Writing Rig

Writing rig

The book business is undergoing a revolution – not only in the way books are produced (electronically) and published (by the authors themselves), but also in the way books are written in the first place. I’d like to describe the “writing rig” I’m using to write my book, a method that could have only been imagined merely few years ago.

I decided to self-publish using LeanPub – an electronic publishing company that treats books like lean start-up products, touting the philosophy of publishing early (before the books is “finished”), getting feedback, publishing again, and repeating. This process arguably leads to better books (given you have readers who provide meaningful feedback). Publishing an e-book first is a no- brainer strategy for testing the market before making a significant investment in printing and marketing. I’m eager to see the quality of feedback I’ll be getting.

LeanPub uses Dropbox to store the manuscript. This allow me to write on any platform I have handy: my iPhone, iPad of Mac using iA Writer (a no-nonsense text editor) or my laptop (using Notepad++). The manuscript is always synchronized between platforms and up to date, and as a bonus I can access previous versions if something goes wrong. When I’m offline for a prolonged period of time (like on an airplane), I check in versions into Git just to be safe.

I’m writing in Markdown, a bare bones syntax that allows me to mark up the text with formatting tags. I can create titles, quotes, footnotes, etc. and add links and images. Unlike HTML, Markdown is designed to be readable as it is, so it makes it much easier to envision how the final version will look like while writing. Most importantly, it allows you to skip the layout phase, typically done using expensive tools like Adobe InDesign. I lay out the book as I write, using a simple text editor. When I want to see how the actual book will look like, LeanPub generates a preview in seconds (in PDF, Kindle, and iBooks formats) and conveniently stores it in a Dropbox folder. After publishing an e-book, it’s possible to use the same content for a print version – self published or not.

Now all that’s left is to finish writing the book… not an easy feat, but not impossible either.

The Meaning of Death

The meaning of death
We are all concerned (obsessed?) with extending our lives and those of our loved ones. I can’t blame us; life is awesome. Saving a life is the most noble cause, and is one of the only notions the entire human race seems to agree on. Some are more concerned with saving the lives of their own kind, but in the hypothetical case of endless resources I’m pretty sure they too would agree.

All religions stress the holiness of life. Judeo-Chrisitian dictums lead to extreme opinions on the part of most believers when it comes to abortion rights, for example. Secular people don’t need a “higher force” to underscore the importance of life. We want to live as much as the next guy. If anyone ought to die, who am I (or anybody else) to decide?

Religious notions of heaven, hell, and the afterlife are implausible and improbable, and in any case only apply to believers of a particular religion or sect. They promise believers a happy afterlife (to infinity and beyond), while non-believers are conveniently doomed to eternal hellish existence. Being a non-believer of every conceivable religion – and some inconceivable ones – I wonder which hell I’d go to. After all, the stories are conflicting and it’s impossible to go to more then one at the same time (or is it?). In any case, I’ll take my chances.

When you die, the molecules that make up your body stop “cooperating” as a single organism and get recycled into other organisms and byproducts. That’s about the most significant contribution you make by dying (life insurance notwithstanding). This is not a lot; therefore even those who believe they’ll go to heaven are in no particular hurry. They too know that if their fantasy ends up in disappointment, they’ll become worm fodder. That’s not very attractive, so they’d rather stay on this side as long as humanly possible.

Humanity’s focus on life extension often ignores the impact on the planet and its depleting resources. At the current rate of technological progress we can probably keep going for another century or so. Our grandchildren will pay the price long after we expire. Life extension technologies are becoming so ridiculously advanced that it is possible to live to an old age, often with major physical and mental handicaps. But how long do you want to live, and in what state?

As much as I can affect it I’d rather not have my life extended if I’m terminally ill or end up in a vegetative state. I’d much rather get recycled than kept on life support for years. When they scatter my ashes from an airplane over the ocean, I want them to acknowledge the fact that I exercised my life’s meaning and lived for the right amount of time – not too much, not too little. And no regrets.

