College advice is a lot like good parenting advice:
- You have to take it for what’s it’s worth,
- There are just as many approaches and theories as there are quacks professing them,
- It all seems so obvious in retrospect (retrospect here being once you graduate from college or become a parent).
It is the very special time of year when college acceptance letters come a-fluttering in. Hopes are dashed, dreams are buoyed, and some life plans seem irrevocably derailed. I imagine there a kind of novel finality about them that to many of high schoolers comes for the first time as a reality of “odds”.
For the record, I do not remember exactly what I felt when I opened mine 14 years ago. Chances are 14 years from now you won’t either.
There is a natural continuum between an uncompromising idealism of a starry-eyed, first time founder, and a jaded cynicism of someone who has already found a winning formula and is prepared to apply it indiscriminately. I’ve seen an expression of both extremes of passion in my conversations with founders, managers and product people, and I’ve seen it come across vicariously through the product itself.
What so often begins as a passion for a product and exceptional user experience turns into a passion for profit. I am struggling to express what, if anything, is particularly wrong with this tendency. After all, everyone needs to make a living, and passion alone cannot buoy every single product. It’s brutal out there, and when the money runs out, it has the inevitable effect of also smothering any passion to make something great.
But the converse is also true. I feel like far too many products and far too many judgements never leave the dollars and numbers dimension. There is almost a criminal lack of concern for the user experience or user value, and this comes across as wholly unjustified and offensive. The respect for the user is gone as soon as the product person starts saying things behind the user’s back that they wouldn’t say to their face.
It’s especially disconcerting when an attempt is made to make the business piece fit while the product vision hasn’t had a chance to take flight or even fully form. And I really wish there were fewer of those personally gut-wrenching moments when I see passion compromised for something not worth the paper that business model spreadsheet was printed on.
Spending four days without power last week left plenty of time for quiet reflection. One thing I thought about during this lull was our society’s reliance on critical infrastructure and the products and services we’ve built around it. There was a great write up last week musing, among other things, about our willingness to pay high multiples for essentials in times of crisis. I could have made a similar case about hot water and cell phone service, but as I thought about it more, I kept coming back to the same question:
What defines critical infrastructure, and how do we come to rely on it so much?
When was the last time you paid for an idea? I know, I know. Who does that? The information wants to be free and most good ideas are already on the Internet or Wikipedia. A lot of these ideas are public knowledge. Humanism is an idea. Free choice is another idea. Constitutional monarchy is an idea. Individualism is an idea. Why would you ever need to pay for them? Continue reading
Hackathons are the new black. They seem to be all the rage these days and everybody seems to be doing it. I, for one, always wanted to go to one but never had the chance until two weeks ago when I attended Angelhack NYC.
What finally made it possible for me was a fortuitous combination of: (1) a free weekend, (2) a moderate ticket price, and (3) an event with decent reputation. So if you want me to come to your next hackathon, you know what you need to do. Don’t overcharge and make it good.
But I digress. How to put together an awesome hackathon is a topic for another post. For now I’d like talk about my personal takeaways – what went right, what went wrong, and what I could have done differently to get more out of the event.
If you are a first-time hackathon attendee, I sure hope you’ll find this bit of anecdotal observation useful. If you are feeling impatient, feel free to skip ahead to the summary section below.
When I am mulling over a new idea, I find that writing the idea down is a useful exercise for it forces you to structure your thoughts, to tease out the essentials, and to do away with obtrusive chaff and filler. Words lend substance to thoughts and grant them a measure of permanence.
Having a handle on this phase of idea elaboration allows one to explore the very nature of what your mind can vaguely frame. Words on paper are all about precision. When writing, you make a conscious choice to use one word and not the other. You make a conscious choice not only about the choice of words, but also about their number, the voice, and the pace.
It’s not only about communicating the idea to yourself, once written down an idea as it would have been communicate to others. It is the message that fills the gap between a mere thought and a full-on action. “Why on Earth am I doing it and what I intend to do” begs a precise and deliberate answer. To execute an idea before putting down the mission in words seems grossly misguided.
Because I believe it helps to set things in words before they are set in stone, on paper, in ink, in oil, or in code (and in the fine tradition of computer engineers building tools to scratch their own itch), I and Tyler Hughes (who has graciously volunteered his time for this project) have build Mission Statement.
Because it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the message…
Staying on top of social media and engaging with online communities — be it Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest — is turning us all into creatures driven by compulsion. Like sharks which must keep moving to survive, the moment we stop making noise online is the moment we start to suffocate and drown. Call it a struggle for relevance, if you wish.
When I interviewed for a technical product manager’s position with my current employer I was asked if my background managing a low-power wireless networking stack for embedded devices with 128K of flash would be transferrable and appropriate for a company who provides educational software sold to school districts and running on large enterprise-scale systems in the cloud. I said ‘sure’ it can.
My argument ran that a good C engineer could become a good Java engineer. The good in the engineer does not come from his knowledge of a particular programming language but rather from his aptitude for abstract thinking, ability to decompose problems and to work as part of a team. A good product manager is a good product manager. Whatever the product vision is (and whatever the product is) it needs to be articulated in simple terms to audiences internal and external, it needs to be launched, its performance and metrics tracked; it must be squared against competition and it must be decomposed into a set of requirements and priorities for the engineering.
Admittedly, in making this argument then I put my own interests ahead of the truth. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t worry that once I transitioned into this new universe there would be a huge learning curve to overcome, much like there is a huge learning curve to overcome in going from C to Java. I also knew that the chances of this hypothetical C developer being hired by a Java shop were infinitesimally small. “How much better were my chances”, I wondered?
Whether through the sheer powers of elocution or luck, the chances turned out to be much better indeed. I was hired, and the transition I worried about for myself has gone off without a hitch. I’ve now been in my new role for 6 months, and I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged by my background to be in this very different domain. And that’s the essence of my lament…
Is there something intangible about a market that my 5 years of experience failed to surface? If I’d been in embedded for 10 years, would I be less capable of making this transition or is it all ultimately the same stuff? Are we, the product managers, just delusional about our so-called vertical expertise and are our skills more interchangeable than we care to admit?
If this is indeed the case, count me disappointed. It means that either we can never become exceptionally good or that there is just isn’t that much that’s specific to any one product. While there is still no limit to how much experience and expertise we can accumulate, would this observation imply that it doesn’t matter where we do it or whether we hop across multiple domains in the process?
To say it was a tumultuous year would not do it justice. To think it was only a year would be to underestimate it by at least a lifetime. Continue reading
So I finally managed to get a ticket to New York Tech Meetup. The day after I got the ticket I found out that I would be travelling on business on Tuesday and would not be able to attend. Bummer.
These tickets are notoriously scarce and highly sought after. Within several minutes of the tickets being released, they are gobbled up by some 700+ lucky attendees at $10 a pop. The unlucky rest ends up trolling the meetup message board where they have to resort to all sort of unsavory shenanigans to score a ticket — mostly groveling, begging, offering to pay above value, and then groveling and begging some more.
I didn’t feel like selling my ticket to a random stranger. Instead I decided to turn it into a social experiment of sorts. I wanted to see what people were willing to do for a chance to win this ticket, so what I did was to offer to give the ticket away to one of the next 10 people who would follow me on Twitter. It’s a simple idea, really.