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

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.