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? humankind came up with a variety of answers like being happy, serving a “higher being”, and 42. While some of these may be true, there is one answer that must be true. How can I be so sure? Simply because I exist.

Remember Cogito ergo sum, better known as I think, therefore I am? This pillar of western philosophy stood the test of time and is widely accepted today, hundreds of years after Rene Descartes thought it up. Its beauty comes from its simplicity. You are thinking? good, than you must exist. It is the basis of the Anthropic principle on which my claim here is based.

Charles Darwin taught us about the survival of the fittest, and in contrast, the demise of the unfit. Imagine one of your ancestors millions of generations removed – a mammal that lived 50 million years ago. The evolutionary tree that leads from it to you has many millions of branches. Most of them died off when their genetic makeup proved to be unfit for their environment. Only a few survived, including your grandparents, your parents and you. We can look at the chain of complex organisms leading from that ancient ancestor to you and ask: why did link n exit? It existed because link n-1 strived to stay alive, often against all odds.

If you are link number 2,000,000 in the chain, you exist only because numbers 1,999,999, 1,999,998, 1,999,997 and earlier really wanted to live and were successful at it. The genes you inherited are perfectly suited for keeping you alive at the environment and conditions your parents grew up in (and we can safely assume that you live in a similar environment.) Moreover, they are tuned to make you want to live. Not only are you good at living, you are programmed to strive to stay alive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be alive today. You are programmed to produce offsprings who would want to stay alive as well.

Imagine all these ancestors; they each probably had different perceived goals and aspirations, a different meaning to their lives. However, one thread necessarily connects all of them – surviving just long enough to procreate and (in some cases)  see that their offspring(s) are off to a good beginning. You may argue that this deduction is false for they survived thanks to sheer luck – they all just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This is extremely unlikely, but if you insist I’d argue that chance favors the prepared. This survival talent is shared by all the links in your chain. You should be proud of your evolutionary heritage.

This can be summarized as a corollary to Descartes’ principal: I exist, therefore I want to exist and am successful at it. The opposite is not necessarily true – many have tried to stay alive and failed. It’s only a short leap from here to the meaning of life. If your mere existence implies a strong desire and skill for staying alive, the meaning of life – as in purpose or goal – must be just that – the desire to stay alive and the ability to be successful at it.

Some may say that this is not a real “meaning” in the spiritual or moral sense. I don’t know enough about the spiritual to refute that (and frankly don’t care much about it either.) As for the moral aspects – I’ll leave this discussion for some other time. I can safely say though that the desire to stay alive and the ability to succeed encompasses purpose and progress, not just plain existence. These are necessary parts of staying alive, as improving your condition increases your chance of survival.

So is this all there is to it? just staying alive?

Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will to live” being the only driving force that maintains us is basically what I describe here. Unlike Schopenhauer and other existentialists, however, I’m an optimist. There may not be any objective purpose to life, but this doesn’t prevent us from adopting one of our own. In that respect, it’s a constant struggle to strive toward that personal purpose and direct it inward rather than turning it into a show-off campaign.

Our chains all interlink at some point back, making us – the ones who survived – brothers and sisters in a common cause: the desire to live and reproduce, and the ability to do so. You are here because of the relentless efforts of your ancestors, those who made every effort to get you to this moment. Don’t break the chain.

Endnote: I realize, of course, that these arguments are pretty pretentious and probably suffer from similar shortfalls as the original argument (Cogito ergo sum). However, it’s intriguing to try and capture these lofty ideas in simple catch phrases, isn’t it.

What do Product Managers Wish for?

What do product managers wish for? They wish they could decide what their product should be like without the burden of customer requests, usage data, management dictums, and engineering pushbacks. They wish they could decide what’s best for the customer and get it implemented with no qualms. They wish they could just do it. It’s a very healthy desire: an attractor that keeps them going. Yet it conflicts with 99.99% of product development processes.

