do – just be a good listener.

You can use your newly gained understanding to disarm them, helping them calm down. It might be that they got used to cussing all day and are completely oblivious to the root cause. It is down there somewhere, though, and if you can help them pinpoint it you would do them a great favor.

Another option is to use their weakness to your benefit. In a negotiation setting, when the other side utters the F word, try to quickly figure out what they are insecure about – or better – why they are insecure about it. They are probably angry (or pretending to be), banging on the table and trying to intimidate you into submission. Don’t give up; the curse word is your trigger. Leverage what your opponent just revealed about themselves and get a leg up on them.

Whatever you do remember that if you’re an expletivist yourself others can use these techniques against you, so you better learn to control yourself before they do.