Reactive product management goes with the flow, innovating here and there. Active product management, on the other hand, often goes against the axiom “The customer is always right” and sets the tone instead of following an unseen conductor. Active product managers operate by two rules:
1) I know what product to build.
2) I will do anything it takes to make it happen.
They are not slaves to data or subservient to customer whims. They know that while often right, the customer doesn’t always know what they really need. They understand the market and know intuitively what the ideal product should be. They create an action plan and execute on it, beating time and budget records. They don’t get discouraged by implementation woes. They push their vision forward and do whatever it takes to get customers to want the product.

This Holy Grail is rarely achieved by mere mortals. Stave Jobs, Elon Musk, and a few others come to mind, but that’s about it. Virtually all the literature about product management goes against this notion, touting instead how to “listen to the pulse of the market”, “nurture customer feedback”, and “believe only in the data”. Until you reach the level of the aforementioned demigods, you are bound to follow this advice. Or maybe the way to reach that level is to ignore it? Enough daydreaming. Now back to work.

Knowers vs. Askers

Knowers talk.  Askers listen.
Knowers have the answer.  Askers question.
Knowers know everything.  Askers learn about everything.
Knowers try to impress.  Askers try to impress knowledge on their brain.
Knowers are stubborn.  Askers are persistent.
Knowers are complicated.  Askers are simple.
Knowers grow to become grumpy old people.  Askers keep growing.
Knowers believe.  Askers reason.
Knowers are limited.  Askers are limitless.

Sleeping in a Flying Chair

Sure, you can sleep in a plush seat that unfolds into a flat bed in First Class. But can you afford it? me neither. You may also sleep in a wide and comfy chair in business class, but is it worth the steep price premium? Probably not (unless your boss pays for it). So here you are, sleeping in a coach seat. But why? why did the airline industry standardize on minimally reclining seats with limited legroom? Airlines would love to cram as many seats as possible into an plane to maximize their profit. Alas, the more seats you fit in, the less comfortable they must be. Although they may like to, airlines can’t go all the way and install narrow, back-less benches for passengers to sit on or simply leave them standing up.

The more comfortable the seat is, the more money air carriers can charge for it. This is evident by the exorbitant amount often charged for business class tickets. The cost of the slightly better in-flight service can hardly justify it. The bulk of the cost can only be justified by the increased comfort level of the seat. To maximize their revenue, airlines continuously optimize the choice of chairs and the distance between them. They have zeroed in on a certain sweet spot in terms of seat comfort and size. This equilibrium has been maintained for decades, with all air carriers using similar dimensions.

So next time you find yourself dosing off in a chair that clearly wasn’t designed for sleeping, remember that there’s a good reason for that. By twisting and turning in discomfort throughout a red-eye flight you’re helping the airline industry stay afloat.

The Lonely People of 2012

“All the lonely people Where do they all come from? All the lonely people Where do they all belong?”    – The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby spent her lonely days at a church back in 1966. In 2012 she would hang out at a coffee shop, staring at her laptop, pretending to be busy. She’d go there to be around people, but play with herself instead. Later at home, she’d be trolling forums and leaving witty comments no one will ever read. On the train, she’d be reading the 6th version of the same syndicated news story on yet another news app. At the office, she would get automated happy-birthday emails from some Facebook app and feel loved for a brief moment. She would count her virtual friends and pretend to be popular. At home again she would upload a video to YouTube, wishing silently for her 15 seconds of fame. Later, she would get pseudo-intimate with a person from the Ukraine on some shady site.

But there’s a reason for doing all that. We are cleverly talked into working for social advertising companies, busy work designed to make us reveal more about ourselves so they can bombard us with ever-more-targeted-yet-increasingly-annoying ads. We are more connected yet lonelier than ever. Social media is all about sharing. Sharing what? sharing our loneliness. Hey, look at that cute video I found! well guess what, I found it because I was lonely and had no one to connect with in real life. And now I’m sending it to you, so you’ll feel a little less lonely too. We’ll be best friends for 30 seconds, and when the video is done playing go back to ignoring each other until the next link bait comes along. That’s freaking awesome.

“They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness But it’s better than drinking alone”    – Billy Joel, Piano Man

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


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.